Moses at the movies

The most cinema-ready story in sacred scripture

SDG Original source: Catholic Digest

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (in theaters December 12) isn’t this year’s first big-screen Bible film, but it may well be a throwback to a type of Hollywood Bible spectacle we haven’t seen since… well, since Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments nearly 60 years ago. (Not counting, that is, independently produced films like The Passion of the Christ, idiosyncratic, auteur-driven films like Noah, animated films like The Prince of Egypt, and flops like King David.)

The Exodus is probably the Bible’s most cinema-ready story, the perfect Bible-movie subject. Unlike the stories of Noah, Abraham, David, Jesus, Peter, or Paul, it offers a sustained narrative structure, with a clear central conflict between a strong hero and a strong villain, building to a series of grand climaxes. It offers plenty of opportunity to showcase the power of the big screen for spectacle and special effects. And, of course, it is revered by Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.

For decades The Ten Commandments has stood not only as the definitive Hollywood take on the story of the Exodus but as the definitive Hollywood exemplar of the whole Bible movie genre. It was the highest-grossing Bible film ever made, and the last Golden Age Bible film of any note.

DeMille’s The Ten Commandments wasn’t the first major Hollywood take on the story of the Exodus — or rather it was, since DeMille made two films with that title over 30 years apart. The original The Ten Commandments was a 1923 silent film still worth seeing for its massive Egyptian set pieces (built in the Nipomo Dunes of California), wild-eyed Moses, and Red Sea crossing with gelatin walls of water.

Like the better-known talkie, the silent version is an ode to the eternal moral law and a warning about the consequences of lawlessness. Alas, as with many silent-era period pieces, the classic story is paired with a trite “modern story” about two brothers, one decent and one dissolute. The Exodus narrative is thus given short shrift, skipping the first nine plagues and picking up just prior to the Passover.

The 1956 film, of course, has even more extraneous melodrama — but this time all rolled into the story of Moses and Yul Brenner’s Pharaoh Rameses, with Anne Baxter’s vampish Nefretiri between them.

Visually overwhelming, alternately reverent and soapy, with a massive scale and special effects still impressive in this era of CGI, DeMille’s extravaganza exemplifies everything the Bible genre has to offer for good and for ill. Sexed-up spectacle vies with high-minded seriousness as Heston’s Moses goes from proclaiming his message of moral law and freedom to impassively ignoring Nefretiri’s attempted seductions.

After DeMille came a 1974 two-part TV movie called Moses the Lawgiver starring Burt Lancaster. Directed by Gianfranco De Bosio and produced by Lew Grade (Jesus of Nazareth), it devotes as much time and attention to the 40 years in the wilderness as it does to the Exodus. (A much-edited version simply called Moses is also available.)

In some ways a provocative, thoughtful production, Moses the Lawgiver doesn’t really succeed in illuminating Moses as a character or his process of coming to faith in the God of Israel. For every effective sequence there’s a poorly chosen one, such as putting Moses and Aaron up to their chests in the Nile when it turns to blood. As a result, I can’t particularly recommend this film.

Much better is the 1995 two-part TV movie Moses starring Ben Kingsley, which is broadcast as part of TNT’s “The Bible Collection.” Directed by Roger Young, Moses offers perhaps the most interesting and psychologically complex take on the character in any film to date.

For once Moses isn’t the golden boy and favored son of the Egyptian court; his Hebrew ancestry is a rather open scandal of which he is bitterly ashamed. Kingsley’s Moses stutters a bit, giving some credence to his claim not to be well-spoken. Even after the burning bush, he struggles with fear and doubt, and he is genuinely overwhelmed by the pressure of shepherding God’s unruly people in the wilderness.

Finally, there’s DreamWorks’ splendid, animated The Prince of Egypt. More than any other, this version emphasizes the fraternal bond between Moses (Val Kilmer) and Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) and the conflict Moses feels as the agent of God’s wrath against Egypt. Among other virtues, The Prince of Egypt offers the eeriest rendition of the Passover and the most awesome depiction of the parting (and collapsing) of the Red Sea.

Despite all these versions, the time is ripe for a new one. The Ten Commandments is dated. The Prince of Egypt is an animated musical. The Kingsley film is unmistakably small-screen. Whether or not Exodus: Gods and Kings is the version we’ve been waiting for, it certainly won’t be the last.

Notes on age appropriateness: The Prince of Egypt might be a bit intense for sensitive youngsters; other productions should be generally fine for tweens and up.

Bible Films, Moses, The Pentateuch