U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Exodus: Dudes and Dirt

Ridley Scott cannot be accused of presenting Exodus: Gods and Kings as merely a 21st-century update of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. But I really wish he had given that a try. Sure, on occasion, in this or that sequence, Scott’s film does display some sense of the spectacular, the passionate, the dreadful, the grand. So this film has epic moments, but it lacks any sense of a sweeping epic vision – or even an epic visual design. This film is disappointingly monochromatic and monocultural – lots of dirt, and lots of dudes.

A more thorough review – and some spoilers – after the jump.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with dirt and dudes. Indeed, they are hallmarks of Hollywood historical epics, Biblical or otherwise. Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s previous foray into the world of antiquity, has plenty of both. But it also has something that Scott’s Exodus noticeably lacks: warmth and women.

When I say “warmth,” I mean visual warmth, a warm palette with saturated colors, a brightness, a feeling of sunlight – that sensual “Mediterranean” heat that Andrew Seal discussed, a heat conveyed in the details of set design, costuming, lighting, effects. On the whole, Ridley Scott’s Exodus lacks that warmth and color. The first plague – when the Nile is turned to blood – is colorful. The rest are mostly CGI fantasia in varying shades of gray. Even Pharaoh’s palace, where one might expect (or expect to get away with) a luxuriant palette – lapis, ruby, sapphire, jade inlays, brightly pigmented wall murals, richly dyed linens – is a markedly monochromatic place. Of course the slave quarries and slave quarters of the Hebrews are even less colorful – all various shades of dirt, from tan to brown to grey — and most of the action that takes place there happens at night. And the desert through which Moses wanders once he is sent into exile is almost the least colorful place of all – a barren waste of rock, miserably dry (maybe even hot), but not visually warm. On a wide screen, in 3D, the world of Moses looks barren and cold.

Coldest and most monochromatic of all, as it turns out, is Mount Horeb, where Moses has his first vision of God. I don’t want to give away the details of the encounter, but the scene is litereally chilling for Moses, and the set design and effects play a big part in that: on a slate-colored mountainside against a slate-colored sky pouring rain, in the dark cold of night Moses sees a bush barely glowing with a feeble blue flame. The fiery bush has an icy look. There is nothing warm about this (or any subsequent) meeting between Moses and God. These encounters happen in near-darkness, in the evening chill, in barren places.

The one place in this movie that does not ever feel or look austere and barren and visually cold is the oasis in Midian where Moses meets and marries his wife Zipporah. And of course that’s no accident. This romance, such as it is, between Moses and Zipporah is the only hint of warm desire between two people in the whole film. Now, perhaps it is for the best that Ridley Scott has given us a rather chaste vision of the milieu of Exodus compared to Cecil B. DeMille’s steamy Technicolor objectification of well-oiled bare-chested men and diaphanously-attired, campily-Orientalized alluring ladies. There are no dancing girls, gratuitous or otherwise, in Exodus, no scandalous debauchery around a Golden Calf. But in breaking with the conventions of the genre – conventions that Scott was quite happy to exploit in Gladiator – he has not then situated the influence of women elsewhere in the narrative. He has mostly made it disappear. Sigourney Weaver – a champ of an actress for Ridley Scott in the Alien franchise — plays a “powerful” woman in Pharaoh’s palace, and she has maybe six lines in the whole film. Maybe six.

There is one female role in this film that represents a fascinating casting choice: a woman is the augur and high priest(ess) of the Egyptians. This is a remarkable choice, but Scott does almost nothing to exploit the oddity of it – the oddity within the genre of Biblical epics, or the oddity in terms of its contrast to the Exodus account in the Bible or popular conceptions thereof. In that connection, it should be noted, this intriguing casting choice is a clear sign that the limited roles of women in this film have nothing to do with an interest in “historical” accuracy. Instead, these narrative choices have everything to do with how this film frames and explores dramatic conflict: as a battle of egos between status-anxious men-children, human and divine.

There is a petulant pettiness, an egotistical one-upsmanship, that characterizes not only the resentment between Ramses and Moses, but also the rivalry between the gods of the Egyptians and the God of Moses, as well as the combative conversations between Moses and God. It is a coldly masculinized world, a world in which the only drama that matters is the ego competition between dudes who fight in the dirt, roll around in the dirt, move stuff around in the dirt, build stuff in the dirt — do every damn thing in the dirt short of having an actual pissing contest.

This dude-drama is so pronounced that the broader relational ties toward which movies like DeMille’s (not to mention the Biblical stories themselves) have gestured – a sense of tribe, a sense of family, a sense of unity through shared religious practice, a sense of camaraderie through shared trials – are almost utterly absent. Very little, to the very end, connects Moses to his people. The only exception is the extended sequence in which Moses, once a general in Pharaoh’s army, is training the Hebrews in various military and tactical skills. But for the most part, in this film, Moses lives in relationship with almost no one. Aaron plays no significant role – three lines? four lines? Miriam – beyond revealing her identity as Moses’s sister – plays no significant role. In leading the people after they have left the Egyptians, Moses takes no counsel, seeks no help from others. It is a peculiarly isolated and disconnected Moses that we see in this film, which in the end is less about the Exodus or even the self-revelation of God to a people than it is about Moses figuring out who he is as a man. Way, way too much of this film could be characterized as “Christian Bale Is Doing Manly Things Alone.”

Now, were there parts of this movie that I really enjoyed? Absolutely. Heck, within the first ten minutes of the film there’s a fantastic display of Pharaonic pageantry, military charioteering, and hand-to-hand combat. It is a promising start – a gesture toward the conventions of a genre that Scott would have done well, I think, to exploit. Instead, this film in many ways turns its back on one of the most dramatically and visually exciting conventions of the Biblical epic: the portrayal of the miraculous.   Now, that’s because the film plays with the practice of demythologization – plays with it in the film, and plays with it as a film. The show-stopping miracle of DeMille’s Ten Commandments – the parting of the Red Sea so that the Hebrews can cross on dry ground – is extraordinarily underwhelming in Scott’s film. And that is the case for many other miraculous incidents, major and minor, mentioned in the accounts of the Exodus. If they are portrayed at all in Exodus: Gods and Kings, they are portrayed in very unmiraculous ways.

Not only did Scott move away from the kind of spectacle presented by Cecil B. DeMille; he moved away from both the supernatural spectacle and the all-too-human interpersonal drama of the Biblical narrative itself.

If you’re making a mainstream movie that’s going to stray from a story everybody knows and lots of people love, you’ve got to come up with something better, something richer, something more exciting – for pity’s sake, something warmer and more lively and more colorful and more infused with passion and desire – than dudes and dirt.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There are a few things I’d add to this review, or a few things I’d emphasize with more clarity.

    By demythologization, I specifically had a Bultmann-esque approach to Biblical narrative in mind. However, I’d say that Ridley Scott was also trying to demythologize the genre of the Hollywood Biblical epic. Instead — or, I guess, as a result — he ended up undermining the power of his own movie. As I mentioned earlier to someone on Twitter, the myth slain was the mythos of Hollywood, and perhaps the god in Scott’s crosshairs was Cecil B. DeMille. But Ridley Scott ends up being the Pharaoh of his own film, challenging DeMille’s sovereignty (and losing).

    And on the issue of warmth and passion, I should have clarified that I’m not talking only (or even primarily) about romantic passion — this film portrays almost no human affection or warm feelings of any kind. (There is one notable exception in the film — a heart shattering moment of collective sorrow that was really haunting.) But there’s not a lot of love or even friendliness in this movie, and that’s a shame.

    Last, I’d edit the above piece to get rid of all the periphrastic constructions! Terrible stylistic tic.

  2. Lora,

    Thanks for posting your angle on one of my favorite directors.

    I found that in Scott’s other film based on an explicitly understood religious topic, Kingdom of Heaven, this “markedly monochromatic” touch was also present.

    The gritty, dirtiness of Kingdom of Heaven struck me as an attempt to inject “realism” into a series of contentious historical events (Crusades) in order to give audiences a “let the people decide” experience (unfortunately, we know that some people accept Hollywood as the gospel truth).

    I’m wondering if Scott is attempting to do that with his toned-down color scheme? To somehow make the miraculous plausible by crafting a response to DeMille (as you suggest). I’ll have to read some of Scott’s interviews over Exodus.

    Anyway, I look forward to seeing it based on your early thoughts (should I be motivated simply to see men “move stuff around in the dirt”?).

    • There is a “Scott style,” isn’t there? “Monochromatic” could also describe Gladiator (at least the first half) and Blade Runner? Maybe that style doesn’t or shouldn’t work here?

      • I found this style consistent with the mood of most of his films (particularly, the somewhat nihilistic-leaning Prometheus).

        Maybe you’re right about Scott’s directorial eye for these particular Biblical-based films. It seemed to work for the dystopic and mythological themes (like Legend).

  3. Lora: It sounds like a movie with no theology and no big idea behind it.

    How is the the topic of deliverance handled? Does Scott deal in any deep (or shallow) way with the notion of a refugee or non-citizen? What of slavery and bondage? What of torture? Covering those topics could compliment demythologization, I don’t think. The lack of women detracts from the film’s warmth, you note, but does Scott do anything to nuance the manliness he presents? We know Scott can handle femininity (e.g. Thelma & Louise).

    I would’ve guessed that CGI would’ve been used to *enhance* spectacle, but you suggest that the special effects overwhelm the spectacle. It’s interesting to me that the creation of a spectacle, in a biblical epic, requires some calm or subdued aspects beyond coloration to underscore a spectacle.

    I ask so many questions not to annoy, but rather because I have a great deal of respect for Ridley Scott as a director/producer (e.g. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, The Assassination of Jesse James, Black Hawk Down, etc.). – TL

  4. Great comments, all — thank you.

    There’s certainly more to this movie than men duking it out in the dirt. Yes, there are some theological ideas behind it — one pretty promising concept, in fact — but that’s sort of a spoiler in terms of the plot. And, also, that concept underdeveloped and under-explored.

    There were a lot of things I could have talked about (and maybe should have), and I guess if I hadn’t been hitting a same-day deadline on this review I might have framed it differently. And the visual tone of the whole film must seem like the least important thing — but 1) it bugged me, 2) it matched (perhaps created?) the mood, and 3) it tied in so nicely with Andy’s observations from his post earlier this week, especially the connection between visual “warmth” and portrayals of love (and/or lust) in these films.

    I didn’t want to say too much here/now about some key conceptual/visual details and how Scott has portrayed them, since I figure people might want to go see the film. He certainly tried to walk a line between the natural and the supernatural, and it just doesn’t work well with the story as people know it, or even as he told it. It was interesting to see how he compressed (or skipped) some of the standard plot points of the familiar story, and greatly expanded others. But his half-hearted commitment to a demythologized interpretation of the miraculous meant that he really missed the boat (I thought) on dramatic energy and meaningful agency of various kinds.

    This movie really is very much about dudes figuring out how they are/aren’t acceptable in relation to other dudes. That’s not a terrible concept — in some ways, I suppose, it’s the moral of the story for Scott. Rather than using the story of Moses as a way of framing the story of the Exodus, the whole thing is a backdrop to Moses’s inner psychic drama, which is not that well dramatized. (The interactions with Rameses are the best in that regard — but Prince of Egypt handled that dynamic much better.) There are some subtleties in the screenplay, in how it riffs on themes from the scriptural account and uses them to psychologize Moses, but overall it just doesn’t work. It’s too small a vision for such a big screen.

    • Also, on the Ridley Scott “look” — agreed. For the most part, the color tones in this filmmove in the reverse of those in Gladiator. Gladiator begins in a (literally) Teutonic milieu and moves to a Mediterranean climate; the shift in visual tone in this movie, to the extent that there is one, is somewhat reversed. The color of life is warmest (though again, mutedly so) in the palace of Pharaoh, along the banks of the Nile, and gets “bluer” in tone through the film (except for the oasis of Midian). I suppose my objections to this stylistic choice amount to hankering for the fleshpots of Egypt, but that’s how it is.

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