Across sea and wilderness

by
19 December 2014

Stephen Brown sees two current releases: the new Moses epic, and a Western

20th Century Fox

Epic stuff: Ramses II and Moses prepare to ride through ancient Memphis as brothers and rulers in Exodus

Epic stuff: Ramses II and Moses prepare to ride through ancient Memphis as brothers and rulers in Exodus

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 universe.

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 opposed.

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 exception.

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 communal association.

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 him.

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 surprisingly ubiquitous.

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