Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Moses supposes…”

Posted on December 19, 2014


Thoughts on ‘Exodus’, ‘The Ten Commandments’, Old Hollywood and New Hollywood.

Just last week, I wrote about Gone With the Wind, and how, 75 years after its release, it remains the epitome of a certain style of filmmaking – the Old Hollywood Style, if you will. I was reminded of that style again while watching Ridley Scott’s new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings. Actually, it isn’t much of a movie. I have had my differences with the critics’ aggregate rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but this time I’m not quibbling with the numbers: a measly 27%. But an analysis of the film’s merits (and there are some, especially the visuals) is fodder for another column. Here, I’d like to continue my discussion on the Old Hollywood Style (OHS), because while watching Exodus – which tells the story of Moses and his liberation of Hebrews from Egypt – I was constantly reminded of Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which narrates, more or less, the same story.

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But with a difference. DeMille was a more straightforward (translation: less subtle, and with no patience with arty, painterly, slo-mo frames) filmmaker than Scott, and this difference is manifest in the leading men of their respective films – Charlton Heston (what you see is what you get) and Christian Bale (there’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface). This isn’t a judgement. This isn’t to say the “straightforward” style (which, really, is just another name for OHS) isn’t as good as the “subtle” style – you may have your preference, but they’re just two different styles, and this is an attempt to highlight a few aspects of each style, from each of these films.

The advantage of OHS is that we are quickly drawn into the drama, instantly immersed in the goings-on. The Ten Commandments begins with the baby Moses being cast into the waters by his mother, a Hebrew slave. We see her place the child in a basket after wrapping him in a cloth whose rough texture will, one day, reveal his origins. We see the basket float towards the palace of Bithiah, the Pharaoh’s widowed and childless sister. We see her delight in this “gift from the Nile gods,” and we see the disapproval of her servant Memnet. In a matter of minutes, the foundation is in place for the scene in which Moses, at the height of his glory, will realise he doesn’t belong in the palace but amongst slaves. How would a more modern-minded filmmaker have staged these events? Perhaps with a flashback, which is the easiest way to withhold information from the audience. As the film begins, we may see Moses, all grown up and embodied in the strapping form of Heston, and then, when the time comes, he stumbles upon the bit of rough-textured cloth and discovers his past.

So why didn’t DeMille formulate a flashback? After all, the device wasn’t all that uncommon by the time The Ten Commandments was released in 1956 – William Wyler made excellent use of it in his 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and two years later, Orson Welles, with Citizen Kane, made a movie that was pretty much unimaginable without its flashbacks. But maybe that wasn’t DeMille’s style. Maybe he thought that this is a story everyone knows, so there’s really no use having a Big Reveal through a flashback. Maybe he felt that, with the flashback, the character acquires information at the same time the audience does (at least the ones unfamiliar with the story), and maybe he wanted the audience to have this information before the character came upon it. Maybe he just wanted to tell the story from the beginning, especially given that his film reconstructs the events spanning 30 years of Moses’s life (omitted in the Bible) with the help of works of ancient historians such as Philo and Josephus. DeMille admits as much at the beginning of his film, appearing from behind a curtain and addressing the audience. (Three years later, Shantaram would introduce his Navrang to the audience in a similar way, by appearing from behind closed doors.)

Scott’s film does away with all this drama – and most of the other drama too. There’s no love triangle between Moses, Rameses and Nefertiri. There are no filial fireworks, as when the Pharaoh Sethi banishes Moses, whom he regards as a son. And the Rameses we see in Exodus isn’t as interesting as his counterpart in The Ten Commandments, whose resentment of Moses rose from the fact that the latter stood between him and the throne of Egypt, between him and his father Sethi’s affection, between him and his wife Nefertiri, who could not forget Moses even after marriage. These are strong psychological shades, and without them, we never really understand why the Rameses in Scott’s film comes to resent Moses.

So why doesn’t Scott weave these elements into his conception of Rameses? Why doesn’t he flesh out scenes with the slaves so that we get to know them better, and therefore get to care more deeply about their fate? (DeMille, who knew no shame when it came to milking the audience’s emotions, even included a scene where Moses saves his mother from being crushed between stones without knowing that she is his mother.) Why doesn’t Scott give us the scene where the commandments are written by “the finger of God,” depicted as a lick of flame forking from a giant pillar of fire? (Here, the tablets are found almost accidentally, like how someone might discover a conch shell while walking on the beach.) Why isn’t Moses “built up” as a saviour, the ones the slaves keep praying for and keep talking about?

Maybe Scott was just embarrassed using these “primitive” methods of audience manipulation (which is why his film isn’t as effective as drama). Maybe he thought of Moses as a more complex figure, which is a very New Hollywood thing, the kind of thing a Christian Bale is far more likely to embody than a Charlton Heston. The OHS would never allow for a scene like the one where Moses, in hiding, looks on as Rameses hangs Hebrew slaves, promising that more will be hanged unless they give Moses up. It’s impossible imagining this shade of “selfishness” in a character played by Heston, who would have given himself up the minute the first hanging was announced. (The audiences of those times, too, wouldn’t have accepted Heston doing anything else.) But a Bale can get away with this selfishness – and today’s audience recognises that it isn’t selfishness, exactly. He’s just deciding what his next step should be.

This Moses is often caught in contemplation. He isn’t as certain about his path, about God’s plans for him, as the older Moses was. And unlike the earlier Moses, this one doesn’t instantly renounce his riches when he learns he’s a slave. He… contemplates. Could it be true? What if it is? What does he do then? These questions drive the new Moses. Unlike the Heston-Moses, Bale-Moses is faced with questions even during the exodus. In the mountains, does he go this way or that way? How does he cross the sea? (Heston-Moses, on the other hand, was so sure about what to do. He raised his staff and parted the sea, as if enacting a well-rehearsed script.) The relationship of Bale-Moses with God is even more fascinating. We get hints of him being a madman-prophet, seeing illusions where others see him talking to thin air. So does God, as Bale-Moses “sees” him, really exist or is he a figment of the imagination, like how Gandhi appeared in Munna Bhai’s mind? Had DeMille posed this question in the script discussion room, the Old Hollywood studio executives might have staged their own exodus.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.