by Brenda W. Clough
Your true Biblical movie epic is rather rare on the movie screen these days. When they do appear they are tarted up with lots of additional violence, but no sex, so as to ensure painless Bible Belt marketing.
Exodus fits right into this template. If you put just the Bible account and nothing else onto the screen the movie would take all of ten minutes, so there are lots and lots of additional battles, CGI, sword fighting, and emotional development. And, as is the fashion these days, they went overboard on this in a big way. This movie is at least twenty minutes too long, sagging in the middle like a cake taken too soon out of the oven. I stood in the lobby of the theater with a nice old lady and we agreed that the Charlton Heston version was much more exciting. The Ten Commandments was one of the best movies of 1956; it’s not going to have to worry about being dethroned this year.
Exodus is theologically correct, yes. It touches all the proper bases — the plagues are CGI and just dandy. Not a movie for the phobic about slithery things! There have been cries of whitewashing, but a sincere effort has been made to have ethnically appropriate actors, so that except for Christian Bale (his talents wasted) everyone is swarthy of skin and brown-eyed; you see no blonde slave girls here. Look at that picture — the costuming is more or less correct, although the use of shimmer fabrics is crazy. And the stirrups on the horses give me pain — Judy Tarr will probably want to avoid this one. But nothing makes up for the crippling plot slowness of this leaden film. Dropping the first and last sections of the movie would have mapped it much closer to The Ten Commandments, but made it move along much more briskly.
But, you say, every lemon has a drop of lemonade in it. True! So let us take a brief tour into what we may term the zeitgeist. Every work of art is ineluctably a part of its time; we can no more escape our era than the fish can leave its water. And Exodus is nearly a perfect test case, especially if we also take into consideration The Prince of Egypt, the 1998 animated film with Val Kilmer voicing Moses.
Because we have here some very similar films covering the identical subject matter, it is easy to discern how nearly sixty years has changed how the creators told the same story. I’ve mentioned the ethnic correctness of casting. There is also a noticeable increase in the plot function and screen time of women in Exodus — no Tauriel or anything like that, but back in the motivation. Pharaoh’s queen is devastated by the death of her son, and this drives Pharaoh to break out the chariots; Moses has a wife and kids back in Sinai and wants to be reunited with them. This is very 21st century; if Charlton Heston’s Moses had a wife and kids they played no role in why he was doing what he was doing. And it was Yul Brynner clutching the body of his eldest son that let the Hebrew nation go — his wife was in the background and her grief was unimportant.
Meanwhile, Exodus shares with Prince of Egypt the, well, princiness. The Bible says that after his adoption by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses joined her household. Nothing is said about his being a prince, or leading battles against Hittites; that’s our modern addition. We like luxe, pictures of stars in gem-studded collars clutching the golden hilts of swords. A movie titled Moses: Palace Shoeshine Boy would not sell at all well.
But the biggest one to my eye: this is unquestionably a post-9/11 movie. The whole question about how, if you are politically powerless, you force the powerful to do what you want, is front and center here. We, as a culture, are still wrestling with this question, and you can see our conflicted feelings right up there on the screen. As the children of Israel escalate their position (frogs, boils) Pharaoh does the same, hanging random Hebrews in an effort to smoke Moses out. This is not in the Bible. And the question creeps into your mind, is this terrorism? Who is the terrorist here?
But it really comes clear after the final plague. After the death of all the first-born of Egypt, Pharaoh has his clutching-the-body-confronting-Moses scene. And he says something that is not, that could never be, in the older movies, nor in the Bible. He cries, “Is this the kind of God you worship? A god who kills children?” And in that instant you can feel the emotional flip. We are all Egyptians at that moment. We know, we 21st century Americans. Gods who whack kids are bad. It is no longer an open question for us. The previous movies were black and white; there was no debate about who was the good guy. This movie is gray. The writers and producers of the movie had to put that in. Because this is a movie made in the 21st century.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.