by Avi Davis
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (OR HOW HEAVY EYELINER AND EVEN HEAVIER BRITISH ACCENTS INVADED ANCIENT EGYPT)
Director: Ridley Scott
Featuring: Christian Bale, John Turturo, Signourey Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul
Length: 150 minutes.
Release Date: December 12, 2014
Review Date: December 27, 2014
One has to marvel at the current Hollywood penchant for repeatedly mining the Bible for its entertainment value. In the past twelve months alone there has been Noah, The Red Tent and the three part mini-series The Bible. When you think of it though, it should not be so surprising. The stories of the Bible have everything needed to make for good movie fare: strong characters, dramatic plots, unexplained, serendipitous miracles, heroes who must overcome impossible odds and lots of evil guys who are trying to get in their way.
But on all counts, Exodus: Gods and Kings fails in its attempts to meet any of this criteria. Part Spartacus, part Arthurian legend, part Robin Hood, it leaves its audience scratching its heads as to which part was left over for the actual Biblical narrative.
Moses (Christian Bale) the favored prince and most trusted general of Pharaoh Seti, is the Egyptian equivalent of a rock star, striding around Memphis in his black armor and swinging pendants with a Tom Cruise haircut and a James Dean swagger. Forget the meek, mild mannered Moses of Bible fame, who stutters and is riven with self-doubt. Not this guy. He is as comfortable stabbing grapes on his plate as he is gleefully impaling Hittites with his Excalibur-like sword.
Moses’ counterpart is the feckless son of Seti, Ramses, (Joel Edgerton) who competes with Egypt’s favorite hero for his father’s attention. Ramses amuses himself by playing with his father’s pet pythons whose venom he uses to enhance his martial prowess. They are sent off together to join battle with the invading Hittites whom they dispatch rather quickly, but not before Moses saves the life of the stupefied Ramses who freezes in combat. Everything swings along hummingly in Ancient Egypt until Moses, out of town on a royal mission to inspect the building projects at Pithom, is slipped a note by a Hebrew slave to meet with the Tribal elders. There he is informed that he is not an Egyptian at all, but, gasp, the son of a Hebrew slave. Why he should believe this, particularly since he does not have any outward physical attributes of Hebraic character – neither a Jew-fro, short stature nor the pronounced schnozz ( although we know nothing of the give away evidence which might be dangling beneath his tunic) is left unanswered.
The only hint we have that Moses has been questioning his identity is when Jewish elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) reminds him that he has always felt there was something wrong. Huh? Its the first time that this ancient Egyptian is revealed to have had any qualms at all about his charmed existence as a much venerated Egyptian icon. But the revelation nevertheless seems to gnaw at him for at least a few seconds since soon after stepping outside Nun’s door he feels compelled to murder a couple of Egyptian guards.
Unfortunately for Moses the whole episode is overheard by two Jewish informers and news travels quickly to the Court. Thereafter there is a rather rapid downfall as Ramses sentences his foster brother to an ignominious exile. Moses is briefly reunited with his real mother and sister before setting off into the wilderness. Eventually he comes across a Midianite community whose daughters he saves at a well from harassing goat herders. There, after marrying the demure Tzipporah and after nine bucolic years as a shepherd, he meets up, in the pouring rain on a mountain top with the burning bush and through the agency of an eleven-year- old messenger from G’d, receives his instructions to return to Egypt in order to liberate his people from bondage.
Thereafter Moses the warrior prince transforms into Moses the guerrilla leader. He is seen training his brigades in all manner of shooting arrows from horseback and they are given to acts of sabotage that would make a good day’s work for the French Underground. But none of this has much impact on Ramses; nor does it impress the eleven-year-old messenger. Moses is told to sit back and watch as G’d , with his ten plagues, decisively finishes the job. Gruesome suffering is unloaded on the hapless Egyptians as the final plague – the killing of the first born , ends Ramses’ cloying noodling of his infant son, whom he loves in extremis because, as we are informed repeatedly, his own father didn’t give him enough love.
The Israelites win permission to leave. Ramses decides to give chase and his army follows. Ramses loses most of that army when it falls over a cliff. But he presses on to see the Israelities crossing the Red Sea which has miraculously receded just prior to the onset of a Tsunami. The Egyptian army follows across the suprisingly unsodden landscape in hot pursuit only to realize the rise of the Tsunami wave is upon them. The Israelites make it to the other side but Pharaoh and his cohorts are predictably swept away. Both Pharaoh and Moses stagger to their respective shores as the Hebrews stare in blank disbelief and the dead Egyptians, washed up on the shore, are picked apart by carrion.
The last scenes have Moses chipping away at the Ten Commandments under the messenger’s instructions as he is given the option( finally!) to end the whole thing – and go back, I guess, to his rarefied life as Egyptian cynosure. Moses prefers life in the cave with the tablets and the boy messenger. The last we see of him, he is bouncing along over the desert in a horse drawn cart , already quite aged, with a curious expression on his face – which could be wonder at how and why this movie was ever made.
Now for some of the more perplexing aspects of the film’s lead characters:
Ramses is a befuddled leader who even in peace time can’t seem to get a handle on his role as ruler of the world’s greatest civilization and stumbles around his palace po-faced and uncertain of what to say next. Joe Edgerton appears to be particularly bored and embarrassed to be playing this rather helpless monarch and despite the devastating plagues visited against Egypt, adds quite a bit of weight as the movie progresses (not to mention hair) – perhaps a means of dealing with his boredom. Though, as is seemingly de rigeur with most Hollywood portrayals of villains these days, we are exposed to his affecting humanity in his role as a father, a husband and martyr to his cause.
John Turturo plays the rather fey Seti I, father to Ramses and surrogate father to Moses, who seems to be dying from pink lipstick poisoning since he wears it with relish even on his deathbed. His heavy British accent makes you feel as if you are watching a Monty Python parody of Pharaoh in which the lipsed line ” Do you have a problem with the name Biggus Dickus? ” would not be entirely out of place.
The Hebrew slaves are, for the most part, hairy stoic mutes who more resemble the Morlocks from the 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, than the embittered,quarrelsome and rather garrulous peons of the Biblical narrative.
The Royal Palace of Memphis seems to be open for business at all hours – open, that is, to the invading locusts, lice, frogs and other assorted plagues as well as to would-be assassins like the fugitive Moses and his accomplices who sneak in completely unnoticed and surprise the sleepwalking, unguarded Pharaoh who is astonishingly wandering around the palace in his pajamas.
Moses’ love interest, the fetching, lip-tattooed shepherdess Tzipporah, offers one of the few limited roles for any woman in the movie. Her heart is apparently won over when Moses capably shears a goat in her presence. They are united under the canopy in an exchange of vows that sounds like it was cribbed from a new age wedding script at the Esalen Institute. It is so corny that you half expect them to break out into the Ancient Egyptian song version of I Must Have Done Something Good from The Sound of Music.
Of course the imaginative king hit of this movie is the casting of an eleven- year -old boy to play G’d – or G’d’s messenger. Isaac Andrews plays a pouty, cynical go-between who appears before the burning bush to instruct Moses in his new mission. G’d’s motivations are somewhat obscure. He does seem rather curiously vengeful toward the Egyptians, considering they have enslaved his people, but on his own watch, for 400 years. Why, the audience might ask, just as rabbinic commentators have questioned for a few thousands years, does He get so animated about the issue now? No answer from the director.
The relationship between the messenger and the benighted liberator never gets much beyond mutual distrust, and they behave more like two squabbling siblings than accommodating partners, which in turn makes you wonder why Moses even bothers. Yet it is all worth while since the boy messenger repays all Moses’ hard earned efforts in fleeing Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, enduring enormous privation and generally securing the liberation of his people by brewing him a cup of tea as he chisels away at the Ten Commandments. The moment is so touching that you would think they were a long married couple, pleasantly sliding together into old age.
The babble of accents in the film can be disconcerting. One minute the Royal Pharonic court is debating a range of options to how to deal with the plagues – and their British accents make them sound like a gathering of Winston Churchill’s War Council, when Queen Mother Tuya (Signourey Weaver) abruptly interrupts them with her brash East Coast American accent. They all seem to pivot and stare at her in wonder, amazed that the casting director could have let this spoiler enter the room. The accents that tumble off the screen include Spanish, Lebanese, Irish, Italian and Australian – anything but convincingly Egyptian.
The biggest question that the movie leaves unanswered is why was the liberation necessary at all. The Hebrew slaves are not all that much different than any other slaves we have seen in recent movies (eg: Twelve Years a Slave). According to the narrator, whose voice over opens the movie, the one thing that distinguishes them from the Egyptians is that they believe in one God and not multiple deities. But there is no background to their story; no real sense of their origins, how they became slaves and why they feel the need to return to Canaan. The individuality of the Israelites that morally and ideologically sets them apart , not just from the Egyptians, but from all other peoples of the world, is entirely glossed over.
As is the actual purpose of their journey across the desert to the Red Sea and into Sinai. In the Bible, Moses makes clear, in his petition to Pharaoh, that the purpose of their exodus is to travel three days into the desert to worship G’d and then to return. As we learn later in the Biblical narrative, that purpose became a little more firmly focused when the Children of Israel were presented with the Ten Commandments. But the Ten Commandments themselves are given short shrift in Exodus: Gods and Kings, not even five minutes of screen time. They had become the center of Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 epic and the great denouement of the DreamWorks animated 1998 remake, The Prince of Egypt. An explanation might be that the director’s oft stated agnoticism gave the Ten Commandments little role in his own epic as he was more concerned with the action drama of liberation than with the purpose of that liberation. But this makes Scott’s epic morally hollow and teleologically flat.
And another matter: Who, exactly, are the Gods and Kings referred to in the movie’s title? The Egyptian Gods are largely AWOL and not even really mentioned by name. Pharaoh pronounces himself a God but if so, he is a rather lack luster deity and a disempowered one at that – who does not rely on his own abilities to stanch the strings of disasters visited upon Egypt but instead hands the job over to his ingratiating but useless magicians.
And missing from the film entirely is one of the most quizzical elements of the entire Exodus story – G’ds decision to harden the heart of Pharaoh making it impossible for him to make amends even if he desires to do so. This issue is philosophically central to an understanding of the relationship between G’d and man and is an opening to a discussion about human free will, which lies at the heart of Judaism and most monotheistic religions. A real argument between Moses and G’d/the messenger on this subject would have been of greater interest than the spat between the two over tactics.
Hollywood directors, in their use of creative license, often produce several endings for their movies, with only one eventually chosen.
For a movie which strays so far from its original source material there could be several alternative endings, right?
So why not this one?:
Pharaoh staggers ashore – but unfortunately for him, it is the same shore as Moses where the Israelites are waiting for him with their swords drawn. Realizing that the jig is up, he confesses the error of his ways, gives up his royal life and his chariot and decides to join the Israelites on their 40 year trek through the desert. In the process he becomes chief Israelite cook, invents the bagel, discovers lox and after some experimentation founds the exotic chain of famous delicatessens known in ancient times as ‘Rami’s Deli?’
Not if you think that Christian Bale’s swashbuckling prince presents an accurate portrait of the Biblical Moses or that one of the greatest civilizations the world has known could be run by such blithering idiots.
In Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 take on the Exodus story, the defeated Pharaoh (Yul Brynner) returns to the royal palace and is confronted by his wife who bates him about his failure to kill Moses. He turns on her and declares ” His God is G-D.” It is hard to imagine such an admission from almost any major Hollywood director today; yet in case either they or we have forgotten, it is almost the entire point of the Exodus narrative. That “story”, as rich as the material it might have provided for entertainment vehicles since the advent of moving pictures, has offered the inspiration for man’s quest for liberty for over 3,500 years and is remembered by the Jewish people ever since as the most significant event in their nation’s long history. Establishing the existence of one God, cementing the bond between that Deity and the Jewish people and framing the latter’s role as the moral leaders of mankind, would provide – one might think- just as interesting a focus as the highlighting of a distracting sibling rivalry and a mere Spartacus-styled slave rebellion.
What a shame the director of this movie misses them entirely.