I can't profess to be a fan of Charlton Heston's films. I never warmed to his acting style which always seemed over-hammy and his overexposure in biblical related stories was sort of a turn off – it’s a genre of film I have never been very interested in. So I have really only seen snippets of his performances as Moses, the same clips they always show in montages at the Oscars. In those clips, Heston shows more emotion than Christian Bale does during the entire 150 minute running time of "Exodus: Gods and Kings", the new film from director Ridley Scott.
Even Ramses, the Egyptian Pharaoh, manages a moment of real emotion. Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby” (2013), “Warrior”, “Animal Kingdom”) seems to have lucked out.
This is a pretty good example of the problems with "Exodus", Scott's interpretation of the story of Moses.
When a film depicts the emotional story of a man finding out he is the leader of a group of people, the one who will lead them to safety, and he never shows any emotion, you begin to disconnect from the story. When the Pharoah, someone you would expect to be fairly dispassionate, has a moment of great emotion, this makes his character more interesting because it is unexpected and helps to show the character is more human than we might have otherwise expected or imagined.
Naturally, we don't want him to break down at every obstacle and turn on the waterworks; this man is supposed to be a leader, taking his people away from the danger of the Egyptians. If he broke down repeatedly, he wouldn't seem strong enough to meet this challenge. Yet, why does Ramses break down? Why depict this? Because we don't see something similar in Moses, it makes Bale look like he is simply walking through the role. Taking a very long walk. And we seem to take every one of those steps with him. Every one of those long steps.
Somewhere, someone decided to let Bale make Moses emotionless.
It was a bad decision.
Ridley Scott is to blame for this mess of a film. As the director, it is up to him to guide the actors in their portrayal of their characters. He let Bale create and move forward with his two-dimensional performance of Moses. He also failed to wring much emotion out of many of the other actors in the film. Ben Kingsley plays Nun, one of the Jewish slaves working at an outpost under the leadership of a particularly cruel Egyptian. When Moses visits the site, Nun makes contact and delivers some unexpected news to the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Yet, he also essentially shows no emotion.
Maybe it wasn’t Bale’s decision after all?
Aaron Paul (TV’s “Breaking Bad”) plays Joshua, who always seems be at Moses’ side. He displays a lot of emotion in his facial expressions, but I honestly don't remember him uttering a line of dialogue. It is a strange performance.
John Turturro is good as Seti, Ramses' father. He seems both educated and slightly enlightened. He also manages to convey a little emotion. When ‘manage’ and ‘seems’ are the benchmarks of a good performance in a film, you know something is wrong.
Sigourney Weaver also pops up as Tuya, who I think is Ramses' mother. I thought I detected a British accent when she first spoke, but it seemed to quickly disappear. Another problem with “Exodus”? When it is difficult to tell what character people are playing you realize something is wrong with the narrative, acting and directing.
It seems like a stereotype that all of the Egyptians stand around with stoic looks on their faces, unable to care about the slaves working for them. A 1950s movie stereotype. In this day and age, following discussions led by eminent scholars, it seems like a different view would be in order. And there is also the problem of the Egyptian slaves depicted in this film. This seems to be the only place black actors are used. In Egypt.
Another illustration of the film’s backwards-thinking filmmaking? There is a shot of Moses and his followers cresting a hill-top about to walk towards the beach at the Red Sea. Scott's camera captures one of the actors looking back, his eyes wide, his face dirty. Honestly, the shot made me laugh because it is almost exactly what someone like D.W. Griffith would use in one of his silent films.
Scott and his writers - and there are many including the well-paid script polisher Steve Zaillian who has worked on so many Hollywood blockbusters - seem to stick pretty closely to the story. I am not well-versed in the Bible, but it does seem odd that they depict Moses' interactions with God as the result of a head injury. I imagine a lot of people see God after a head trauma. And many of their stories would be more interesting than Bale’s depiction of Moses.
Scott is a technical maestro and you would expect "Exodus" to look great. And it does. All of the computer generated imagery used to create ancient Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea is pretty impressive. But I often discuss a filmmaker's concentration on effects at the expense of the narrative and the development of the characters. This certainly seems to be the case here. But Scott has been around for a long time and shouldn't fall victim to this, something more common among novice and bad directors.
Biblical epics have enjoyed two very interesting cycles in Hollywood. In the silent era, filmmakers were looking for epic stories to tell, to experiment with the relatively new medium. Directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith created massive sets to tell these stories. The bigger, the better. In the 50s, biblical epics became a way to stave off two threats to their narrative freedom. Making, appearing in, becoming involved with a biblical epic was viewed as a veiled attempt to make those involved seem more favorable in the eyes of the Production Code and eventually HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which began to accuse many actors, writers, directors, etc. of involvement with the Communist Party. Such an accusation destroyed many a career. What could be more American than an appearance playing someone born in a foreign land, thousands of years before America was founded, in a film based on a Bible story?
I'm unsure what the reason is behind the current “resurgence”. I suspect some of the films can be attributed to filmmakers trying to bring a story an audience and filmmakers looking to try out their toybox of special effects.
Whatever the reason, it seems odd that these filmmakers are turning to this genre for their inspiration. And it is too bad that Scott couldn't make a better film.