So I went on my own (no one in my moviegoing circle was interested) and used a free ticket I had. I was prepared to spend a pleasant two-and-a-half hours and just glory in the beauty of Christian in his prime.
I thought Thanksgiving had returned when I watched this turkey waddle across the screen.
Spoilers ahoy (and where I leave no meat on these bones)!
I will be making some comparisons with the 1956 The Ten Commandments. It’s inevitable if you’re seen both. TTC has become a classic because of its campiness: the overacting, the crazy dialogue, the portentous pronouncements. I agree with all of that. But as nuts as this sounds, the 1956 had better characterization and coherent storytelling despite a lot of made-up stuff!
Case in point: you never quite got a sense of the Hebrew characters in Exodus. There was little connection between them and Moses while in TTC there were scenes of Moses interacting with Joshua, Aaron and even the woman who was his mother (unknown to him at their first meeting). And despite the Hays Code’s strict censorship, the misery and despair of the slaves was clearly shown, though Exodus would do it grubbier, grittier, and dirtier. Even sexual exploitation of women was covered in TTC, which was probably pushing against the Code.
Some positives: the opening scenes of Memphis were grand in sweep, but the rest of the scenes were not epic in scope. The music was pleasant but no part of it was memorable.
Christian’s best part of his performance was as Prince of Egypt. He wore the beautiful clothes and kohl (yum!) and even smiled in some scenes! He appeared happy as an Egyptian, and once he discovered his Hebrew heritage, he was uncertain. He had a nine-year respite of a family life in the desert after his exile from Egypt but then climbed the forbidden mountain and saw God.
God was standing by the Burning Bush in the form of a ten-year-old child. A lot of people are upset by this, but I interpret it as God being very young during this era. He is vengeful and petty, very much Old Testament, and it would make sense that he would mature and be more grown up by the time of the New Testament, though he still had the bloodthirsty requirement of a gruesome sacrifice from his only son. The Old Testament God comes across as Trelane from Star Trek's Squire Of Gothos episode.
I can buy an uncertain Moses. The Bible is full of reluctant prophets. Moses probably doubted his sanity with such visions. Christian himself considers Moses schizophrenic. The problem in this film is that he never seems like an inspiring leader of the Hebrews. In TTC, Charlton Heston’s Moses was busy living the good life of an Egyptian Prince and was uncertain after his exile, found his family in the desert, and then found God. He was more sure of himself as prophet, but in the ‘50s Americans wanted men who were sure of themselves.
Which brings me to Ramses. Joel Edgarton played Pharoah as weak-willed and petty. He acted the cruel tyrant, fueled by that weakness, hanging a Hebrew family every day until the slaves gave up Moses, who was hiding in their midst. His only redeeming quality was his love for his son. Yul Brynner made the role so indelibly his that his most famous lines: "So shall it be written. So shall it be done," are still quoted decades later. There won’t be any lines of dialogue quoted from this new movie, trust me.
I also appreciated that TTC skipped over the plagues, though they did show the Nile turning red and the Angel of Death’s visitation. In this new film, the plagues of millions of frogs, flies, gnats, boils and locusts were disgustingly shown in detail (though I didn’t watch most of these scenes, yuck!). The Nile turning red wasn’t from Moses’ staff as in TTC but from an attack of giant crocodiles on hapless fishermen, dragging them from their boat and churning the water red with their blood like an ancient retelling of Jaws.
The Angel of Death scene was pretty effective as a dark shadow came over the city and children were shown to simply stop breathing. In TTC, we got to see a dark mist creep across the moon, then tendrils lower down to the ground. The mist became thicker as it crept along the ground and bypassed the Hebrew houses that had marked their doors with lambs’ blood. At the Royal Palace one of the guards falls dead. He is the firstborn son of the Captain of the Guard. Inside one of the houses we saw the first Passover meal and then began to hear the wails of the Egyptians. It’s a very eerie scene all the way around which was not the case in Exodus. Not only children were taken that terrible night. The music in this scene is appropriately foreboding and eerie.
The special effects were a disappointment when it came to the parting of the Red Sea. There were none! Director Ridley Scott wanted to be ‘realistic’ (in a Biblical epic!) so the water just kind of fizzled away, sort of like this meandering film. The sea coming back and destroying Pharoah’s army was impressive, but frankly, the 1956 technology gave us more drama in TTC as the ragged Hebrews hurried through the space between two enormous walls of water, looking up in awe, which connected to destroy Pharoah’s army. In Exodus, Moses and Ramses survive the water (which is a head-scratcher) though end up on opposite sides of the sea. In TTC, neither one was caught in the flood.
Exodus was a film of little passion. There was such understatement that I nearly fell asleep! I checked my cell phone several times because I was BORED!!! Two-and-a-half hours with this movie seemed endless compared to TTC’s four hours! The concept was good but the execution was terrible. The story wandered like the Hebrews in the desert after escaping Pharoah. Which, BTW, Exodus did not show except for one small scene at the end with Moses as old as Methusaleh. There was no dramatic scene with the Ten Commandments, just Moses chiseling the orders on stone while the kid God made tea. Yeah, you read that right.
In TTC, the exodus of the freed slaves from Egypt was an inspiring scene: the people were excited and happy. Director Cecil B. DeMille showed several shots of little stories of random people that gave them individuality. In Exodus, you had no idea if they were happy, nervous, apprehensive or what. It was pretty much a faceless mob, apropos since Moses himself was more concerned with the Egyptian people he’d grown up with (understandable) than the Hebrews. They became his people by film’s end, but darned if I know why.
The wives of Moses in both films were good in their roles: Yvonne DeCarlo and Maria Valverde. Christian was uneven, even mixing up his British and American accents. He appeared to be mailing it in after his Egyptian scenes at times. He is a superior actor to Charlton Heston yet I got a better sense of Moses from Heston than from Christian. I never got a sense of Exodus’ Joshua unlike TTC’s. The newer Joshua just seemed put in the movie to watch Moses talk to no one when he was arguing with God (only Moses could see and hear him).
The film was more about Moses and Ramses than Moses’ story. During the Red Sea scene, Moses rides to meet Ramses in the middle of the barren sea before the water returns. The heck with the Hebrews!
The Ten Commandments and Exodus: Gods And Kings are very different movies with very different approaches, but ironically the movie known for its campiness gave us better characterization and storytelling, and isn’t that what good movies are about? TTC has lasted 58 years. I doubt Exodus will last 58 days in the theaters.
So, dears, I enjoyed carving up this turkey with my pen, so to speak. ;) If you are a Biblical movie fan or a Christian Bale fan, you might want to see this, but I recommend waiting until it’s free on TV. Save your dough! There were three people in the theater including me and one got up and walked out halfway through. If you’re going to do a Biblical epic, then make your movie epic! Say what you want about DeMille, but he knew his way around grandeur and spectacle, and gave us some humanization to boot. There were some lighthearted scenes (some of the Egyptian scenes) while Exodus was grim throughout. Exodus had a talented cast and a lot of potential, but it was all for naught.
If your heart is set on seeing this film in the theaters, go ahead. I’m just a critic and often you’ll find yourself disagreeing. Maybe you’ll love it so much it’ll become your hot new fandom. Otherwise skip it until it ends up on cable. I'm glad I went for free, though now I'm ticked off that I wasted a freebie on this dud.
Christian, m’dear, choose your roles more carefully in the future!