Following in the biblical swashbuckler genre of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which hit theaters earlier this year, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” opens on Dec. 12 with a bearded Christian Bale as Moses leading the Jewish flight from Egypt, a preening Joel Edgerton as the evil pharaoh Ramses, and plenty of jaw-dropping views of sweeping battles and teeming Egyptian cities. Not to mention sickening depictions of the plagues, including frogs, blood and flies swarming over the landscape – all of which will come leaping off the screen in vivid 3D.
Before a recent screening of some 45 minutes of clips from the film, Scott (“Gladiator,” “Robin Hood”), who is 76, introduced “Exodus” in a videotaped interview, claiming he was drawn to the project by the epic nature of the story, Moses’ heroic journey and the prophet’s undying quest to liberate his people. “Moses is the incarnation of freedom,” Scott said.
The series of clips from the film (major spoiler alert), introduced Moses and Ramses in the vast palace of Ramses’ father, the pharaoh Seti (played by an almost unrecognizable John Turturro), as the two men, who were raised as blood brothers, prepare to battle the Hittites. In ominous tones, a priestess examines the entrails of a slaughtered bird for portents of the fight, and declares that during the battle “one leader will be saved, and his savior will one day lead.”
Matters don’t look good for Ramses when, in fact, his golden chariot overturns during the ensuing battle, and Moses, with a great swing of his sword, prevents another chariot from trampling Ramses to death.
Later, Moses visits a Jewish slave community, where the Israelites toil away at building a city and where Moses witnesses an Egyptian overseer whipping an errant Jew. With rumors of a slave uprising in the works, Moses also visits with the Jewish elders and meets the somber Nun (Ben Kingsley), who admits that his brethren “[pray] to see Canaan again.”
During a secret midnight meeting, Nun subsequently tells Moses that when it comes to the enigmatic circumstances of his birth, “You’ve always felt that something was wrong.” In fact, Nun continues, Moses was born a slave at a time when an Egyptian edict decreed the death of every Hebrew male newborn. “Your parents didn’t want that to happen,” Nun says. “They handed you to your sister, who took you in a basket to the banks of the river and [floated] you where she knew [that pharoah’s daughter] bathed. She took you and raised you as her own…[But she] never told you the truth. You are Hebrew.”
Moses’ sister, Miriam, had been posing over the years as a non-Jewish servant in pharaoh’s household.
After Egyptian spies in the slave camp report the rumor of Moses’ Jewish parentage to Ramses, he confronts his blood brother while dining on a Lucullian banquet of lobster. Moses vehemently challenges the allegations until Ramses interrogates Miriam, insisting that she admit that she is Jewish and Moses’ sister to boot. She denies all, but just as Ramses brings down his sword to chop off her hand, Moses catches the weapon with his own sword and admits that everything Ramses suspects is true.
Thereafter, Moses is sent off into exile, and in the land of Midian, he finds a community and weds the beautiful Zipporah.
In further clips, a now-grizzled Moses returns to the palace to order Ramses, who has become the pharaoh, to either pay the slaves, set them free – or else.
Ramses refuses, labels the Jews “animals” and before long plagues swarm over the empire, beginning with a close-up of a dead fish that zooms out to reveal a river and waterfalls crimson with blood. Clips also depicted three more plagues: seemingly hundreds of thousands of frogs crawling over Egyptians, even in their sleep, great swarms of flies accosting citizens in every orifice, and locusts ravaging the land.
Moses eventually returns yet again to warn Ramses that something even more terrible is coming should he not free the slaves, which we assume to mean is the smiting of every Egyptian first-born son.
The next clip showed pharaoh and his army chasing after the Israelites as they enter the Red Sea, as myriad Egyptian chariots fall off a narrow mountain hillside in spectacular avalanches. As the army nevertheless manages to gain on the Jews, a menacing sea cyclone appears in the distance.
A trailer of the film shows only a glimpse of a massive tidal wave that, no doubt, will drown pharaoh and all his men in the completed film.
Just how closely the finished movie will follow the biblical text remains to be seen, but one noticeable difference was that Bale does not show signs of Moses’ famed speech impediment, nor does the Bible mention the historical character of Ramses. Scott Mendelson writing in Forbes commented on the film’s “battle-ification” of the Exodus story.
Even so, at a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Bale said he immersed himself in research to play Moses, whom he previously knew not so much from the Bible but from Charlton Heston’s performance in the 1956 classic film, “The Ten Commandments,” according to news reports.
Bale also told reporters that in preparing for the role he read the Torah, the Koran and Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch’s book “Moses: A Life,” among other texts. Moses, he declared, “was a very troubled, tumultuous man and mercurial. But the biggest surprise was the nature of God. He was equally very mercurial.”
The actor generated some controversy in the media for reportedly saying, “I think [that Moses] was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”
Some critics have also chastised Scott for casting spray-tanned white actors to portray Egyptians, and at least a couple of online commentators objected to a non-Jewish actor named Christian, of all things, portraying the Hebrew prophet.
In interviews, Scott has said that he sought logical explanations for the parting of the Red Sea, rather than Divine decree.
Just how the Jewish community will respond to the film remains to be seen when the “Exodus” saga hits theaters on Dec. 12.