A Christian Moses, Baleful
— In his book Containment Culture, American Studies scholar Alan Nadel discusses the extent to which 1950s American cinema was inflected by Cold War discourse. Indeed, 1956’s The Ten Commandments, an adaptation of sorts of the Book of Exodus from the Bible, begins with an absurd lecture by director Cecil B. DeMille about the evils of communism. DeMille distorts the plot circumstances of the Israelites in bondage in Egypt into an allegory for the Soviet subjugation of third world peoples. By talking about the timelessness of the values of freedom, he assumes the obviousness of equating ancient Egyptians with 20th century communists, and the Hebrews with citizens of the United States. With just a little bit of intellectual prodding, the analogy begins to fray: What of the rampant anti-Semitism in post-World War II America? What of the CIA’s nefarious operations against the people’s democratic interests in Guatamala and Iran?
Nadel’s approach to The Ten Commandments gives us a reading frame for considering the new action film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, which is by necessity as much an adaptation of The Ten Commandments as of the Book of Exodus. It is hard to imagine director Ridley Scott standing before us as the film begins, and thus, from the very first frame of the film, intertextual reworking is afoot. Instead of DeMille the lecturer, Scott’s film gives us title cards promising us that “God has not forgotten” his chosen people in bondage to the Egyptian pharaoh. The name of that king has been Ramses ever since Yul Brynner breathed life into that fiction, despite the fact that the Bible never names the Pharaoh on whom God wrought his various plagues.
At first, there is no obvious analogue in Exodus: Gods and Kings to the virulent anti-communism of The Ten Commandments. However, it does not take long for the film to find its intertextual footing. To understand this, we need to extrapolate just one higher level in analysis. Not only is The Ten Commandments specifically activating its American context via a belief in an endless war between good and evil, subjugation and freedom, Hollywood more generally Americanizes almost everything it touches. In a particularly pointed study of this phenomenon, media scholar Jeffrey Shandler has built a career tracking the way Hollywood has “Americanized” the Holocaust.
The Americanization of the Bible is an even broader example of this phenomenon. Most literally, the Book of Mormon suggests that Jesus came to North America for some reason, after apparently sticking close to home in the Middle East for the early part of his afterlife. More generally, the notion of an alabaster white Jesus who is all for corporate capitalism is one of the dominant tenets of Protestant Christianity as practiced in the United States.
Indeed, as a number of critics have already pointed out, Exodus: Gods and Kings practices the whitewashing of the Bible, casting clearly white British and American actors to play all of the major roles, relying on eye liner to signify them as Egyptian. An American named Christian playing Moses fits right in the tradition of Charlton Heston’s iconic performance, a god-fearing defender of the Second Amendment: you can pry these Ten Commandments out of my cold, dead hands!
But the Americanization of Moses’ story takes a wonderfully odd turn in Exodus: Gods and Kings. For the film’s secondary intertext is not a Biblical movie at all, but the American Western. In the film’s first action sequence, Moses and his adoptive brother, Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton) stage a pre-emptive strike against the Hittites, played by significantly more actors of color than the Egyptians. While this is clearly some sort of allegory for the American pre-emptive strike in Iraq, what interests me is the way Scott films it. At one moment, one of the Egyptians is knocked off of his chariot, and when his leg is caught on the reins, he is dragged behind the out-of-control horses. This is boilerplate Hollywood Western stunt work. On John Ford’s iconic Western, Stagecoach (1939), rodeo star Yakima “Yak” Canutt did a number of fabulous stunts, dropping off of horses and stagecoaches without injury to himself or the crew. These stunts eventually had to be banned, as many of them involved wires to trip the horses; the fall would often kill the animals, but generally not the humans. At any rate, the attack on the Hittites in Exodus: Gods and Kings is filmed as if it were a U.S. cavalry attack on a Native American tribe in a classical Hollywood Western.
Then, late in the film, the Western metaphor pays off with a vengeance. Upon Moses’ return home to his family after parting the Red Sea (spoiler alert: the Hebrews win!), Scott films from behind Moses’ wife looking out into the daylight. Her angelic framing in the doorway quotes one of the most iconic shots in all of cinema, the opening and ending of 1956’s The Searchers (what film scholar Noel Carroll has called the “super-cult movie of the New Hollywood”). Except here, something remarkable has happened to the plot of John Ford’s most accomplished Western. For The Searchers too is a Biblical adaptation. It concerns Ethan Edwards, whose brother Aaron, is married to the woman he truly loves, Martha. When Indians murder them both during a raid on the white homesteaders, the Prodigal son Ethan, who has just returned from fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, spends the rest of the film maniacally hunting down his beloved’s killer, a Commanche chief. At the end of the film, Ethan returns Martha’s captive daughter Debbie to the white homesteaders in Monument Valley. However, at the end of The Searchers, white civilization inside the house banishes Ethan’s violence, kicking the door shut in his face, dooming him to wander Monument Valley alone for the rest of time. It is fine to use violence to defend civilization, but it will not admit of barbarity afterwards.
With its story of Moses and his brother, also named Aaron, Exodus: Gods and Kings “fixes” the ending of The Searchers. Ford cannot reconcile the paradox of violence needed to keep civilization functioning, and so leaves the iconic American John Wayne abandoned. Scott’s film welcomes the butcher Moses (he kills enough people in the film to make Rambo proud) back into the fold. Right after Moses’ return, we see him climb Mount Sinai to carve the Ten Commandments. As if straight out of John Ford’s film, God (in the form of a young boy with a suspiciously British accent) dictates the rules of civilization to Moses. The scene takes place outside of a cave, the iconic image in The Searchers (both civilization’s caves, doorways and windows, and nature’s caves, rocks under which our Westerners hide from the Native Americans with whom they fight).
Scott ends his film with an extreme long shot of the Hebrews walking toward the Promised Land. This transcends fully the critique of humanity’s hypocrisy that ends The Searchers. The Ethan Edwards of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses has literally accomplished with God’s help, what Western scholar Richard Slotkin sees as the crux of the American Western, “regeneration through violence.” Where Ethan is isolated by his violent perversity, thousands of loved ones surround the madman Moses.
The fact that a British-accented God leads Moses into the future seems then Scott’s allegory to replace the anti-communism of The Ten Commandments. British civilization, that which American Christian Bale’s Moses cannot comprehend, leads him to transcend barbarity via violence, resulting in civilization. It is a simplistic solution, one that even the conservative John Ford critiqued so clearly in The Searchers. But it befits an adaptation of The Ten Commandments, where religion is easily reduced to a battle between good and evil, where we always know where we stand. Somewhere in New England, I can hear Ralph Waldo Emerson—he who fought for an American naturalist religion that rejected the rigid teaching of the European church—turning over in his grave.
– Walter Metz