Monday, 29 December 2014
Exodus: Gods and Kings (4 Stars)
2014 has marked the return of the Biblical epics to Hollywood. First "Noah", now "Exodus". The screenwriters had the opposite problem in the new film. The problem with the story of Noah is that very little is said about it in the Bible, only four chapters of Genesis for a momentous occurrence that destroyed the world. The problem with the story of Moses is that a lot is written about him, four whole books of the Bible. This meant that the film about Noah was puffed out by adding new elements, which (in my opinion) totally destroyed the story. The film about Moses has to rush through the events, shortening some and omitting others, even though it concentrates on the first half of the Biblical book of Exodus. 150 minutes is too short to tell the full story.
Let me point out a few of the major changes in the story and give my opinion on whether they are justified.
1. God is portrayed as a young boy who only Moses can see.
While it's not what we read in the Bible, it's an interesting way to portray the unportrayable. In the book of Exodus God is described as being so terrible in appearance that anyone who sees his face will die. As God speaks to Moses on the mountain when Moses asks to see God, "You cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live. There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen". (Exodus 33:20-23).
Showing God as a child is, in my opinion, an acceptable compromise. The alternative would have been a dazzling white light and a booming voice, which would have looked comical rather than awe-inspiring.
2. Aaron plays an insignificant role in the film.
In the Bible God speaks to Moses, but Aaron speaks to the Pharaoh on Moses' behalf. The two brothers go to Pharaoh together to plead for the Israelites to be freed. This is because Moses claims to stutter. Moses said to God, "Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?" To this God replies, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country". (Exodus 6:30-7:2).
This is a deliberate simplification of the story, a conscious decision made in order to let the film be about the man Moses. Giving his brother a bigger role would have detracted from the character development.
3. Moses leaves his family behind in the film.
The Bible is very clear that Moses returned to Egypt with his family. "Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt". (Exodus 4:20). Yes, there were two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, not one as in the film.
I'm not sure why this was changed. Maybe it is because very little is written about Moses' wife Zipporah in the Bible, and having her shown at Moses' side would have made it necessary to develop her character.
4. Only 400,000 Israelites left Egypt in the film.
The actual number, though not explicitly stated, was much higher. The people were counted in the desert, and according to Numbers 1:46, there were 603,500 men over the age of 20 who were able to serve in the army. This number does not include the women, children or old men. Based on this we can estimate that the full population was at least two million, maybe as many as four million.
There was no need for the film to minimise the population in this way. Telling us the full numbers, even if it had been as vague as to say "millions", would have made the exodus all the more overwhelming. This would have made the crossing of the Red Sea all the more impressive. How much time would it take for two million people to cross the sea?
5. The miracle of the parting of the Red Sea is minimised.
In the film the water level goes down overnight, so that the Israelites can wade through the low water on the next day. The Bible describes this much more spectacularly. "Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left". (Exodus 14:21).
The film has the strange episode of Moses running back into the sea to save Pharaoh when the water comes back. The waves wash Moses back onto the shore, while Pharaoh gets back to safety on the opposite shore. This scene is intended to show the poignancy of the relationship between Moses and Ramses, two men who had grown up as brothers. It's a cute story, but inaccurate. The Pharaoh died along with all his army, and Moses would never have risked his life to save him.
Apart from these major changes, there are other subtle changes that are suggested without being explicitly stated. Moses seems relatively young at the time of the exodus, but he was actually much older. "Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83 when they spoke to Pharaoh". (Exodus 7:7).
There is also the aspect in the Bible that God was influencing the Pharaoh to make him Moses' enemy. We read several times that God himself hardened Pharaoh's heart to make him oppose Moses, for instance, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will not listen to you". (Exodus 7:3-4). These verses cause problems for Biblical scholars, but the best explanation I can offer is that Pharaoh had already been an evil man all his life -- he was probably in his 70's at this time -- and God's patience with him had run out. It's common for Christians to say that it's never too late to turn from evil, but these chapters of the Bible say the opposite. Pharaoh had probably had repeated chances to act well towards the Israelites all his life, but at this time God said "No more", and brought the ten plagues as a judgement over Pharaoh and all of Egypt. I think all ten plagues were shown, although they happened very quickly in the film, running swiftly into one another.
Moses frequently pleads with God during the film, asking him to show mercy. This is an accurate portrayal of Moses' personality. During the time in the desert God repeatedly said he would destroy the Israelites because of their unbelief, but Moses pleaded with God to change his mind. Moses was a man who stood up to God, not just accepting everything he was told.
The Passover feast is totally ignored in the film. That's a shame. This is the thing that I most missed. Maybe it was a matter of pacing. It might have been difficult to make a pause between the first nine plagues and the tenth plague for Moses to make long explanations to the Israelites how they should spend the night when their houses would be passed over. Maybe Ridley Scott, as the film's director, was afraid that any discrepancies would have been savagely attacked by Jewish reviewers, because the Passover Feast is the most important celebration of the Jewish year.
The presentation of the so-called "Ten Commandments" is rushed in the film. This could have been left out completely. The tablets were actually written twice. The first tablets were created by God, (Exodus 31:18), but after Moses destroyed them in a rage he had to make the replacement tablets himself. (Exodus 34:1). The film shows Moses writing the words, but this is wrong, because God wrote the words on both sets of tablets. It would have been better to omit this altogether. The final scene shows Moses being carried in a cart (the ark of the covenant) with the stone tablets. This is also wrong. It was God himself who was carried in the cart. But that's going too deep into Biblical exposition.
At least the film didn't show Moses arriving in Israel. That was the one thing I feared would be shown wrong, but the film ends on the journey. Moses was punished for his anger in the desert. "Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them". (Numbers 3:12). In fact, of all the men who left Egypt, only two entered Israel, Joshua and Caleb. All the rest died during the 40-year journey through the desert. Only their children, the ones born on the journey, and the ones who had been under 20 arrived at their destination. (Joshua 5:4).
Overall, the film makes a good impression. The inaccuracies can be overlooked. I can recommend it to my readers, whatever they think of the Bible.