BIBLICAL epics say as much about their makers as about the
subject-matter. Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and
Kings (Cert. 12A) is a prime example. A director whose
films touch on Christian-Muslim interaction (The Kingdom of
Heaven), the afterlife (Gladiator), and humanity's
relationship with the divine (Prometheus) all point to the
day when Scott would tackle the Bible head-on. He has confessed
never having been able to shake off his Sunday-school, evensong,
and Young Crusaders background on Teesside, and the belief that
there's "some sort of guidance system" written into the
His new film does not play this down, but it is told from the
point of view of a wannabe sceptic whose agnosticism is forever
being confounded by divine revelations.
Moses is not particularly likeable. Christian Bale plays him by
turns as cruel and kind. Unlike imperious Pharaoh, his leadership
is hesitant, based on dimly understood obedience to God, who, in R.
S. Thomas's phrase, is "always before us and leaving as we arrive".
The script is nothing like as eloquent, however, relying on the
staccato sentences of comic books.
What finally seems to clinch it for Moses, in terms of belief,
is ascending Mount Sinai. There he finds a child playing with dice.
Some reviewers have equated the boy with God. It is a nice idea to
think that Moses, in a film released at Christmas, sees the Godhead
veiled in flesh. It introduces a specifically Christological model
into an Old Testament account in which all Moses gets is sight of
God's back. Listening carefully to the dialogue, however, we learn
that the boy isn't God, but a messenger. Anyway, we should already
know from Einstein that "God doesn't play dice with the world." No,
Woody Allen says in Husbands and Wives, but he does play
hide-and-seek. To its credit, Exodus: Gods and Kings
invites us to find God, if you can.
Gone are Cecil B. de Mille's certainties, neatly summed up in
the story that, just before shooting the Red Sea's parting in his
1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, a voice in the
heavens called out "Ready when you are, Mr de Mille." Scott prefers
demythologising the miraculous incidents of Exodus: the Israelites
ford a shallow section of water, for instance, before a freak
tsunami engulfs the Egyptians.
And, while Moses grudgingly acknowledges some sort of divine
guidance, those less than sure have little chance of understanding
it. One can almost pity, when not laughing at, Joel Edgerton's camp
Pharaoh, Ramses. God or gods, he wonders; and that Moses is having
a fair old shot at being a different kind of king from me! Raised
as cousins, these "blood brothers" are now respectfully
Ramses' spiritual bewilderment may be shared by viewers averse
to God's mighting and smiting. According to the Talmud, God rebukes
angels wishing to sing songs of praise as the Red Sea sweeps over
Pharaoh's hapless soldiers: "My handiwork is drowning in the sea,
and you wish to sing before me?"
Exodus: Gods and Kings sympathises. As such, the film
is not just spectacular, but a rather daring commentary on its
source material, bringing the biblical text into conversation with
filmgoers who wish to believe more than they do.
WESTERNS are never just about what happened for a few decades in
19th-century America on the far side of the Missouri River. They're
also about us. The Homesman (Cert. 15) is no
The actor Tommy Lee Jones not only stars in but directs a film
that leaves us unsure where good and evil can unswervingly be
located. Gone is the white-hat/black-hat division, symbolising hero
and villain. At first, we think we know. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary
Swank) is an upright spinster. The year is 1855. Christian faith
clearly informs her life, which is more than can be said for some
of her peers.
A sense of righteousness enables her to step up and do the job
when called to transport three women declared insane. We may be a
little sceptical when the Revd Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) says that
he would go in her place if he could. The women's destination is
400 miles away, across dangerous and barren country and into the
loving arms of Meryl Streep, who runs a Methodist refuge in Hebron,
Iowa. Hebron represents many things that the Wild West does not.
Individual honour, self-interest, and freedom in this film are
reluctantly giving way to Eastern lawfulness, democracy, and
Cuddy encounters George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a
reprehensible chancer, although she doesn't instantly know it. That
is because he is precariously dangling at the end of a rope strung
up by farmers he has cheated. "Are you an angel?" he cries. She
offers to save him if he will only swear to help by escorting her
entourage. Also, she falsely promises (an early sign of her own
moral inconsistencies) that she will mail $300 to Hebron for
Briggs agrees to help. The film becomes more episodic, one brush
with adversity after another, but, for a Western, rather
underplayed. It concentrates more on how the male-female
relationship develops, in the course of that age-old form of
narrative: a journey. It is a genre in keeping with The African
Queen, which is not a Western, or Two Mules for Sister
Sara, which is. As they go along, Briggs finds himself
adopting a more female, if only temporary, morality.
Jones has said that women were changed by the push west.
Previously, in the Victorian era, they had been brought up to
believe that they were to be cared for. "It was the way of that
world to objectify and trivialise them." The reality was that they
had to work extremely hard. As he says, "It was enough to drive
them insane." In the film, it is little wonder that three women end
up that way - not helped by men's treatment of them.
Male selfishness contrasts strongly with female godliness, and,
for Jones, the film's landscape reflects this. He considers that
north-eastern New Mexico, where the film was shot, "mostly consists
of a line that divides heaven and earth". That line, however, is as
often crossed by Cuddy as it is for Briggs. Divine goodness is