Friday, March 31, 2006
The Evolution of Moses on Screen
As the Christian feast of Easter and the Jewish feast of Passover approach, to mark the 50th anniversary of Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments -- the Biblical epic by which all other Biblical epics are measured -- ABC, who has faithfully aired that version every Spring for the last 27 years, commissioned a remake of The Ten Commandments, which it will also air this April. DeMille's film, which itself is a remake of an earlier version he directed (in 1923) relates the iconic miracles of Moses with "Biblical proportion," that is to say, on a literal and grand scale. DeMille's film has as much, or more, to do with the popular understanding of this Bible story, than any church or synagogue re-telling of it. For many, the image of Moses is Charlton Heston with a long white beard. The images of his miracles -- parting the Red Sea and receiving of the tablets atop Mount Sinai -- are the images shown in DeMille's film. In between the 1956 version and its modern-day remake, two significant films on the life of Moses were produced, each which attempt, in a some small but important ways, to strip away the "hocus pocus" aspect of the story and get at a more real, more human, more believable Moses. In 1975's Moses the Lawgiver -- directed by Gianfranco De Bosio and starring Burt Lancaster -- at the climatic "parting of the Sea," when the Israelites have a body of water in front of them, and Pharoh's army advancing on them from behind, the waters part, but unlike the magnificence of the DeMille depiction, in which there is literally a wall of water to the left and the right of the escaping camp of Israelites, here the waters simply recede, and the camp, led by Moses, must partially wade through some of this shallow water to get away. The first time I saw the scene it impacted me, because I, like so many others, was brought up on the DeMille image. There was something very satisfying about De Bosio's decision to down play the miracle while not reducing its importance. What if, I thought, the "parting of the Red Sea," as some Biblical scholars were suggesting at the time, was actually low tide at a much smaller body of water to the north of the Red Sea, called the Reed Sea? What if the Israelites and Moses got away from Pharaoh's army not by walking through a sea -- with walls of water miles high on either side -- but rather by wading through a swampy marsh land at low tide? Oddly, the thought didn't diminish, in my mind, the fortuitous fact that a low tide occurred when this group of runaways needed it to. Moses the Lawgiver was the first film to chip away at DeMille's "magic wand" approach to Biblical miracles. In 1996, director Roger Young's Moses, starring Ben Kingsley, made some further chips. While faithful to the Biblical source in many ways, in Moses there is a scene which also made me reconsider actual events. In DeMille's film, when Moses descends from the mountain to find much of his camp worshiping a golden statue of a calf as their god, in a fit of anger, he lifts the tablets and commands those who are for the Lord God to come to him, and then with the proclamation "If you won't live by the law, you shall die by the law," he throws the stone tablets at the traitors causing the ground to split in a conflagration and consume them. In Young's Moses, the scene plays out quite differently. Upon discovering the camp has been divided in his absence. Moses is overcome with sadness. He drops the tablets at his feet, breaking them, and with tears flowing down his face, he instructs his loyalists to cleanse the camp of the traitors, which they do -- by cutting their throats! The value here is the ongoing study of one of the most important men in history in a way which increases the believability while not diminishing the importance of events in his life. For believers and non-believers alike, one thing can be agreed upon -- the foundation of all civilized societies come from Mosaic law -- Don't kill. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't commit adultery. For the past 50 years, film's exploration of this man and his law has been an interesting evolution.