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December 26, 2014 10:26 am

Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

avatar by Marshall Weiss / The Dayton Jewish Observer / JNS.org

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The official movie poster for 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.' Photo: IMDb.

JNS.org Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences.

The first biblical epic

In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount.

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DeMille received a letter from a mechanic who suggested he take on “The Ten Commandments.”

Despite opposition from studio executives who didn’t think audiences would connect with a Bible story, DeMille got the green light. For the role of Moses, he cast 61-year-old Theodore Roberts, a popular character actor present in most of DeMille’s previous films.

Roberts played the role with a down-to-earth charm, portraying an 80-year-old Moses on an important mission, but who is approachable at the same time.

On the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt, a child approaches him for a hug. When Moses sees the Israelites cavorting at the Golden Calf, his heartbreak is palpable.

Although the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites comprises only the 40-minute prologue to this feature film—set in then-modern 1923—the sequence resonated with silent film audiences of the day, and broke box office records.

Theatergoers flocked to it across America for more than a year.

It didn’t hurt that in 1922, news of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its cache of treasures created a frenzy in the American public for all things Egyptian.

But DeMille himself put forth another explanation for the subject’s significance.

Title cards at the opening of the film tell the audience: “Our modern world defined God as a ‘religious complex’ and laughed at the ‘Ten Commandments’ as old fashioned. Then, through the laughter, came the shattering thunder of the World War. And now a blood-drenched, bitter world—no longer laughing—cries for a way out.”

Cold War Moses

After years of receiving letters urging him to remake “The Ten Commandments” for the sound era, DeMille approached Paramount’s board in 1953 with the concept; they balked. Audiences, one board member said, wanted “modern, happy pictures.”

As Katherine Orrison relates in “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments,” Paramount founder Adolph Zukor chastised them.

The 80-year-old Hungarian Jew raised his hand for silence and stood up.

“Well, I find it embarrassing and deplorable that it takes Cecil here—a gentile, no less—to remind us Jews of our heritage! What was World War II fought for anyway? We should get down on our knees and say ‘thank you’ that he wants to make a picture on the life of Moses.”

Charlton Heston was not DeMille’s first choice for the part. With the biblical image of an elderly Moses to lead the Exodus in mind, DeMille wanted 58-year-old William Boyd, who had worked with DeMille on earlier films.

In the 1950s, Boyd had achieved success as Hopalong Cassidy on television. He turned down DeMille’s offer, thinking it would interfere with his Hopalong image.

DeMille’s associates urged him to consider the 31-year-old Heston, showing DeMille Heston’s headshot next to images of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses.

Even with Heston secured, when DeMille’s crew began filming on location in Egypt in 1954, Boyd surprised everyone with a visit to the set—possibly DeMille’s version of a safety net during those first days in production.

It wasn’t lost on those who worked on the movie—particularly the young, Jewish composer of the film’s score, Elmer Bernstein—that DeMille was filming in a country that sought to destroy the new state of Israel.

Far from slow of speech and of slow tongue, Heston’s Moses is the great communicator of the story, almost not in need of Aaron (John Carradine) as his spokesman.

When Heston tells Yul Brynner, “Let my people go,” you can almost hear Ronald Reagan 30-some years later exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

It’s no accident. DeMille threw down the anti-Communist gauntlet in his “Ten Commandments” curtain speech, shown in theaters at the opening of the 1956 movie.

“The theme of this picture,” DeMille intones, “is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

In the script, Heston is given more than a few lofty monologues. Though this Moses is pained to know Egyptians will suffer in the plagues, he’s still more of a monument then a fully-fleshed person.

This does help Yvonne DeCarlo’s interpretation of Zipporah, Moses’s wife, when she utters, “I lost him when he found his God.”

Adjusted for inflation, DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments” remains one of the highest-grossing box office films of all time.

Celebration of youth

When Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen formed their own studio, DreamWorks SKG, in 1994, they decided in short order to present their version of the Exodus narrative.

With Katzenberg’s expertise from The Walt Disney Company and songs written and composed by Stephen Schwartz, DreamWorks SKG released its animated feature musical “The Prince of Egypt” in 1998.

“The Prince of Egypt” is one of only two animated features not released by Disney to gross more than $100 million in the United States.

It continues on as a staple, shown to children at home and in religious school settings as an introduction to the Exodus.

The main characters—Moses, Ramses, Aaron, and Miriam—are depicted as decidedly young adults throughout, perhaps to resonate with a new generation and its children.

One appeal of the gorgeously animated film is the sense of wonder we often catch in the face of Moses, as voiced by Val Kilmer.

As with Heston’s Moses, Kilmer’s has a mind-altering revelation at the Burning Bush and from that moment, he’s all in.

Heston and Kilmer, each in his own time, provided the voice for God in their respective movies, following a Midrash (rabbinic commentary) that God spoke to Moses in a voice that would be familiar and comfortable to him.

For an age of anxiety

Considering what little direction Ridley Scott’s Moses receives from God or God’s messenger boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews), Christian Bale presents a character who is rightly anxious and anguished in the newly released “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

In this script, the Israelite God pretty much keeps Moses in the dark on how all will move forward, except to ask Moses to be God’s general.

A former military leader in Egypt’s army, this Moses relies on his wartime skills to rally the Israelites into the beginnings of revolt, a small-scale war of attrition.

When that doesn’t work, God tells the now Robin Hood-like Moses, “for now, you can watch.” God then takes charge.

Scott brings a knack for conveying the ancient world as a pretty rough neighborhood.

But this Moses doesn’t get a sense of where it’s all heading; that doesn’t leave much room for the audience to follow.

Will theatergoers anoint Bale as this generation’s Moses? The answer is as hard to decipher as a message in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

This article was originally published by The Dayton Jewish Observer.

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  • Max Cohenmax

    It does not matter if the original script was cuneiform or alphabetical letters, or as in the 20th century, motion pictures recorded on film, it ain’t religion until the protagonist sidles up alongside God and starts an earnest chat, one which ordinary mechanics had best not question! Why, you ask. Because religion is the sport of seriously delusional intellectuals who are fixated on absolute social power. Their only competition comes from equally delusional communists. Woe, I say to the species which must choose between them under the shadow of nuclear missles.

  • Well written article.

  • Charles Amberg

    I agree that the original versions of those great stories were the best. Man pollutes a lot of what he tries to improve upon.

    • Julian Clovelley

      I’m not so sure Charles, in that I doubt if there ever actually was an “original” version.

      Fundamentalism, in its quest for absolute truth, ignores the bardic processes by which most legends came into being. They were never static but rather evolved, often over centuries, being adapted in the process of transmission from one bard to another, and in the process of being made relevant to contemporary purposes. These processes are clearly visible in epics such as Homer – especially in their reliance on motifs to embellish core remembrance of content.

      The Moses legend, as we have it, is likely to be the form of the legend as it was at some time around the sixth century BC, possibly later rather than earlier. We have no indication that there was a written version freezing the story in a non evolving form, before that vague dating. As such however the Book of Exodus would clearly be a committing to writing of prior, Bardic transmitted, legend.

      In the past no person transmitting the legends would have thought twice before amending them to fit his audience. Characters would be developed, invented, removed – and miracles and events inserted to fit the new purposes in telling the stories.

      The cinema is the form that the Bardic process manifests itself in modern times. Literature has become film and the primary purpose of film drama is to entertain. Once again the ancient stories are allowed to evolve. We see it in the two versions of the Ten Commandments, in more minor TV portrayals and now in this latest telling of an(sic) epic.

      There can be no core “original” story except one that is invented to suit modern purposes. The Torah can be frozen, and indeed is, because it suits a particular group of requirements, including in our time, the Zionist theme of Genealogically based, and Divinely based land ownership.

      Scripture as written documents may reasonably be frozen – but its interpretation must always be of the present time, not stuck in the past. The tragedy of present religious conflict is that what is being fought over is ancient forms of scriptural interpretation. When we step into a religion, all too often we are stepping into an imaginary reconstruction of a world that existed thousands of years ago, and an imagined, and supposedly sacred, mentality and spirituality.

      And likely we have even got that imaginative construction hopelessly wrong.

      Exodus is a great story. It tells us that slavery is a crime against heaven, that a people maintaining solidarity in purpose and determination rooted in spiritual belief, and moral behaviour can become free, and that even nature itself is no impediment to a people whose behaviour is righteous.

      No wonder the slaves in nineteenth century America found so much inspiration in the Moses story. Its adaptation is a recognition that it belongs to all people and to the present as much as the past. Dr King, whose sacrifice is well remembered at this time, reminded us of the continuing relevance of the Moses legend when he said – in his last speech:

      “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

      Indeed we will… And for me that will be a world shared by all classes and all races – without fear or favour. One in which all our children will play together, grow up together and look after each other for all of their lives. The dream in fact of Moses.

  • What interests me is that epics like Noah and the Flood or Moses and the Exodus have such attraction for a new generation. In an ever changing world some things don’t change.

    • Chris Moyler, Kent, UK

      Dear Joseph, Indeed that is true. This generation is largely biblically illiterate, here in Europe, and I hope it will spark their interest. The beauty of the Hebrew Scriptures is that they are real history, from their very beginning to the end of this age and the Millennium in Ez36-48, and indeed to the end of the world in Is 65 and 66.

      Here the ancient prophet declared some 2700 years ago that God would completely remake the world in a form that will exist forever.Israel is at the centre of all of this future history, just as she was at the centre of “Ten Commandments” of course.

      What concerns me greatly however is the corruption of the biblical narrative that is taking place in modern films. Noah was a parody of the true story which is far more exciting and full of meaning for today’s generation, when properly retold.

      The film Noah conveyed nothing of the true relationship that he had with the LORD. This is what bothers me most; that the character of God is depicted so poorly. The scriptures declare that he intervened at the time of Noah to save mankind from itself, that Noah was the last righteous man of his generation.

      He did this to maintain his covenant with Adam and Eve, that he would crush the enemy of mankind under their feet. It is only the God of Israel, and he alone, that guarantees man’s survival. The story of the Exodus is an utterly glorious one, so I look forward with hope that there might be some biblical truth left in it. Shalom. C.

  • Movies about the Bible (our Thora) are NOT biblical lessons. They are strictly commercial. Ist about making profits. Thats ok.

    The newest movie on Moses is a very good example: strictly Commercial, any resemblance of persons is coincidental and not intended.

  • Steven Glueck

    Don’t forget Moses: The Lawgiver starring Burt Lancaster. Produced by RAI, directed by Anthony Burgess and James Hill; it was the first mini-series and was shown on CBS IN 1974. It was then reformatted as a full length movie and shown in theaters in 1975. I was an extra and worked with Burt Lancaster. Some experience.
    http://www.amazon.com/Moses-Burt-Lancaster/dp/B0002J58JM

  • charlie johnson

    I really enjoyed reading that article.I liked the part where an ordinary mechanic wrote a letter and a great man took time to read his suggestion.That was a great movie. Few or none today can match it. Then such a great man stood up to defend the believers against the atheist wave and glamorizing of Communism.It is still true today even though the elite want to paint the reds pink,Replace the gun with a golf club, The dictator still manages his people by darkening the light of information of the world around them.You get the idea that communism is a government based on a personality cult.Stalin , Castro , The little fat man in Korea.

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