Tonight I watched Ridley Scott’s film, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). This is the story of Moses, and the Hebrew escape from bondage in Pharaonic Egypt. Scott’s film is essentially a remake of the 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments.
All remakes invite comparisons. The most obvious point of disparity is the quantum leap in filmmaking technology between 2014 and 1956. Cecil B. DeMille did not have access to CGI special effects, which are stunningly employed in Exodus. The scenes in which plagues are visited on a recalcitrant Egypt are well…mesmerizing (especially if you watch the movie on a large-screen TV, as I did.) There is one scene in which a pack of crocodiles attacks a fleet of boats. Wow.
As I was researching this movie, one fact that came out was Ridley Scott’s atheism. Exodus is not what you might expect under such circumstances. This is not a work of cynical revisionism, or a secular attempt to “debunk” scripture.
Exodus is, to be sure, a darker interpretation than The Ten Commandments was. But the film adheres reasonably close to the source material, while providing a different angle on the story.
More problematic was the casting. I’m always ready to blow a gasket when Internet social justice warriors fret about “cultural appropriation”. But there is something slipshod about casting white actors (Christian Bale portrays Moses, for example) as Semitic historical figures.
This isn't a matter of political correctness, but authenticity. I wouldn't demand that the actors speak ancient Egyptian (not the same as Arabic, by the way); but I would have expected a bit more attention to historical accuracy. (In the same way, I wouldn't expect to see a black Jamaican actor cast in the lead role of a movie about George Washington.)
I did enjoy the movie; but I only fleetingly had the feeling that I was in Ancient Egypt. Not only are all the actors white, they also behave like modern people, and frame their arguments like modern Westerners would. This is an aspect of the movie that Ridley Scott seems to have completely ignored.
Exodus does not flinch when presenting the more brutal elements of the Passover story, like the final plague that kills all the first-born sons of Egypt.
But once again, this was not presented in the simplistic, smirking manner that you might anticipate from an atheist director. The Old Testament is filled with brutality, on the parts of the Hebrews as well as their enemies.
Exodus, likewise, is a dark, brutal film; but the movie gives equal time to the elements of wonder and faith that embody the biblical story. This movie won’t please all believers. But it is worth watching with an open mind.