I went into this film assuming it was going to be bad based on what I had heard about it. In that assumption I was mistaken. Although not a film I would recommend, I can’t call it a bad film. My review is below with the usual caveat as to spoilers.
The film got off on a bad foot with me when it had the date of the beginning of the film as 1429 BCE. BCE has always struck me as a fatuous formulation. The only reason we have a “Common Era” is because of the dominance achieved by the Christian states of Western Europe, and the attempt to get around that fact always sets my teeth on edge. As for the date itself, I can forgive it. Dating the Exodus is difficult because Egyptian chronology during that period is nightmarishly confused.
The film opens with Moses and Ramses attacking an Hittite Army, presumably at the battle of Kadesh. Conventional Egyptian chronology has the battle being fought in 1274 BC , which may be off by as little as several decades to as much as several centuries, although I tend to accept the conventional dating. At the battle depicted in the film there were historical howlers that I found intensely annoying. The Egyptians were shown anachronistically using cavalry, which was actually first developed by the Assyrians in the ninth century BC. Additionally, we see chariots bursting through enemy lines like ancient tanks. Actually, the chariots served as mobile archer platforms rather than as melee weapons. This is on par with the usual historical illiteracy of Hollywood, but with such a large budget film, one would have thought that some competent historians could have been put on the payroll.
Christian Bale plays Moses initially with cool 21rst century irony, completely ahistoric. His garb looks vaguely medieval. The other actors portraying Egyptians have shaven heads and are clean shaven while he has a full head of hair and a moustache, just like the Hebrew slaves in the film. He might as well have a sign saying “Hebrew Slave” hung around his neck. By this time I was already beginning to draft a savage review in my head, and then the film took a significant turn for the better.
After he learns that he is was born a Hebrew slave and goes into exile, Moses meets his future wife Zipporah, marries her and has a son. He respects the beliefs of his wife who worships the God who has Sinai as his high place, but he clearly has no faith in any deity. His lack of faith disturbs his wife who fears their son, Gershom, will follow his father and grow up believing in nothing,
Chasing a lost sheep up Mount Sinai in a thunderstorm, Moses is trapped in a landslide, one of his legs broken. He then sees the Burning Bush and a manifestation of God as an eleven year old boy. ( It is also possible that Malak (Angel) is merely an angel that speaks for God. Certainly that occurred in the Old Testament, although I think this will sail right by most people viewing the film.) Isaac Andrews, the child actor portraying God, or His angel, gives a bravura performance. I should have found this extra scriptural addition either offensive or silly. Instead I found it effective in the context of the film. It reminded me of the still small voice that Elijah heard. Moses is terrified and confused, precisely how most people reacted when they encountered the divine in the Old Testament. The anachronistic ironic pose is knocked out of Christian Bale’s portrayal of Moses, and he is transformed into an instrument of God to free his people.
Going back to Egypt he initially starts a guerilla war with Hebrews he trains to make nocturnal raids. God tells him that this would take too long, at least a generation, and brings plagues on Egypt to speed up the process. The liberation of the Hebrews is to be a divine task and not a human one.
The ten plagues are well done as we would expect in these days of CGI. The slaying of the Egyptian first born is terrifying, as it should be. The crossing of the Red Sea sequence has good effects but drags a bit and lacks the drama of prior depictions. (A’hem that is your cue Chuck:)
We see Moses carving out the Ten Commandments under the direction of Malak as the film comes to an end, with Malak leaving an elderly Moses as he travels with his people to the Promised Land.
I do not recommend the film, but I cannot condemn it as a bad film. It is certainly not in the class of Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacular retelling of the Ten Commandments in 1956, or even the 360 minute mini-series in 1974 starring Burt Lancaster as Moses the Law Giver, but it does have its moments. When it comes out on blu-ray I will purchase it for closer study. It gave me some food for thought when I was prepared to mock it, and that was an accomplishment. A film that has some merits but suffers from prior superior efforts on the same subject.