Moses: Movie star: Part 2

December 22, 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. Click here for part one of this series.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

As a spectacle, Ridley Scott’s film rates an A, but as a film about a man of faith, it comes closer to an F.

The plagues are not God-inspired in Scott’s naturalistic approach to the Bible story. They just happen. The first plague — water into blood — is caused by huge crocodiles that attack and devour hundreds of boaters. After this, neither Moses nor Aaron return to Ramses’ court to announce the plagues because Moses has gone underground to prepare the Hebrew slaves to fight their own war of liberation. 

If all of this seems crazy, that’s because Moses himself has jumped the tracks mentally. On the slopes of Sinai several large rocks hit Moses in the head when he was caught up in a landslide.  Christian Bale’s Moses is thus a delusional revolutionary who apparently imagines God appears to him from time to time. Moses is fortunate in his timing in that he returned to Egypt just as a series of natural disasters hit the nation.

The Red Sea scene is awesome, but in this version of the drowning of the Egyptian army, both Moses and Pharaoh are still in the path of the returning waters.

Back in Midian again, Moses has a tender reunion with his wife and son, after which he goes up Mt. Sinai. We can see the Hebrews and the golden calf below. The boy god is with Moses, but he never lifts a finger to burn the commandments into the stone. Moses has to do it himself with a chisel and a rock for a hammer.

The Decalogue (1989 TV series, Polish with English subtitles) 

Critics rightly refer to this series of 10 TV dramas based on the Ten Commandments as director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece. All involve characters who live in a large grim-looking urban housing complex in 1980s Poland. Unlike the film I Am or 1923’s The Ten Commandments, these films are subtle, making the viewer work, both at understanding the issues involved and the eventual outcome of the acts of the people depicted. 

The Prince of Egypt (1998) 

This was the new DreamWorks Studios’ first film, so it spared little expense in hiring the voice talent (Helen Mirren, for example, is the princess who finds the baby and raises him as Egyptian), and investing in new technology that combined the old hand-painted animation with the emerging computer-generation technique. The process of creating this film was apparently so complicated that three directors shared credits.

There is a chariot race between the young adult Moses (Val Kilmer) and Prince Ramses (Ralph Fiennes) that is as thrilling as it is irresponsible, the two racing through city streets and then up onto and around scaffolding that collapses, ruining the temple being built. Also non-biblical are two palace characters added to inject some humor, Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short), the Pharaoh’s inept court magicians. 

The chariot episode is one of several during the growing up years that reveals the close bonding of the two princes after baby Moses is plucked from the Nile. Thus much of the dramatic focus of this version is shifted from the Exodus and the receiving of the Ten Commandments to the painful split in the friendship of the best friends.

The plagues, Exodus and crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the commandments are all drawn in a beautiful style.

I recall Roger Ebert rhapsodizing over this creative film, stating it “proves above all that animation frees the imagination from the shackles of gravity and reality, and allows a story to soar as it will.” How true still.

The Ten Commandments (2006)

TV director Robert Dornhelm helmed this miniseries that covers many of the events leading up to the Exodus and the reception of the Ten Commandments. The Moses portrayed by Dougray Scott is a questioning leader who slowly comes to an understanding of monotheism, making this perhaps the best of the Moses films for viewers who want to think about their faith.

The film gives less than 20 minutes to Moses’ growing up, along with a son of his stepmother named Menerith (Naveen Andrews). It is Menerith who sends his stepbrother into the wilderness to escape the wrath of Pharaoh Ramses. When the 10th plague kills all Egyptian first-born sons, it is the grieving Menerith who holds out the limp body of his young son and accusingly says, “Your God is cruel!” Moses has no answer for his now former friend. Such issues are faced unflinchingly in this film, Moses himself depicted as cruel in the scene of the defeat and slaughter of all of the Amalekites. 

This is really the film for those struggling with a literal approach to the Bible because of the filmmaker’s graphic depiction of the bloody results of God’s demand in Exodus and Deuteronomy that all the peoples they displace should be wiped out to the last man, woman and child.

I Am (2010)

Director/writer/star John Ward’s film is set in modern Los Angeles. The interwoven stories are about people who, as they go about breaking all of the commandments, are counseled by a mysterious Man, who turns out to be a stand-in for Morgan Freeman (portraying God in Bruce Almighty). The film shares the glaring error of most faith-based movies — absolutely no subtlety, so that the preaching far outweighs its entertainment value. 

Edward McNulty, who reviewed films for Presbyterians Today, now reviews films (for free) at www.visualparables.org.