Exodus: Gods & Kings 3D
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine & Steven Zaillian
Christian Bale as Moses
Joel Edgerton as Ramses
John Turturro as Seti, father of Ramses
Maria Valverde as Zipporah, wife of Moses
Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, Ramses’ mother
Ben Mendelsohn as the Viceroy
Ben Kingsley as Nun, the Hebrew elder
Indira Varma as the High Priestess
… and between 400,000 and 1.3 million virtual people
“The Theory of Everything” yesterday, “Exodus today.” From the sublime to the ridiculous?
The theology’s the thing. I was given a detention in a Divinity lesson in my early teens for expressing the opinion that the God of Exodus seemed indistinguishable from Satan. Killing innocent women and children left, right and centre. Many years later, I discovered that the events are roughly contemporaneous with The Iliad and that Socrates later declared that a vengeful and cruel god could not by definition be a god. Our family doctor, who had delivered me, was Egyptian, and one of the nicest people I knew. I found it hard to think the Egyptian first born unimportant.
Moses was no role model either, in spite of all those soppy pictures of pretty wispily clad girls finding baskets floating on rivers. The paintings are always more interesting if they’ve hitched up their skirts to wade, and it would have been a hot day, so why wear a blouse? I spent six months working in the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, which has a superb Edwin Long collection. Long did great scantily-clad Egyptian lasses. Unfortunately this film skips all those scenes.
Edwin Long: A scene the film missed altogether …
If you take the major religions that venerate Moses, all three have a poor record on slaughtering those who disagree. Both sides on the Gaza strip venerate Moses. Once you cross the line and say that a different belief system makes you a non-person who can be killed, all evil is opened up. Then there’s Moses the Lawgiver. Different aspect. There is little historical evidence anyway, but some suggest a different figure.
It’s also fascinating to trawl speculation on Egyptian history. Only half a century separates Moses’s guessed dates from the monotheistic pharaoh, Akhenaten. The next bunch of pharaohs tried to eradicate Akhenaten from history, and he was rediscovered in the 19th century. Some speculate that a historical Moses (if Moses is not a composite … the book of Exodus was written 1000 years later) might have been an Egyptian devotee of Akhenaten’s monotheism. Sigmund Freud argued this. Ahmed Osman has argued that Moses was Akhenaten. The speculative stuff on this might make a better film.
The Moses story has resonated most in another aspect, leading a people from slavery. Let my people go! or Go down, Moses! This is why the figure became mythic in Ante-bellum America, and right through to Bob Marley’s Exodus! Movement of Jah people which keeps running in my head every time I hear the word.
This is a film, and they don’t want Jews, Moslems and Christians waving placards outside the cinemas. This Moses protests a little bit about God’s spitefulness. It’s all a bit harsh to him. Given that God is portrayed as an unpleasant young boy, a clip round the ear might have been more appropriate. Why a young boy? I guess they couldn’t think of an authoritative enough voice what with Charlton Heston being gone, so went opposite.
Ramses, Tuya, Seti, Moses at the beginning
So let’s take it as far as we can on its own fictional merits. Our Moses is Christian Bale, with an unfortunate given name for a Hebrew prophet. Bale was at Bournemouth School for Boys, as was I (though he was decades later than me) so for me lacks the mystique and gravitas of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Most actors do, though Charlton Heston was something of a bloodthirsty gun-toting so-and-so himself. Do not confuse it with the 1960 Exodus by Otto Preminger which is about the founding of the modern state of Israel. The current generation of SFX has made big, big biblical epics possible again. Because of modern SFX, they can go for the full Old Testament 600,000 male slaves, or 1.3 million with women and children. Surprisingly Ramses says in this film that there are 400,000 of them. It’s hard to count that many spread out across a desert. Even give or take the odd 200,000, it’s quite a crowd to take for a forty-year wander in the desert. I must stop hitting the ludicrous nature of the story, if I can. Grit my teeth. I sat through Noah after all.
Christian Bale’s role is unenviable and unattractively scruffily dressed and beardy. Joel Edgerton looks way cooler as Ramses, and I always admire a good shaven head, having the same style myself. This hairstyle was set by Yul Brynner in the Cecil B. de Mille epic, and Yul had an extra ‘e’ in his name too: Rameses.
Building: “You’ve had some right cowboys in here … look at that plumbing …”
It starts off with huge battle effects, as Moses and Ramses go off Hittite-slaughtering in their chariots. Ramses screws up and is saved by Moses. We return to Memphis, fabulously realized, and Moses gets sent off to examine the slave construction works that have been going on for 400 years. He discovers a crooked and effete viceroy and falls out with him. While walking in Memphis, though not ten feet off of Beale, he meets Joshua who is being whipped (but is impervious to pain), then Nun (not a nun) a Hebrew elder who explains the secret of Moses’s birth. Wandering back home Moses casually kills a couple of guards, but given his exalted role as #3 in the kingdom, one doubts that this was important. The Viceroy gets to hear of the meeting with Nun, and nips off to tell Ramses, whose dad has just expired. We all know Seti, the daddy pharaoh, thought Ramses less effective as a potential ruler than Moses, causing rivalry, and Ramses hates his (supposed) cousin for saving his life. OK, most of us would be grateful, but hating your rescuer is stock-in-trade for sword and shield sagas … which is all that this has been so far.
Joshua and Nun: The Egyptians got all the decent costumes
Then Moses gets exiled. He survives the assassins sent by Ramses’ mother (he kills them) and wanders about in the desert and crosses the Red Sea to Sinai, where he meets a tribe of goat herders and falls in love with Zipporah, not surprisingly as Maria Valverde’s absolutely gorgeous in the role. They marry. Nine years pass. They have a son. But Moses wants to explore the forbidden mountain. God’s mountain. Up he goes. Terrible storm. Encased in an avalanche of mud. Looks up, sees a burning bush … stop me if you’ve heard this before. There he meets God in the form of a nine year old boy. He’s sent off to rescue his people. Fortunately, the filmmakers decided to skip the bit in the bible at this point where Zipporah has to circumcise their son with a sharp stone. Back to Memphis, he seeks out Nun, who did not leave a number, but he knew the place to call. Nun inscribed a Hebrew character, and he found it on the wall. Without the Egyptians noticing, the Hebrews manage to do extensive horse and archery training to prepare to revolt. In Memphis in the meantime, Ramses is devoted to his baby son.
The plague of hailstones: Ramses watches, ‘Stay indoors! It’s pissing down out here.’
That stroppy little boy deity decides to send plagues. That’s a fun fifteen minutes … the film is VERY long. The rivers of blood are caused by giant crocodiles killing fishermen (who look peaceful innocent pleasant chaps to me) and then killing fish so the whole Nile flows with blood. We’re then in SFX heaven. It gets worse and worse, with the plague of boils putting Ramses in an especially foul mood, culminating in the deaths of the first born. Usually in stories the Hebrews dub a mark with the blood of a lamb on their houses. This deity can waft over a city, choose only the first born and kill them, but needs a daub of blood to explain which houses are Hebrew. It’s a bit like remembering to leave out a carrot for Father Christmas’s reindeer, or else he’ll miss you. Do not try to explain the logic too far. Normally a mark suffices, but here they’re painting half the walls with blood. So the unstoppable deity is short-sighted too. Saved by the blood of the lamb. Another nonsensical religious mantra.
Moses with his posse
Eventually Ramses is glad to get rid of them. Who wouldn’t be? To me the flies, locust, blood, frogs, boils, hailstones, starvation, animal deaths appear to effect the Hebrews as much as the Egyptians, but our incensed infant does not concern himself with such collateral damage. The Hebrews flee. Ramses thinks about it a bit and decides, ‘Doh! We could have killed the bastards instead!’ and sets off in pursuit. It takes long enough for stubble to cover his pristine and shining bald head, but catch up with them he does. They’re crossing the Red Sea and … but no plot spoilers in case you don’t know the story of how Pharaoh’s army got drownded. Fortunately, she shall not be moved and so Moses finds Zipporah waiting. He pops back up to the mountain and chisels the commandments onto a stone, mentioning to God that personally, as a reasonable sort of fellow himself, he found recent events somewhat harsh. Perhaps he was inscribing “Thou shalt not kill” at the time and found it hypocritical in the context. Then the 400,000 or 600,000 or 1.3 million set off into the desert. We see Moses, decades older rattling along in a cart with the Arc of The Covenant. So after all this, we are actually just in an Indiana Jones prequel. The end.
Holidays on the Red Sea: guess what happens next
Accent is always a vexed question in Biblical epics. They have defaulted to British English here, which most people feel is right for 1300 BC, or indeed Middle Earth or Westeros. Most of the cast stick to it, Joel Edgerton who is Australian in real life, perfectly. Though Christian Bale, despite being British, slips into mild American intonation at times. The real jar and the only strong clear American accent in the film is Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mum. It is such a sudden sore thumb effect, that if Sigourney couldn’t moderate it, I’d have recast it in spite of her fame. Maybe casting her was an in-joke, as she spoke the same part in the animated Prince of Egypt. In spite of quite a major role as a background plotter, she gets a minimal number of lines, so maybe they realized and cut her. I’m not sure about Zipporah, Moses’s wife’s accent, but he’s just crossed the Red Sea when he meets her, and I’d say “Israeli.” But that works.
Zipporah, wife of Moses
Then there’s the advisor to Ramses who tries to explain the plagues scientifically in a light Scottish accent (Scots do good science teacher) – the rivers fill with apparent blood because clay gets stirred up by the crocs, the frogs leap out of the water, they die on land, their decay breeds flies, then you get boils … Quite rightly, Ramses hangs him right away. I loved that bit – such explanations of the plagues are to be found in your nearest mystic bookshop. Indira Varma as the High Priestess suffers the same punishment. Her comment that her incantations would take a tad longer to clear the waters of blood was offhand to the point of rudeness. No way to speak to a pharaoh. To the gallows with her. I was getting to agree with Ramses a lot by this point.
Ramses. A beautifully shaven head.
There have to be “try not to giggle” moments. As the Israelites (they’re never called that, nor Jews, and rarely Hebrews, I think, just “my people” or “your people”) flee across the desert, they can choose two paths ahead of the pursuing Egyptians. One is the easy route along the shore, the other is through the tricky and dangerous high mountain pass. I wanted to shout out “Beware the mines of Moria!” Then there’s Moses’s very beautiful wife, and I thought her face tattoos echoed Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace. Joel Edgerton was in the next two. You might wonder why they wandered halfway to Canaan in a few days, but would need forty years for the other half of the journey. I suppose you get tired and slow down.
Apart from the epic leads, both excellent, there are some memorable cameos. Indira Varma, last seen by us as Queen of The Goths in Titus Andronicus at The Globe is compelling as High Priestess. Ben Mendelsohn is a suitably slimy viceroy. John Turturro does a languid but powerful Seti. Maria Valverde as Zipporah is heart-meltingly attractive. Ben Kingsley radiates Ben Kingsleyness as the wise elder. On the Hebrew side, it’s a little under-scripted. Aaron hangs around eavesdropping on Moses, but inexplicably so. Joshua after his initial entry is just “there” a lot of the time, saving his energy to fit the battle of Jericho in the sequel, perhaps.
Is it crap? Not really. It was definitely better than Noah last year. The dialogue’s sticky in places. Like most (all?) epics, shaving 20 minutes would improve it. The SFX hits new heights, or rather achieves the same new heights as the Tolkien series. The Egyptian chariot pursuit along a ledge through the Misty Mountains, sorry, high mountain pass, hits an all-time high for dramatic horse and chariot SFX, dwarfing even that Ben Hur chariot race. The high point of the film and worth the wait.
The 3D version we saw was too dark and murky in places, an effect of 3D cutting the light. Go for 2D – the 3D isn’t to much purpose and is sometimes merely irritating. The storyline is daft, but so is the original. I guess it’s about as credible as Game of Thrones.
DVD rating? I’m glad I saw it. I can’t see sitting through it again.