When it’s on: Sunday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
I love history. This stems in a large part from poring through Bible stories when I was a child. The New Testament was fine enough, but it was the tales of the Old Testament – with its endless wars, suffering on a mass scale, fire and brimstone – that entranced me. God as a character was envious and unforgiving. Entire races of people were enslaved and treated like dirt. Heroes, born to beat insurmountable odds, emerged, and they dealt out death and judgement rather than sacrificed themselves for the sake of others’ sins. None of this led to a belief in Christianity, but it did ferment my supreme desire for a good yarn, and the early books from the Bible were the pages to refer to for exactly that.
It’s no surprise that people have tried to bring Biblical stories to the screen for almost as long as cinema has existed. This stuff is gold. Great tales, and for a long time the sort of fare that audiences just lapped up. Cecil B DeMille adapted the book of Exodus twice, first in 1923 that was much a fable of The Ten Commandments in contemporary life as much as it was about Moses. In 1956, he went for a more straight retelling, pitting Charlton Heston’s Moses against the Pharoah, played by Yul Brynner, to wildly profitable box office returns. I admit it’s probably one of my all time favourite movies, partly thanks to my respect for the vaulting ambition and ego of the director in bringing such a story to the screen in so emphatic a fashion. It’s incredibly powerful. DeMille had the smouldering intensity and mutual resentment between Heston and Brynner, but also storytelling on an enormous scale, and the best special effects of their day, which have of course dated over time but still look impressive now. One scene in particular stays with me. Having suffered a series of plagues, Pharoah is implored once more by Moses to free the slaves, but he’s implacable and orders nothing less than the killing of each Jewish first born son as the ultimate punishment. Unwittingly, it’s a course that rebounds. One terrible night, God takes away each Egyptian first born, his wrath personified by an eerie green mist in the sky, which develops tendrils gliding with ominous silence to earth and stealing the boys’ souls. It’s haunting stuff, a trick repeated in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998, where the mist becomes a deadly whirlwind.
Given the above, I’m likely to view Exodus: Gods and Kings with a subjectively kind eye, looking forward to the spectacle and human drama whereas many critics have shown only scorn. Finding reasons for the latter isn’t difficult. The production was dogged with controversy, notably for its ‘whitewashing’ of the main characters. Ramses, Moses and the rest of the cast would simply not be Caucasian, it was argued, so why in a modern movie fall for the classic tradition of casting the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Egerton when more ethnically realistic casting would do? Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell the tale without turning the Egyptians into villains, greedy slavers, and sure enough the film was banned in that country upon its release. Its director, Ridley Scott, retorted that the film would never have been funded without Hollywood stars, and besides it’s only loosely a historical tale. How much truth lies in the book of Exodus is open to extreme interpretation and translating the events as dramatic representations of what actually happened. There’s some evidence that the Egyptian Empire kept the Hebrews as slaves, but nothing is confirmed. The story is wrapped in mystery, and was committed to writing only after centuries of being handed down in the oral tradition. As such it’s as faithful a source as Homer’s The Iliad – no doubt there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s blended with mythology and the contemporary audiences for whom it was written in the first place.
Perhaps more pertinent is to question whether the world needed another Biblical epic at all. Noah, released earlier in 2014, had not been received rapturously, more like quizzically, suggesting the clamour for Bible stories was just not there, and Exodus: Gods and Kings was already gaining an infamous reputation for the reasons mentioned above. Hardly the basis for a box office smash, which indeed it would not turn into, though the reality was it had been in the planning for several years and was something of a passion project for Scott. As expected, the devil was in the detail, the crew building sets and using computer effects to create an ancient Egyptian world that is probably as close to the real thing as you will ever see. The word here is scale. Massive statues, glorious decorations, those different coloured tribal banners billowing behind the war chariots, the juxtaposition between Ramses’s palaces and the Hebrew ghetto; it’s all there, on the screen, and it looks fantastic. And yet the concern was never about how the film looked. Scott’s 2010 entry, Robin Hood, reimagined ‘merrie England’ in fleshy, realistic tones, for all intents and purposes travelling back in time for the sake of absolute authenticity, and yet the movie was a boring clunker, overly serious and its stars uninspiring. Not a lot of fun. Would this fare any better?
One of the biggest issues with Robin Hood was its script, written by Brian Helgeland. For this one, Scott employed Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winner (for Schindler’s List) who was faced with the obstacle of adapting Exodus for a twenty first century audience. How to bring the Pharoanic court of Ancient Egypt to life, to make it feel like a working reality and avoiding polemics? The result is a Seti (John Turturro), the old ruler who oversees the affection between Ramses (Egerton) and his adopted son, Moses (Bale) while recognising the potential for a future rivalry, emphasising their need to protect each other. Made explicit is the throne room as a nest of vipers, high ranking officials who protect their own interests, in the classical style seeing Ramses as their best bet for maintaining the status quo while Moses has a dangerously radical side to his nature. The latter has grounded views about prophecies (they’re hokum), the nation of slaves (they deserve to be treated better), and the prospect that he believes in very little. A portent about the kingdom’s future hints at Moses becoming its ruler, something that results in Ramses discovering his Hebrew heritage and casting him into exile. Moses wanders the desert for a time, before coming upon a remote shepherds’ village and marrying.
Adapting to a simple life in the wilderness, it’s clear Moses’s spirit is restless. He then meets God, personified as a small boy, who tells him to go back to Egypt and accept a mission to free the slaves. Scott made a decision to tell the story of the resulting plagues and Moses’s interactions with God in as realistic terms as he could, suggesting that the former might have been the result of natural causes and the rest exists in the main character’s head, that ‘God’ might simply be the directions of his subconsciousness. When Moses first returns to Egypt he naturally sees his role as that of a military general, harking back to the position he held before his exile. Hebrews are trained to be freedom fighters, a rather clever allusion to the state of affairs in more recently occupied countries within the region. But progress is slow. Ramses responds to the acts of ‘terrorism’ committed by Moses’s underground army by publicly hanging slaves on a daily basis, his brutality increasing with the sedition. This in turn prompts ‘God’ to intervene, via the plagues that might very well have happened without any divine assistance, though it suits the narrative to explain these as more than acts of natural disaster.
Bale committed mountains of personal research into the life of Moses as part of his preparation for the role. His is a very human performance, from the wise leader he plays in the early acts, when his position in the hierarchy is more or less cemented, to the constant doubts he’s plagued with later in the film. When I talked about Kingdom of Heaven elsewhere on these pages, I mentioned the vacuum at the centre of the film that is Orlando Bloom; Bale is far more capable of commanding the screen and forces his character’s human drama to shine through the massive scope of the picture. Egerton and Turturro, while looking nothing like Egyptians, are fine as the two Pharoahs, and there’s capable support in relatively small roles from Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald. Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew elder with typical stoic resolve, and Ewan Bremner provides the film with a slim, much needed sliver of humour.
As with much of Scott’s work, there isn’t much comedy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter. What it does have is spectacle, artistry and weighty drama. It looks incredible, with the technical departments firing on all cylinders, and while that’s normally true of films with Ridley Scott’s name attached the narrative and performances are not ignored in favour of the visuals. It’s probably as good as a modern retelling of Exodus could ever hope to be, even if the demand for it just wasn’t there, and that was reflected in its losses at the box office.
Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****