In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille made a movie about the problems he saw corrupting his society. In 1956, DeMille remade that film because he saw his civilization threatened by a force of evil. In 2014, Ridley Scott retells the story of Moses and the Jews in Egypt as a way to work out his own religious hang ups. Yes, it’s The “Ten Commandments” (1923) vs. “The Ten Commandments” (1956) vs “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014) in KIMT’s Weekend Yahweh Throwdown! And at the risk of spoiling things, the third time was definitely NOT the charm.
Even if you’re Hindi, Muslim or Wiccan, you probably know tale unless you’ve literally had no exposure to Western culture. According to The Bible, at a time when pharaohs ruled Egypt thousands of years ago, a decree was sent out to kill all newborn Hebrews to foil the prophecy of a deliverer who would free his people from their bonds of slavery. To save his life, young Moses was set adrift in a basket on the river Nile, to be found by one of the pharaoh’s daughters and raised as a prince of Egypt. And here’s where we take a little dramatic license. Though The Bible never specifically states this, DeMille in 1956 pretty much crystalized in the public consciousness the idea that Moses’ ethnic identity was kept secret from everyone, including himself. When his Hebrew origins are revealed, Moses the character of cinema is forced out of Egypt and goes to dwell in the land of Midian until the God of Abraham and Isaac commands him to return and lead the Hebrews out of bondage and to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Pharaoh would have none of it though, even as God visited plague after plague upon his people, and refused to free the Hebrew slaves. Then one final plague killed the firstborn of all Egypt, even the firstborn of Pharaoh, and finally the Hebrews were freed. But just after letting them go, Pharaoh pursued them with his army and God has to part the Red Sea to give his chosen people a way out. That way out does not extend to the Egyptians, who find the parted waters closing up over them.
Moses then leads the Hebrews to Mt. Sinai, where Moses goes up the mountain to receive God’s law. Left behind, the Hebrews fall into debauchery and idol worship, only to be caught short when Moses finally returns bearing The Ten Commandments. What follows next in The Bible seems to contradict one of those Commandments, so in the movies we instead get a little wrath of God to punish the faithless Israelites.
You just know this is how Donald Trump sees himself in The White House.
The 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments” is, as you might guess, a black-and-white silent movie. What you might not guess is that only the first hour or so of it deals with the story of Moses. It skips over the whole “raised as a prince of Egypt” thing and even the first nine plagues to start with a rather hobo Santa-like Moses (Theodore Roberts) warning Pharaoh Ramses (Charles de Rochfort) of the final, terrible judgment of God. It then follows through the rest of the story but finishes before the film is halfway over.
That second half jumps to then-modern 1923 America and the story of the McTavish family. Mother McTavish (Edythe Chapman) is a Christian killjoy vexed by her irreverently irreligious son Dan (Rod La Rocque) who has no use for God or His laws. Dan runs off with an equally heathen young woman (Leatrice Joy) and leaves his mother to stew with her remaining faithful son, John (Richard Dix). Years later, John is a poor but good Christian and Dan is a successful, though sinful, construction magnate. But when Dan’s use of inferior building materials, thus stealing from those who hired him to build, causes the death of his mother and Dan’s own adultery leads him to murder, his fateful end proves DeMille’s point that if you break God’s laws, you will be broken.
Aside from Moses looking more like a fat uncle from Duck Dynasty, “The Ten Commandments” (1923) holds up very well. The scene where the Jews leave Egypt in a great convoy looks almost as good on screen as the same scene 33 years later, which is amazing given the advances in filmmaking over that time, and the parting of the Red Sea was as impressive as any special effect we’d see 40 years later on TV shows like Doctor Who or Star Trek.
It’s the second half of the movie, however, which is most intriguing and engaging. What could have been a screed of tin-eared propaganda about the ills of the Roaring 20s actually employs surprising sensitivity and subtlety. Dan and Mary may be atheists but DeMille doesn’t present them as awful people. They simply don’t believe the dusty old rules of some dusty old God should dominate their lives. Instead of Mother McTavish being some long-suffering martyr, DeMille presents her as rather harsh and intolerant. At her end, she faults herself for teaching her sons to fear God instead of love Him. And John, who is silently in love with Mary all the while she’s in love with Dan, never preaches or drones on about religion.
And his hair was perfect.
Most interesting of all is the film’s message and purpose. It is very inwardly directed at its American audience, telling them they need to shape up and fly right. Its religious message is of a very temporal variety. DeMille is saying that if you sin, you will suffer in this world. Bad deeds lead to bad ends. That’s very different from the reward or punishment for what you do in this life coming in the next and is light years away from the “prosperity Gospel” that proclaims following the Lord will benefit you in the here and now. It’s a reminder that, while the 21st century is used to seeing the guilty go free and cheater prosper, that’s not the way people used to think the world worked.
As for The “Ten Commandments” (1956)…well, it’s one of the best films you’ll ever see, religiously-themed or otherwise. It takes the whole hog, following Moses (Charlton Heston) from birth to death as he transforms from a proud scion of Egyptian royalty to the defiant prophet of Jehovah. It has some of the most spectacular sets in cinema history, made before CGI when it took hundreds of craftsmen and thousands of extras. The musical score is magnificent. The cast is tremendous and the storytelling is so compelling that it makes the nearly four hour run time fly by. I’ve watched 90 minute films that had me bored out of my skull before they were half finished. The structure, pacing and forward motion in this screenplay is remarkable.
With this version, DeMille fuses an element of soap opera to the story. Moses and Ramses (Yul Brynner) have been raised as brothers and even Pharoah Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke) is forced to accept that Moses is more noble and more honorable than his own son. The two men are also in competition for the hand of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) who is promised to web the next pharaoh, though her heart belongs only and forever to Moses. When Moses learns of his heritage and goes out to experience the life of a Hebrew slave, his secret is discovered by the weasely Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) and sold to Ramses, who uses it to have Moses exiled. There’s even an entire secondary love story between a young stonecutter named Joshua (John Derek) and a beautiful water girl named Lilia (Debra Paget) which weaves through much of the movie.
And I know I already mentioned the cast but it must be repeated that Heston, Brynner, Baxter and Hardwicke are out-flippin-standing. Baxter perfectly embodies love as a force for good and for ill. As written, the character of Ramses could have been a petulant popinjay on screen but Brynner’s personal charisma and magnetism makes him nearly the equal of Moses and his God. Heston is Heston. ‘Nuff said. And Hardwicke is a delight. He makes Sethi a figure of equal parts regal glory and human wisdom, with a wry sense of humor tying them together.
If there's ever been a woman to make you forsake The Almighty...
And unlike its predecessor, “The Ten Commandments” (1956) cares nothing about sin or personal righteousness. This is a film entirely about the conflict between freedom and tyranny and how God is eternally on the side of and essential to liberty. DeMille was no longer worried about the indiscretions of his fellow Americans. He was focused on the external threat of Communism and presented Moses and his people as the ultimate example of freedom triumphing over slavery. Other creators have remade their own work. I’m not sure anyone has ever told the same story in such dramatically different ways with such dramatically different intent.
Now we come to the non-DeMille portion of this Throwdown with “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), a take on the Scriptures with all the 21st century grit, grime and theological confusion you could want. I feel sorry for people who think this is a good movie because it means they haven’t seen any truly good movies. To begin with, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why this motion picture exists other than director Ridley Scott’s brother died. This story isn’t a warning about moral degeneration. It’s not a clarion call against a threat to life and property. It is literally about how God is a mean and vindictive child. And when I say literally, I literally mean literally.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” dispenses with the soap opera and centers almost exclusively on Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton). There isn’t another character in the whole movie that qualifies as much more than a cameo. Instead of a clash of the titans, as in 1956, this film is more like a clash of the douches (thanks, Epic Rap Battles of History!) Ramses is a whiny, cowardly little tool. Moses is a grim jerkwad who acts less like a prophet and more like a schizophrenic. DeMille in ’56 gave us a lot of reasons to love Moses and despise Ramses. Scott turns Ramses into a figure more of pity than hatred and his re-imagining of Moses as a 3000 BC terrorist would be offensive if it wasn’t so stupid.
In this version, Moses returns to Egypt as some combination of Rambo, Patton and Ho Chi Minh. He organizes the Hebrew slaves into a guerilla army, thereby proving that Ridley Scott doesn’t understand what “slavery” means. Slaves don’t have the money to buy weapons. They don’t have the time to sneak away to secret bases for training sessions. THEY’RE SLAVES. They’re working all the time and they’re being held prisoner in someone else’s country. The reason they don’t rebel isn’t a lack of military leadership. It’s that their enslavers won’t hesitate to slaughter them all at the hint of rebellion.
"We started out in Egypt. How the hell did we wind up in Middle-Earth?"
The story of Moses begins with the Egyptians killing every newborn Hebrew just because some doofus with a crystal ball made a guess about something that might happen at some undefined point in the future. But when Ramses is faced with an actual revolution, what does Scott have him do? He merely hangs a few people every day and demands Moses surrender. Huh?!?! The world of The Old Testament is a world where genocide is standard operating procedure but Scott turns Ramses into the feckless Nazi commandant of a prison camp, a combination of King Tut and Colonel Klink.
And while DeMille presented Moses in both of his films as someone working on behalf and in service of a higher power, Scott seems to only be able to conceive of God as a belligerent drunk in a bar and Moses is his friend that tries to smooth things over. Rather than being God’s messenger, 2014’s Moses basically tells Ramses “Look, I can’t control this guy. Just do what he wants or somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
Then there’s the whole parting of the Red Sea. Scott has his climatic confrontation between Moses and Ramses occur on the dry bed of the Red Sea as a wall of water a thousand feet high rushes toward them. And then the wall of water a thousand feet high crashes down on both men. No, Scott didn’t end his movie by killing Moses and Ramses. Even though they should have been crushed by hundreds of thousands of tons of water smashing into them at a high rate of speed, even though every other person in Pharaoh’s army DOES get killed by those hundreds of thousands of tons of water smashing into them at a high rate of speed, Moses and Ramses simply bob to the top and clamber onto the beach on opposite sides of the Red Sea. Sure, I suppose you could claim that God saved Moses from certain death, even though Scott spends all of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” arguing against anything truly supernatural. Scott has Moses carve out the Ten Commandments because God writing them out with a finger a fire is apparently too unbelievable. But even if you wanted to say God saved Moses from drowning in the Red Sea, why would he save Ramses?
That one idiotic scene is emblematic of what is wrong with Hollywood today. It doesn’t make any sense. It files in the face of what the film is trying to say. Yet no one had the authority or testicular fortitude to tell Ridley Scott “Ridley? You’re not going to do the Red Sea scene that way. Why? Because it’s dumb, that’s why.”
“The Ten Commandments” (1956) wins this Throwdown with ease, proving once and for all that a remake can be more a great remake. It can be a great film on its own merits as long as you have a reason for the remake besides wanting to squeeze a few more dollars out of the movie-going public. “The Ten Commandments” (1923) comes in second, proving that if you can look past the stylized pantomime aspects of silent cinema there is still a lot to enjoy. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014) brings up the rear, and a phrase has never been more appropriate because it so closely resembles what comes out of the rear.
What can we learn from these motion pictures? That religion, no matter how eternal its dogma, is always seen through the prism of its time. In 1923, it was the breakdown of social order. In 1956, it was the peril of an atheist philosophy. In 2014, it is a sense of alienation so profound that the people who made a movie about the stories of The Bible opened with a title card that identified the time period as “1300 BCE.” Not “1300 BC,” which stands for “Before Christ.” BCE stands for “Before Common Era,” which is a term developed by people who want to keep the same dating system but eliminate any reference to the Person upon which that system is built. That might make some sense if you are a secular archeologist. But why would you ever use “BCE” for a movie about stories from The Bible when that movie accepts those stories as true? It’s like they want to have their Christ, but not eat him too.
The Ten Commandments (1923)
Story by Jeanie Macpherson.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Starring Theodore Roberts, Charles de Rochefort, Estelle Taylor, Julia Faye, Pat Moore, James Neill, Lawson Butt, Edythe Chapman, Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, Leatrice Joy, Nita Naldi and Robert Edeson.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Written by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Olive Deering and a cast of thousands.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Indira Varma and Tara Fitzgerald.