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Ridley Scott’s Moses movie: At least Cecil B. DeMille didn’t mess with a ripping good story

December 19, 2014

My latest for the Wall Street Journal:

Not your grandfather’s Bible movie

Cecil B. DeMille, whose second version of “The Ten Commandments” (1956) is the seventh-highest-grossing (inflation-adjusted) film of all time, was a nominal Episcopalian who seldom went to church and kept numerous mistresses. He filled his early biblical and religious epics with so much suggestive debauchery and actresses in scanty costumes that he alone might have been responsible for Hollywood’s adoption of the Hays Code in 1934.

But DeMille understood that the biblical Book of Exodus, his source for “The Ten Commandments,” was, if nothing else, a riveting story, and that all he needed to do was hew closely to its highly dramatic narrative, taking it literally on its own terms. For Moses, DeMille cast the magnificently chiseled Charlton Heston, who looked as though he were auditioning to model for Michaelangelo’s statue. Certainly DeMille added his own fictional embellishments, such as glamorous love interests (Anne Baxter, Debra Paget ) for Moses and his protégé, Joshua ( John Derek ).

***

By contrast, Mr. Scott has let his self-professed atheism infiltrate and ultimately flatten out his Moses movie. He skips such moving episodes from the Book of Exodus (fully dramatized by DeMille) as the efforts of Moses’ mother to save her infant son from an Egyptian pogrom by placing him in a basket in the Nile to be watched over by his sister Miriam and ultimately taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter.

Mr. Scott’s Moses (Christian Bale) not only can’t match Charlton Heston; his job is not to try. This Moses is a 21st-century skeptic who, instead of becoming the instrument of God in freeing the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, sits back and calls God “cruel” and “inhumane” for visiting plagues upon Egypt. Gone is the rhythmic narration in the Book of Exodus (and DeMille’s movie) in which Moses travels again and again to the pharaoh to demand, “Let my people go” (not uttered in the new movie). God, for his part, is depicted as a vengeful 11-year-old brat ( Isaac Andrews ) who resembles no one so much as Joffrey, the nasty child-tyrant in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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One Comment
  1. Lastango permalink

    Go down,
    Ridley,
    Way down
    In Egypt’s land.
    Tell old Moses,
    Bow low to PoMo!

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