Moses: Movie star

December 12, 2014

The film Exodus: Gods and Kings is upon us. Released Dec. 12, it is bound to be a blockbuster with director Ridley Scott at the helm, so now is a good time to look back and see how in the past Hollywood has turned Moses into a movie star. 

Aside from Jesus, Moses has been portrayed in more movies than any other biblical character. Little wonder, as his life is crucial to the development of Judaism and Christianity and Islam. His leading his people out of slavery is a universal story of humanity’s quest for freedom.

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Although most people know that Cecil B. DeMille made The Ten Commandments back in Hollywood’s silent film era, many are not aware that the biblical story took up just a third of the film. The director was intent on showing the modern relevance of the commandments, filming the biblical scenes to provide the audience with the biblical background. 

Because it consumes less than an hour, the Moses story contains just a few of the incidents of the Bible. The first major character we see is Miriam, serving as a water girl for the Hebrew slaves who are hauling massive stones to build the city for Rameses. When a slave slips and falls, the slave master refuses to stop the other slaves from hauling the giant stone, and the poor wretch is crushed. 

Miriam (Estelle Taylor) prays to God for deliverance. Moses (Theodore Roberts) and his brother Aaron (James Neill) go to Rameses and demand that he let their people go, or the Egyptians’ first-born will die. There follows in fairly quick succession the 10 plagues and exodus, with the parting of the Red Sea and drowning of Pharaoh’s army and lastly the giving of the tablets of the Ten Commandments. 

In the modern parable, a mother reads the story of Mosesto her two grown sons. One pokes fun at the Ten Commandments, but the other takes them seriously. There follows a tug of war between the two brothers over their values and beliefs and for the heart of a girl. 

Although highly melodramatic, parts of the story are very moving to watch. And the huge Egyptian sets and crowd scenes at the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai still deserve the critics’ praise of “immense and stupendous.” 

The Ten Commandments (1956) 

In the 1950s, Cecil B. DeMille was again able to bring the splendor of Pharaoh’s court to the big screen, but this time in color. This film continues to be the gold standard by which all other Moses movies are measured. 

Although there are times when the great actor Yul Brynner as Rameses threatens to dominate a scene with Charlton Heston’s Moses, there is no doubt that the latter’s is the most majestic Moses seen in film.

The King James English-like dialogue in some scenes is so wooden and delivered in such megaphone- like tone of voice that it seems just a tad above a church pageant. This Moses argues very little with God at the burning bush. Moses, after learning of his Hebrew origins, had come to doubt God, but this quickly dissolves and is replaced by resolute faith.  

DeMille’s scriptwriters added a great amount of fictional details to the Moses story, filling in the details of the “Prince of Egypt” years with lots of romance and rivalry.

The rest of the story is told in spectacular fashion — the burning bush, the duel of wills between Moses and Rameses, the succession of plagues, the “cast of thousands” scene of leaving Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, the wilderness scenes of receiving the Commandments, the golden calf, the terrible death of the rebels and the arrival at the edge of the Promised Land. 

Moses the Lawgiver (1974)

Burt Lancaster’s Moses is one who questions God and himself. In this more naturalist version, the voice of God is off screen speaking through the voice of Lancaster, thus making the God encounter an inner, spiritual one.

The burning bush sequence is longer than in the other films with Moses putting up more of an argument, and at the end when the voice stops, looking around as if he is disoriented. The shots of the two miracles to be used as signs of his authority are from his point of view, suggesting that these were inner experiences. 

The special effects for the familiar plagues and Red Sea crossing are so-so, but by now the viewer should be are that this is a much more thoughtful, even challenging, approach to the story than it is a spectacle. Before going up Mt. Sinai, Moses explains the need for laws, virtually reciting a list of the Ten Commandments.

We never see the inscribing of the tablets. Instead, the film cuts to a long sequence in the camp where the rebels overcome Aaron’s reluctance to fashion a god who will protect them now that Moses is gone. The ecstatic celebration around the golden calf is not only the orgy depicted in other versions, but devolves into the seizure of a young woman. What follows when Moses says the people must suffer for their rebellion is too graphic for young children. 

We see that Moses can be a harsh leader when a man is caught working on the Sabbath. Moses insists that he must be stoned to death.  Following the stoning Moses utters an argumentative prayer and God answers, telling him that he will not let him go. 

Wholly Moses! (1980) 

Harvey and Zoey, two tourists traveling through Israel, discover an ancient scroll describing the life of Herschel, the man who was almost Moses. Herschel receives the command from God to free his people from Egyptian slavery, but Moses keeps blundering by and taking all the credit. Several other biblical stories, such as Lot and his wife, David and Goliath, and the miracles of Jesus, are also parodied in this story of the life of a man trying to follow the path to God, but somehow always seeming to lose his way. 

Moses (1995 TV Movie) 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood in Pharaoh Rameses’ court is told in less than 10 minutes in this Turner Bible Movie directed by Roger Young. Moses, who is aware of his Hebrew mother and his brother, feels like an outsider, both at the palace and among his people when he visits his family. Thus Ben Kingsley’s is a very human Moses. 

Kingsley’s Moses is very reluctant to go back to Egypt after returning from his burning bush encounter. It is Jethro and Sephora who convince him to do so. In fact, Jethro has a much larger role in this version than in the Bible. When Moses returns from Egypt, his father-in-law, Jethro, gives Moses counsel about slavery and freedom. Jethro explains: “The people can only be free once they realize that they serve God not because they have to, but because they know they are free not to. Until then, they are still slaves”. 

The special effects are so-so — at the Red Sea, Moses seems to be up all night holding up his staff by the sea before the waters part. When Pharaoh’s army gives chase (the 600 chariots represented by 10 or so), lightning bolts substitute for the pillars of fire holding them back, and the parting of the Red Sea is far less than spectacular. 

Commandments (1997) 

Director/writer Daniel Taplitz gives us a dark comedy and romance that draws on not only Exodus 20 but also the books of Job and Jonah.

Seth Warner (Aiden Quinn), a Jewish doctor, is the Job figure. His wife drowns while he is napping on the beach; he is fired at his clinic without any reason given; a tornado destroys his small house. Like Job, the angry, grief-stricken man protests his fate and questions God. 

Angry that God seems to have singled him out for punishment, Seth writes out the Ten Commandments as he vows to break every one of them. When his brother-in-law, Harry, discovers the list, he sneers that he breaks five or six of them every morning. As the film progresses, Seth checks off each one, arriving at the prohibition of adultery. Harry also has been breaking this commandment. At the film’s climax atop a lighthouse both angry men set out to break the one against killing. The ending, with its touch of Jonah, takes the film beyond just morals and ethics into the realm of faith and miracle. 

The Ten Commandments (2007) 

In this animated version, Ben Kingsley narrates the story and Christian Slater provides the voice of Moses. A lot of screen time is given to Moses’ growing up with and bonding with the future Pharaoh, none of these details being drawn from the Exodus text. 

Probably because it was aimed at children, the story’s inherent violence is toned down. Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster is pictured as an act of self-defense, and neither he nor his loyal followers themselves kill the rebels in the golden calf sequence. The apostates die when the earth opens up swallows them.

Critics lambasted the film, mainly for its overly simple computer-generated animation, resulting in its box office failure and quick release to video. As with so many other Biblical epics, the characters as drawn have more of a European look than a Middle Eastern one.

Edward McNulty’s film reviews are available at www.visualparables.org.

  1. What about "Prince of Egypt"?

    by Susan Loper

    December 12, 2014