When you watch the great Exodus story, the hero is usually the guy who leads his people out of slavery in Egypt by the mighty hand of God. Pharaoh is the antagonistic oppressor who refuses to grant liberty to the slaves.
So, how can it be that at the end of the new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings I wept for Pharaoh, and felt virtually nothing for Moses or “his people”?
Perhaps I should start by saying that it’s actually an entertaining movie with epic battle and chase scenes, convincing special effects and fine acting.
That said, my lovely bride reviewed it (perhaps damned it) in three words: “Better than Noah.”
Christian Bale does deliver a more nuanced and dynamic Moses than Russell Crowe’s ark-maker. It would be difficult to do otherwise.
I’m glad I saw the film, though, as usual, I’m hampered by my knowledge of the underlying historical account. I’ll confess, with pleasure, that Exodus takes fewer liberties with the Biblical text than Noah did. My faint praise will not show up in ads for the movie.
Cleaving closer to the Biblical text is not just better for Bible-believers like me, but for all audience members. The actual Biblical account is more compelling and believable than what most screenwriters can imagine. The Bible itself simply makes for a better movie, because it’s honest about both God and man, enhancing empathy and heightening dramatic tension. The mystery to me is why an adaptive screenwriter or director would squander such excellent source material and supplant it with inferior variations.
Exodus director Ridley Scott seems committed to letting the audience wonder who the villain is — often suggesting, through the mouth of Moses, that it may be God himself. It certainly isn’t Pharaoh Ramses — the loving father, gentle husband, and protective brother to Moses.
The screenwriters go so far as to fabricate a villainous “viceroy” character to insulate Pharaoh from direct culpability for the plight of the Hebrew slaves.
It defies common sense that the Pharaoh of the film never really refuses to let the people go. Of course, Moses never really delivers the line either. When he does urge Pharaoh to end the Hebrew bondage, it’s not as the messenger of God with the staff-of-God in hand, but as a rebel with a royal Egyptian sword literally cutting Pharaoh’s throat. From there, the plagues cascade upon one another in rapid, chaotic sequence — blood, frogs, gnats and flies, locusts, hail, darkness etc.. They’re not announced. They just happen, and Pharaoh is left to wonder why everything’s so smelly, slimy, dark and painful.
The spine of the Biblical story shows Pharaoh hardening his heart and refusing to let the people go. It’s high drama with drastic consequences for making the wrong moral choice. In the movie, on the other hand, Pharaoh is immediately willing to work out a timeline for withdrawal. His only beef with Moses seems to be the impetuous nature of the demand.
The filmmakers take some other fruitless, even bizarre, deviations from the story.
- The Lord (or his messenger) comes across as more than a bit creepy — a cryptic juvenile Dalai Lama given to tantrums and tea — rather than a firm, loving father who must judge iniquity and protect his chosen people.
- Moses is frankly cocky in the presence of the Great I AM, rather than on his face in fear and humility (Number 12:3).
- Instead of haltingly conveying the message of God’s deliverance to the Hebrews, Moses begins training them for armed rebellion, apparently under the noses of their clueless Egyptian slave-masters.
- Pharaoh’s main flaw seems to be that he loves too much.
- In contrast with the King of Egypt, that doting husband and caressing Daddy, Moses abandons his family for a crazy quest. Never mind that the Biblical text (Exodus 4:20) says Moses took his wife and his sons with him to Egypt.
- Historical Moses carries a shepherd’s staff through which God displays miracles. Hollywood Moses carries a gold sword that seems to spark the recession of the Red Sea. (The anti-violence crusaders in Hollywood still can’t bear to have a hero without a weapon, even if he lacks one in the source material.)
- The seminal scene where the Lord first speaks to Moses from the burning bush is completely scuppered, “enhanced” with a mudslide that prevents a mostly subterranean Moses from actually seeing the incandescent shrub, or, for that matter, taking off his sandals on such holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)
- In the Bible, Moses’ brother, Aaron, serves as surrogate speaker for his rhetorically-clumsy and reluctant brother (Exodus 6:28-7:2), but in the movie, Aaron is an incidental character, and Moses does all the prophesying, with a slight speech impediment that’s never mentioned. (I suppose if you’re paying Christian Bale millions, he does all of the talking.)
Perhaps most perplexing, we spend the first half of the movie watching the warm, genial, brotherly relationship between Moses and Ramses, but when it comes to the climactic moment(s), the two almost never face each other. The Biblical ”showdown” scenes where Moses repeatedly threatens, Pharaoh refuses, and God delivers the plagues, have been collapsed into a special effects montage divorced from human moral tension, with Moses resigned to wringing his hands on the sidelines because he’s uncomfortable with the brutality of God’s plan.
Again, my complaint is not that Ridley Scott failed to make a movie I could show to my 3rd & 4th graders in Sunday School as a complement to the curriculum, but that he squandered the opportunity to make a better movie. You don’t even have to believe the Bible to see that.
The director can’t quite bring himself to portray the waters of the Red Sea forming walls, and the people crossing on dry ground (Exodus 14:22). Instead, he has them wading, sometimes swimming, fairly foundering. This transmutes God’s miraculous deliverance into a lucky break.
Finally, Moses almost drowns in an effort to rescue Pharaoh from the onrushing waters. You read that right.
Although, I must tell you, by that time, I found myself hoping Moses could save his more likable “brother.”