Review: Moses (dir. Roger Young, 1995)

ABRAHAM meandered too much, and Jacob fell completely flat. Things started looking up with the epic Joseph, and now, with the brisk Moses under its belt, it would appear that ‘The Bible Collection’ has finally hit its stride.

And what a fast pace it is, too: Moses opens with a quick montage to show how this Hebrew came to grow up in the Egyptian palace and then it squeezes Exodus and Numbers into a mere three hours while skipping Leviticus and using just one or two chapters from Deuteronomy. (By way of comparison, it took seven hours for The Bible Collection’s first three videos to cover 39 chapters of Genesis.)

Fortunately, Moses retains some of Joseph’s key personnel, including director Roger Young and actor Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar for leading the oppressed masses of a different nation as Gandhi.

For sheer human realism, Kingsley’s is probably the best interpretation of Moses any film has offered to date. He stutters nervously in the Egyptian courts; he wrestles with his doubts when God’s plans seem to fail; he rejoices ecstatically when the Pharaoh’s chariots drown; and he sheds painful tears when the Levites kill their fellow Hebrews for worshiping the golden calf. (Parents, be warned: this one burst of biblical violence is fairly explicit.)

Like the videos before it, Moses assumes a naturalistic air, with only the slightest intrusion of special effects, but at times it’s too down to earth. Where are the pillars of cloud and fire? Where is the veil Moses wore whenever he spoke with God because his face shone too brightly (Exodus 34:33-35)? What about that curious passage in which Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu ate and drank with God, under whose feet was a “pavement of sapphire” (Exodus 24:9-11)? Admittedly, these are difficult moments to capture on film, but as it stands, the latter half of Moses is told from an earthbound perspective that is not entirely biblical.

Another quibble I have with Moses: its upbeat finale, which paints a rosy picture of the Hebrews’ entrance into the Promised Land. There is no mention of the violence with which Joshua led the Hebrews in achieving this goal, nor is there any mention of the violence visited upon them by the Egyptians or any of the other invading armies known from the Book of Judges. The period following Moses’ death was much more turbulent than the epilogue would have us believe.

But perhaps such criticisms are somewhat beside the point. They certainly do not detract from Moses’ good qualities: its graceful sense of humour, its general fidelity to the text, and the warmth of its performances. Let’s hope ‘The Bible Collection’ keeps up the good work.

Moses on video: alternatives

THEY’VE BEEN making films about Moses since at least 1910, when J. Stuart Blackton directed The Life of Moses, and vignettes about the most humble man on earth have been popping up ever since, from the all-black cast of The Green Pastures (1936), starring Rex Ingram as “de Lawd,” to Mel Brooks’ randy satire History of the World Part I (1981). And then there are the feature-length treatments:

The Ten Commandments, 1923. The Exodus takes up only the first half of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film, but it’s worth seeing just for that. Fueled by the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, The Ten Commandments boasts some of the earliest colour photography and special effects that are impressive even today for their low-tech inventiveness. The film’s second half is a laughably heavy-handed morality tale meant to show the relevance of God’s laws to the Jazz Age: if you tell a lie, your mother may die in a freak construction accident, that sort of thing.

The Ten Commandments, 1956. The last film DeMille ever directed, and the Bible epic by which all others are measured (though the first half is largely apocryphal). An unlikely cast — including Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, future soft-porn director John Derek and Vancouver native Yvonne DeCarlo — spouts some of the most pompous dialogue in film history and somehow comes out looking good. The real surprise is that they keep it up for four hours without losing the audience’s interest. Anne Baxter is especially good as Nefertiti, a femme fatale centuries before her time.

Moses, 1975. Condensed from the TV mini-series Moses: The Lawgiver, this is easily the worst of the bunch, a fact made all the more disappointing by its normally strong cast. Burt Lancaster seems as impatient with the script as he does with the grumbling Hebrews. Produced by Vincenzo Labella and co-written by Anthony Burgess, who went on to collaborate on the more successful Jesus of Nazareth. (Thomas Keneally, the future author of Schindler’s List, wrote an illustrated book to accompany the show’s broadcast; a copy resides in Regent College’s library.)

Wholly Moses, 1980. In the wake of Monty Python’s Life of Brian came this American spoof of that other biblical story. By all accounts a lacklustre effort, but if you can picture Dudley Moore as a Hebrew prophet — even in jest — this may be your thing. Co-starring Dom DeLuise, Richard Pryor and Jack Ritter, it supposedly exists on video, though I have yet to find a copy in this town.

And, coming soon, there will be The Prince of Egypt, the first feature-length cartoon from DreamWorks, the company founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. Val Kilmer provides the voice of Moses, with supporting voices courtesy of Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin and Michelle Pfeiffer.

– A version of this review first appeared in BC Christian News.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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