Bible-based movies tend to do very well at the box office. Polls show that one important consideration for viewers is biblical accuracy, however. I used to think that The Ten Commandments was notorious for its inaccuracies, both biblical and Egyptological. As of last night, I have found a new champion: Exodus: Gods and Kings.
As someone who loves ancient Egypt and the Bible, I was excited to see the movie. Unfortunately, Exodus was a disappointment of biblical proportions. Lou Lemenick at the New York Post gave the film one star (out of four), calling it “an utterly clueless, relentlessly grim and rambling action epic guaranteed to displease devout Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, amuse atheists — and generally bore everyone.”
Christian Bale turns in a decent performance. He is detached and wooden in spite of his obvious talent as an actor. I did have some reservations about Batman being Moses. He does have a few gravelly-voiced lines that are reminiscent of his dialogue in the Christopher Nolan films. Oh, and he is a warrior. Not just any warrior – Moses is a one-man wrecking machine. In one scene, he dodges an arrow with relative ease while simultaneously cutting down several Hittite soldiers. Think about Russell Crowe in Gladiator (another Ridley Scott film) who has a cool beard and talks like Bruce Wayne/Batman. That’s Moses.
Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays the part of Ramesses. For those who have seen Cecil B. DeMille’s classic, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Yul Brynner in that role. Brynner didn’t just play the part of Ramesses; he was Ramesses. Edgerton’s performance is flat and uninspiring. We never really know what to make of the character because he’s just kind of lifeless.
There are different kinds of bad guys. There are the misunderstood ones with whom you sympathize. There are the accidental ones you pity. There are the truly evil ones for whom you have nothing but unmitigated contempt. Edgerton doesn’t come across as any of these. Ramesses is envious, cowardly, dour, and brooding. Half of the time he doesn’t seem to know what in the world he’s supposed to be doing. Even when he’s going after the Hebrews before the parting of the Red Sea he seems kind of feckless. He pushes out some rather emotionless and forced dialogue that sounds less than convincing.
In the movie, God is petulant and vindictive. Forget the great “I am” statement from Exodus 3 (which happens to be one of the most important chapters of the entire Bible) – Scott relegates it to a cinematic footnote. God is portrayed as an 11-year-old child, and he has about the same level of maturity. Bale said in an interview that he viewed God as “mercurial.” If the Exodus script is all he had to work with, I can see where he got that impression.
The exodus was the gospel of the Hebrew Bible. It would come up again in the messages of the prophets. Over and over, God’s spokesmen would preface their message with “Thus says the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt …” God chose his people, saved them, and led them to a land of plenty. In the Bible, we have a God of unparalleled generosity, whose concern for his people is unmistakable, and whose fidelity is unquestionable. This is not Scott’s God.
One of the criticisms of the movie is that it is “whitewashed” – it features white actors in roles that should properly be filled by actors of non-European descent. In a perfect world, the lead roles should have properly gone to actors of Middle-Eastern descent, or something close to it. I read a number of articles online describing how the movie was racist. That term is grossly abused in our society–really, it’s often used as a bludgeon in the absence of intelligent dialogue–and I resolutely disagree with applying it to the film. That having been said, the movie was indeed miscast. Regardless, Scott defended his decision by arguing that he needed star power to help get investors to support the movie. After seeing the movie, he probably needed all the help he could get. But we can’t forget that this has been done in other films as well.
We might think of the newest Hercules, in which Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson stars in the titular role. Apparently they couldn’t find a Caucasian actor (Greek, specifically) with the size to play Hercules, so they went with the Rock – a man-mountain with half-Samoan, half-black ancestry. Similar considerations went into the selection of the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in the 2003 movie Daredevil (the Kingpin is a physically imposing Caucasian villain in Marvel comics). We could also think of the recently-announced cast of the Suicide Squad, in which Will Smith will be playing the role of Deadshot, a Caucasian character who is a frequent enemy of the Batman in DC comics. When it comes to ethnicities of all kinds, we can see that Hollywood directors frequently depart from the source material when casting their lead roles. Exodus isn’t that much different, although I believe it should have been more authentic and accurate in its casting.
Speaking of accuracy, there isn’t much to be had when it comes to the script’s fidelity to the biblical text and to ancient history. Here are some of the problems with the movie:
- One scene appears to show a pyramid under construction. The last pyramids in Egypt were built about three to four centuries before the birth of Moses.
- Battle scenes show Egyptian cavalry, a type of unit that would not have been seen at this time.
- Moses kills an Egyptian (almost two) after a case of mistaken identity rather than because he is abusing one of the Hebrews.
- The movie offers a unique explanation for the first plague: the Nile runs red after all the crocodiles go crazy and tear each other apart en masse.
- Moses cries out to God that he will not be humbled, when Numbers12:3 says that he was one of the most humble people on earth.
- The Egyptian temple at Abu Simbel appears on the wrong end of Egypt (literally), over 1,000 miles from where it was originally located.
- One of the advisers encourages Pharaoh to explain the plagues as the result of natural phenomena. This kind of anachronistic concern didn’t appear until many centuries later.
- Another anachronistic detail is when Ramesses states that he can’t let the Hebrews go because “From an economic standpoint, what you’re asking is problematic at least.” History knows Ramesses II as a great general and a great liar. Apparently, we can now add “world’s first economist” to his resume.
- The dialogue is plagued by modern clichés and concerns. Moses wants his son Gershom to grow up “believing in himself,” while Zipporah says that the child can choose his own beliefs.
- Moses has to carve the Ten Commandments onto the stone tablets himself.
The “big reveal” when Ben Kingsley’s character Nun relates the facts about Moses’ true parentage has a distinct feel of The Matrix. Nun says to Moses: “You know something’s wrong. You’ve always felt it” (Morpheus says to Neo: “You’ve felt it your entire life. There’s something wrong…”).
A review at ChristianityToday.com gave the movie three stars out of four. The reviewer clearly enjoyed it, given the amount of time he spends gushing about what he considers to be its positive qualities. He also compares Christian audiences to Ramesses as potentially “stubborn, grumpy, vengeful, closed-minded and unwilling to listen to someone they’ve already decided is an enemy.” My first thought was, “Is he trying to preempt any disagreement with his glowing review by shaming others who didn’t share his view of the film?” Similar attitudes could be seen in some Christian’s responses when the Noah movie was released earlier this year. It’s almost as if they are saying, “Regardless of how badly it portrays biblical events, we have to see the good in it because it will have non-believers talking about it!” Sorry, but the God of Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t really have much worth talking about.
The film did have positive aspects. The sets, effects, and costumes are fantastic. One scene showing the Hebrews making bricks looks like it was taken straight out of the tomb of the 15th century Egyptian vizier Rekhmire (which has a scene showing brickmakers at work). The plagues, although much briefer than expected, really come to life on the screen.
If you’ve got twelve dollars and two hours to burn, take your better half out to dinner. Or buy something for your kids. Perhaps you could donate the cash to charity. If none of that appeals to you, then go watch Exodus: Gods and Kings.