Many of the reasons Ridley Scott decided to take on directing a fresh adaptation of the Exodus story are pretty obvious: It’s been 60 years since the last significant blockbuster adaptation of Moses’ story—16 if you count The Prince of Egypt—and it’s certainly the type of story Scott is particularly adept at filming.
However, it seems Scott was drawn to the project for some personal reasons, as well, and understanding them helps make sense of his approach.
Immediately after the final fade out, a card reads, “For My Brother, Tony Scott.” For those who don’t know, Ridley’s brother Tony directed some of the most iconic films of the ’80s and ’90s including Top Gun, Days of Thunder, True Romance and Crimson Tide. Tony also committed suicide in 2012, the reasons for which are still a mystery.
It’s impossible to watch Ridley Scott’s Exodus: God’s and Kings (which hits theaters Friday, Dec. 12) without realizing the impact that the loss of his brother had on Scott’s interpretation of story. With Scott at the helm, it’s no surprise the plagues are as visually stunning and effective as they are, but they are not the focal point of the film for the director—the relationship between Moses and his brother Ramses is front and center.
“The evolution of the characters is the absolute silver thread right through the entire film,” Scott says. “Waves and plagues are secondary. They’re the backup, if you like, by God. That’s the cannon fire of God. But, I think, the central characters and the central story really stand out.”
Joel Edgerton, who plays Ramses, agrees. “Really, most stories are not so much about historical etiquette, but about finding the emotional core of the character,” he says. “And for this, the real engine being that relationship with Moses. I have a touchstone, a really strong relationship with my brother. I know Ridley had a really strong connection with his brother. To me, this is why Ridley got into this, so this is where the juice is.”
A Matter of Interpretation
In reality, all reading and watching is interpretation. Every time we read a book or watch a movie, we are engaging in a conversation—with the text, the author, the time and place from which the text emerged, and even with yourself.
Similarly, films tell us about the eras in which they were made, the genres in which they fit (or don’t), and the people who participated in their creation, especially the director. Film scholars and historians have found the genre of biblical epics to be especially “vocal” in this respect. From the earliest silent films to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, biblical epics shed light on the times and filmmakers just as much (or more so) than the biblical text itself.
Few filmmakers exemplify this as convincingly as Cecil B. DeMille and his biblical epics, most notably The Ten Commandments (1956). It’s difficult to underestimate its influence on popular religious/biblical consciousness. A favorite classic of countless film lovers and believers alike (especially those old enough to still care about biblical accuracy), the film has shaped viewers’ memories of the text in irreversible ways. Surprisingly, precious few of those believers take offense with its biblical infidelity (almost 90 percent of the film is a fabrication). In terms of tone, like nearly all of DeMille’s films, it trades in the scandalous, pushing the envelope in terms of sex(uality) and sensuality.
DeMille knew that he could hide behind the Bible (“It’s all in the text!”) or a conservative morality (“These sinners get what’s coming to them in the end after all!”). Both of these reflect DeMille’s own sexual proclivities and moral “struggles.” But DeMille and The Ten Commandments aren’t singular examples. They’re just the easiest to spot. The Cold War, nuclear annihilation, Marxism, anti-Semitism, and other non-biblical themes have found expression in big-budget, biblical epics.
And now we have Exodus: Gods and Kings. In the film, before returning to Egypt to confront Ramses, Moses tells his son, Gershom, “Don’t ever just say what people want to hear.” Scott will never be accused of telling people what they want to hear with his adaptation of the Moses story.
The film has already been the object of much criticism, much of which has centered on race and Christian Bale’s assessment of Moses. Numerous critics and commentators, [EDITOR’s NOTE: including us here at RELEVANT], have railed against these controversies elsewhere, so I’ll not say much more about them here.
While the broad biblical narrative is still present in Exodus—Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, realizes his true identity, liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, and sets out for the promised land—the particulars, as with all biblical epics, are up for grabs. There are crucial moments from the biblical narrative throughout the film—an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses killing an Egyptian, Moses meeting his wife in the wilderness, the burning bush, the plagues, the Passover, and the parting of the red sea—though they may not look like you’d expect.
On the other hand, many iconic moments from the story didn’t make the cut. However, in both cases, before you start accusing Scott of biblical infidelity, you might want to double check the source material. As a colleague joked, the text that most people will claim Scott’s film is unfaithful to is just as likely to be The Ten Commandments as it is the Bible itself.
In terms of what he hopes viewers will take away from his interpretation/adaptation of the text, Scott says, “I hope it educates a little bit. Because it certainly educated me making the film. I knew very little about Moses. His evolution throughout his entire experience was remarkable, and with that, in a funny kind of way, he’s chosen to open up the threshold of religion as we know it. It adjusted my way of thinking just making it.”
Christian Bale, who stars as Moses, says, “I hope it starts conversations, because that’s what it did between us. We were stunned at what we did not know. There’s a reason why this story—why this man—has resonated for millennia. He’s fascinatingly complex, and far more intriguing and interesting than has been traditionally portrayed.”
There can be little doubt that Scott has succeeded on these fronts. Exodus: Gods and Kings will inspire a wealth of lively conversations after the credits roll and will most likely lead viewers to (re)turn to the text to think about and reflect on both the original story and this latest adaptation. If viewers are frustrated with the decisions Scott made, both what he filmed and left out, it’s worth noting that Scott’s first cut of the film was four hours long and, as he put it, “the elevating thing about it is that the bloody thing worked.” So here’s hoping for a director’s cut on Blu-Ray. In the meantime, what Scott has done is more intriguing than what he has left undone.
Like DeMille, Scott sets up a triangle involving Moses and Ramses, but instead of making it a love triangle involving Nefretiri (here Nefertari, played by Golshifteh Farahani), Scott triangulates God, Moses and Ramses. Here, he heightens the theme of Moses and Ramses’ brotherhood as well as their ensuing power struggle.
For all the furor over casting, both Bale and Edgerton give strong performances. In fact, Edgerton lends an integrity and gravity to Ramses that we haven’t seen before (Yul Brenner’s performance is now hamstrung by the campiness of the proceedings). Ramses’ heart is as hard as stone throughout the film, or as Edgerton puts it, “Ramses personifies how absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But there are windows into a more complex character here.
Moses’ defense of Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) and his admission of his true identity to Ramses is one of the more powerful scenes in the film. Ramses could kill Moses in that moment, but he doesn’t, choosing to exile him instead. Ramses’ mother, Tuya (Sigourney Weaver) sends two assassins to finish him off, but Moses makes short work of them and uses their horses as transportation in the desert.
Although the plagues threaten to sever the last bond of brotherhood between them, Ramses doesn’t want to believe that Moses is a Hebrew, just as he fails to believe in the one God, who is drawing his brother away from him.
Moses’ Internal Struggle
Bale brings something to the character of Moses that we haven’t seen before—a lingering internal struggle. Moses wrestles with God in the biblical text because he feels inadequate to the task. But he also has real questions about who is appointing him to this task. This is all here in the film, although not in the way many viewers might anticipate.
What we (and even the Bible) seem to gloss over in the text is Moses’ identification as a Hebrew. In the Bible, it just happens and then drives the action forward. For Scott and Bale, the entire film is Moses’ journey for self-understanding and rebirth, juxtaposed with his relationship with Ramses. Think about the temptation Moses must have faced to keep with the status quo after hitting the foster home lottery. But he gives it all up to align himself with slaves.
In the film, it is not until Moses suffers with and faces certain death with the Hebrews that he can finally say to Zipporah (here Sefora, played by Maria Valverde), “These are my people.” Bale also recognizes the importance of this shared suffering: “It takes an awful lot before [Moses] can say that.”
Even though the relationship between Moses and Ramses is a central concern for Scott, that heartbeat grows faint once Moses is cast out. However, echoes of it do follow Moses throughout the story. Much will likely be made of Moses’ not having a staff throughout the second half of the film. In fact, Scott replaces it with a sword, a choice that will probably come under scrutiny.
But if we remember the brotherhood theme, the sword makes sense. Seti (John Turturro) gives Ramses and Moses swords with their names inscribed on them. In a twist, he gives Ramses Moses’ sword and Moses Ramses’ so that they will always remember to protect one another. Moses carries this reminder throughout the film, even to the parting of the Red Sea where the two brothers face off. Ramses wants to kill Moses and the rest of the Hebrews, while Moses pleads with Ramses to return to dry land before it’s too late. That they survive the Red Sea tidal wave is a stretch, but Moses emerges from the sea a savior and Ramses a failed leader looking out over a drowned army.
A Cruel God
Scott uses natural explanations for the plagues, which are themselves open to ridicule through Ramses’ bumbling advisor (Ewen Bremner), who explains the science behind the plagues. He is eventually hung for his stupidity. Nevertheless, the film ultimately asserts that these plagues are the will of God and punishment for Ramses’ mistreatment of the Hebrew slaves.
Although the burning bush element is chalked up to a conversation that Moses has with God after being concussed in a landslide, the sequence is still effective. In the conversation, Moses tells God, “I think my leg is broken.” To which God knowingly replies, “More than that.”
And what a God we have here in the character of Malak (Isaac Andrews), an angry child. While Moses primarily sees Malak as a messenger of God, he’s more than likely the real deal. Given the Christian belief in the incarnation, it’s not much of a stretch to picture God in this way.
But this kid’s got attitude—he’s pugnacious. How else do you describe a divine being that invokes plagues, carnage, and kills babies? He tells Moses that he wants to see the Egyptians suffer for what they’ve done.
While God keeps Moses in the dark, Moses begins to wonder if the plagues aren’t meant to humble him as well, an interpretation that, while biblically and theologically problematic, works wonders in this adaptation. As he prepares to return to Egypt, Zipporah is furious: “What kind of God asks a man to leave his family? Tell me so I will understand.” Moses replies, “I don’t. I don’t understand.” And yet he goes.
Self-doubts and confusion follow Moses to the banks of the Red Sea, where he is caught between it (they arrived at the wrong place—apparently there was a natural crossing) and the pursuing Egyptian army. However, it is here, on the banks of the Red Sea, that he finds his faith alongside these doubts. He sees a way across and tells his people, “You have honored me with your trust, now let me honor you with my faith! God is with us!”
So what are we left with? Exodus: Gods and Kings is clearly a deeply personal film for Scott that takes a creative approach to a narrative that is also deeply personal for countless viewers.
Compared to the adaptations of the narrative that have gone before it, it is a more spiritual film. It raises questions about the text and our interpretations and “ownership” of it. It also makes significant contributions to conversations about that text, particularly in the character of Moses and God’s interaction with him and the world.
Non-religious viewers, like Ramses, might ask, “Is this your God? Killer of children?” Religious viewers, like Moses, might be wrestling with God’s call on their lives. Still other viewers, like Scott, might be wrestling with tragedy and turn to biblical texts for inspiration and guidance.
Has this story, no matter the liberties he’s taken with it, been therapeutic for Scott? Are the meanings we make from it (and other biblical stories) any better or worse? Like Moses, perhaps the best we can do is have faith and doubt at the same time.
J. Ryan Parker is the creator and editor of and main contributor to Pop Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in film and religion from the Graduate Theological Union and is the author of Cinema as Pulpit: Sherwood Pictures and the Church Film Movement. Find him on Twitter @jryanparker.