Exodus: Gods And Kings represents a revival of the Golden Age of Hollywood when Cecil B. DeMille and others turned Bible stories into action thrillers for the masses. But viewers might want to ask themselves if director Ridley Scott has resurrected the same characters for a different story entirely.
Taking a leaf from Prince of Egypt, the film discovers Christian Bale as an adopted son reveling in his position as a member of the Pharaoh’s royal household. Joel Edgerton plays the heir to the throne, Ramses, his head-strong stepbrother and the eventual oppressor of 400,000 Hebrew slaves. Motivated by a distaste for slavery and decidedly modern social issues, Moses struggles to ease their suffering. However in the process he discovers they are his true people, and along the way becomes a willing tool for the hand of God. But it will take a combination of divine power and the courage of this son of a slave if the Israelites are ever to go free.
Thrillingly? Undoubtedly. However the problem that arises is one of ‘Chess Games’ and ‘Life Lessons’. Let me explain…
As a scriptwriter I can assure you that my colleagues and I are some of the best recyclers in the business. Even the most inventive Ridley Scott plot lines are based on archetypes that were old when Homer was still wondering what Achilles would do next. Broadly speaking there are only three stories – the Quest, the Chess Game and the Life Lesson. In Quest stories our ever-present hero is driven by one simple desire: to get something. Whatever the goal, the hero doesn’t have it and his quest involves doing everything he can to get it. But Exodus is much more concerned with the next two.
The second plot granddaddy is the Chess Game, a story that organises itself around the battle between an evenly or overmatched hero and his nemesis. It’s a case of move and countermove until a winner finally emerges. This is the natural home of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Batman and the Joker, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. It’s also the home of Scott’s Moses and Ramses:
Ramses: “You’re listening to Hebrews!”
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Moses: “I’m listening to God!”
Ramses: “Whose god?”
Moses pleads with Ramses to put aside his pride but given his stepbrother is himself a ‘god’ there’s little likelihood of that. The collision course this plot sets them on leads to a series of dramatic plays that pit armies against plagues and chariot charges against miracles. The Chess Game does more than measure the skill of each opponent; it demonstrates their characters and underlines their right to triumph. By the end of Exodus: Gods and Kings there’s no doubt that God was right to choose Moses as his champion. There’s much to celebrate and much to forgive – this is Hollywood after all and scores of liberties are taken in the name of drama. But has something far more fundamental been missed? Is Scott telling the wrong type of story?
This is where the third story archetype comes in – the Life Lesson. For millennia stories have been the favourite method for teaching moral truths and nothing has changed when it comes to the movies. And this is the category into which the Bible’s version of Exodus falls. God instructs His people to tell and re-tell the story of their deliverance. He even creates an annual festival for them to celebrate so that they will remember the lesson behind the events:
“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 6: 7)
An aging Hebrew called Nun (Ben Kingsley) tells Moses, “… the year of your birth there was a prophecy that a leader would be born to liberate us, and that leader is you!” But the story of Exodus is no more about Moses than it is about Ramses. Both were raised up by God – a stuttering shepherd and a hard-hearted Pharaoh – so that His glory would be displayed. This is not a Chess Game between two brothers inspired by different goals. It’s a Life Lesson about the faithfulness of God and His power to make all of His promises come true, no matter how impossible the situation.
If Exodus: Gods and Kings does have a lesson to teach it’s that men and women should not place themselves in God’s seat. However that equally goes for Scott’s Moses as it does for his Pharaoh – and for us too. God is not an adjunct to our own epics. Difficult times do not arise so that we can shine, but that the glory of God can shine all the brighter. The sooner we realise that the sooner we’ll come to Him for the deliverance we really need.
Release Date: December 4, 2014