The story of Moses has it all on an epic Biblical scale – betrayal, drama, love, disasters, miracles, good against evil and great big bushy beards. It has inspired numerous tales over the millennia, including Battlestar Galactica1. It continues to inspire today, including scientists trying to find scientific reasons for the Biblical plagues2 and parting of the Red Sea. It also continuously inspires filmmakers, who have told us the story from the early days of black and white silent cinema to today's big-budget blockbusters with computer-animated effects.
Summary of the Story of Moses
The story begins in Egypt circa 1400 BC. The Israelites have been enslaved for 400 years. To keep their population down, Pharaoh has ordered the deaths of all their baby boys. In order to save Moses' life his mother Yochabel3 hides him in a basket which she launches into the River Nile. Moses' basket is discovered in the river's bulrushes by a passing princess. She decides to adopt him as if he were her own son. As Moses' older sister Miriam had been keeping an eye on things, she volunteers that Moses' real mother could be his wet nurse. When he is older he realises the Israelites are enslaved, kills an Egyptian, gets exiled, gets married4, meets a burning bush and grows a big bushy beard in its honour. Moses then returns to Pharaoh asking if the Israelites can be freed. Pharaoh says no and orders the Israelites to make bricks without straw, even though film sequences show them pulling lorry-sized lumps of stone around rather than making bricks.
To prove that it is God's will that the Israelites should be freed, God inflicts various miraculous plagues on the people of Egypt. Then, in order to prevent Pharaoh obeying God's will, God 'hardens Pharaoh's heart'. Which seems counter-productive as if he'd simply softened Pharaoh's heart to begin with there'd be far fewer frogs, flies and firstborn fatalities, to name but a few of the ten plagues. Still, God works in mysterious ways.
The final plague comes after Pharaoh threatens to kill the firstborn sons of Hebrews5 - the firstborn Egyptian sons die instead. To prevent the Hebrews from dying, their front doors are painted with lambs' blood so that the Angel of Death would know not to enter that house, although how the Angel of Death would know not to kill the firstborn sons of any Hebrew slaves living, say, in Pharaoh's palace or other home that was not owned by them outright is never revealed. Pharaoh then orders Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, but soon after changes his mind, leading to a thrilling chariot chase and wall-of-water sequence as the Red Sea parts to let the Israelites escape while all the Egyptians drown. The Israelites don't have to stop and ask for directions to the Promised Land as they have a heavenly satnav in the form of a column of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night leading them on the journey.
When they run out of food, manna from heaven literally turns up. Following this the Israelites stop at Mount Sinai for a bit and realise that they are unimpressed. They talk among themselves, saying to Moses' brother Aaron:
Y'know God? The almighty being who inflicted ten plagues on our enemy, parted the Red Sea (which confusingly isn't red because of blood; that was the Nile), did the Cloud/Fire satnav bit and made food turn up out of thin air? You know how everyone we know saw Him perform all those miracles for us with their own eyes and there is no possibility whatsoever for doubt? Well, we've decided to stop believing in Him. Instead we think it'll be a really good idea if we get lots of gold and use it to make a cow that we can worship, a cow that hasn't done any of those tedious wondrous phenomena or committed genocidal infanticide and instead just sits there doin' nuffin', not a sausage.
I'm sure God won't mind, I mean he was so charitable with those Egyptian fellers, giving them all the blood, boils, pestilence and plague they could ever want.
While that is going on Moses climbs Mount Sinai, meets God, takes two tablets, climbs down Mount Sinai, gets miffed and breaks the tablets, smites the unbelievers, climbs Mount Sinai again, takes two more tablets, then climbs down and calms down. Aaron tries to explain the cow-worship thing to God:
I'm sorry, Lord, we've been seeing other gods behind your back. It's not you, it's us. Well, maybe it is a little bit you – the obsession with plagues was a bit weird, killing innocent children rather than just Pharaoh's soldiers is pretty much a war crime, plus you calling us your chosen people is a bit, well, clingy.
But God takes it hard, telling the Israelites to get lost – literally. They are all going to wander aimlessly round the desert for decades.
For Who's a Jolly Good Pharaoh
In the story of Moses there are at least two, sometimes three, Pharaohs involved. The first is the Pharaoh who orders the deaths of the Hebrew boys, who may or may not be the Pharaoh whose daughter raises Moses as her son. On the death of Moses' adoptive father, the story's final Pharaoh accedes to the throne, the one who initially lets the Israelites leave and, changing his mind, pursues them. Most films have Seti6 I (c 1290 BC to 1279 BC) as the father-figure, with Ramesses II (c 1279–1213 BC)7 as the Pharaoh whom Moses confronts. This seems to be largely based on Ramesses being one of the more famous pharaohs - there is no historical evidence for this.
Historians have instead suggested that the pharaoh was possibly Ahmose I (c 1550–1525 BC), or that the Exodus may have taken place following the death of the monotheistic Akhenaten (c 1353–1349 BC). Even science-fiction author Isaac Asimov had an opinion, believing the events to be during the short reign of Merneptah (c 1213–1203 BC).
A summary of four films about Moses can be found below. Whether or not the films pass the Bechdel Test is mentioned. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not include or mention any male characters.
The Ten Commandments (1923)
|Director||Cecil B DeMille|
|Studio||Famous Players-Lasky Corporation|
|Period & Setting||Egypt, c 1400 BC & 1920s USA|
|Bechdel Test||N/A In the Story, the mother and the daughter-in-law interact, but as it a silent film, the aim was to have the minimum number of intertitles and to tell the story through expressions, so what they said was not revealed. The Prologue's intertitles simply introduce the characters and quote the Bible passage that each scene is representing.|
Cecil B DeMille is regarded as the founding father of the Hollywood film industry, with his interracial relationship film The Squaw Man (1914) the first to be made in Hollywood. In 1913 he co-created the Jesse L Lasky Feature Play Company with Jesse Lasky, which merged with Famous Players in 1916 and is now Paramount Pictures. He quickly became American silent cinema's most successful director, pioneering visual techniques and making films on an epic scale. Though he was very bossy, his Jewish/Episcopalian background meant his films frequently had themes promoting mutual respect and understanding. The Crusades (1935) notably showed respect and understanding between Muslims and Christians.
His first film adaptation of the story of Moses aims to show how relevant The Ten Commandments are to a contemporary setting, with the underlying message that even now, if you break the Ten Commandments the Ten Commandments will break you. The plague of the death of the firstborn sons would have been all-too familiar to audiences who had lost their children either during the Great War (1914-18) or the even deadlier flu epidemic that followed. The character of Mary, introduced as starving and having eaten no food for days, also foretells the Great Depression. The cathedral exterior was a real church, Saints Peter and Paul in San Francisco, that was then under construction, with filming taking place on its roof. It has since appeared in Dirty Harry (1971) and Sister Act 2 (1993).
The first half of the film is a spectacular epic, and indeed many of its sequences have stood the test of time better than DeMille's 1956 version, which recreated many of the same shots and sequences. The later version relied on animation to portray the Pillar of Fire and God inscribing the tablets with the Commandments, which is colourful, but obviously animation. In this film an actual curtain of fire appears, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments is also far more explosive. The orgy sequences, too, are more daring, being unrestricted by the later Hays Code censorship regulations.
For the stunning chariot sequences DeMille actually used 600 chariots because the Bible mentions 600 chariots. As the horses had not been trained to pull chariots and the drivers were unfamiliar with them, the chariots really do crash into each other and turn over, making their sequences even more spectacular. 60 chariot-driving extras had various, predominantly minor, injuries. The desert sequences were filmed in California, which has bright white sand rather than the yellow sand of Africa, but as the film was black and white this inaccuracy is not too noticeable. The crowd sequences too are on a vast scale.
The spectacular sets were buried under sand dunes and in 2012 some of them were rediscovered by archaeologists.
The 1920s sequence has aged far more than the ancient prologue. The plot revolves around the younger son swearing to break the Ten Commandments. We see him fail to keep the Sabbath Holy (he dances after getting engaged). He does not honour his mother (he hides a painting of her). He commits adultery, steals (by corrupt business practices to maximise profits) and even kills (as a consequence of his shortcut-taking actions). It is emphasised that his older, wiser brother John is a carpenter like Jesus and it is surely no coincidence that his name begins with the same letter, just as Dan sounds like 'Damned'. It should of course be emphasised that the portrayal of leprosy in the film is out of date - in truth leprosy is among the least contagious illnesses known and unlikely to be spread through sexual contact. Or cement.
Julia Faye, who plays 'Pharaoh's Wife' played Elisheba, Aaron's wife, in the 1956 version. Many of the chariot sequences would also be reused in DeMille's film Cleopatra (1934).
The Ten Commandments (1956)
|Director||Cecil B DeMille|
When Pharaoh Ramesses I orders the deaths of all newborn Hebrew boys, having heard prophecies of a coming Deliverer, one baby is saved when his mother places him in a basket in the River Nile. He is found by Ramesses' daughter Bithiah who decides to raise him as her son. As a young man, Moses impresses Ramesses' son Pharaoh Sethi I, particularly after securing peace with Ethiopia, while Sethi's own son Ramesses has failed to get a new city built. Moses is sent to oversee the building of the city and reverses the slaves' treatment, giving them food as well as one day off per week.
Princess Nefretiri, who loves Moses, can only marry whoever Pharaoh Sethi arranges for her to marry, and whoever she marries will be the next Pharaoh. Both Moses and Ramesses compete for her hand in marriage and it looks likely that Moses will be the one Sethi chooses, until Memnet threatens to reveal that Moses' real parents were slaves. Nefretiri kills her to try to prevent this revelation, but Memnet's death leads Moses to question his background. He follows his adopted mother to find his own mother, brother and sister. He conceals his identity and works with the slaves, learning how cruel and corrupt the Overseer is. He kills Baka, and Dathan, an ambitious spy, tells Ramesses. Sethi banishes Moses into the desert. Moses eventually makes his way to Midian, where he spends some years. There he marries Jethro's daughter Sephora and has a son before climbing Mount Sinai and hearing the voice of God from a burning bush. He is given a message to deliver to Ramesses, now Pharaoh: 'Let my people go!'
Moses returns to Pharaoh, who is unimpressed by Moses' staff turning into a snake as his own magicians can perform that feat. Various plagues affect the land. Moses prophesies that the last plague will be chosen by Pharaoh himself. Ramesses orders the deaths of all the Hebrew firstborn sons, only for the Angel of Death to kill all Egypt's firstborn sons instead. Three and a half hours in, will anyone ever actually mention the Ten Commandments?
|Period & Setting||Egypt and Sinai|
|Bechdel Test||Fail (there are numerous named female characters who have several conversations, but only about men).|
|Oscar||Winner: Best Visual Effects|
Also nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design
The film is presented as being a historically accurate representation of real events. Cecil B DeMille even introduces the film with a speech in which he explains that as well as sourcing the story from the Bible, the events are taken from the work of ancient historians including Philo Judaeus (c20BC-50AD) and Flavius Josephus (c37-100AD). The writing credits, however, also include Dorothy Clarke Wilson's novel Prince of Egypt (1949), Reverend J H Ingraham's novel Pillar of Fire (1859) and Reverend AE Southon's On Eagle's Wings (1937).
The Ten Commandments is notable for being made soon after the Second World War, and so for much of the audience the experience of the Jews persecuted in Egypt would reflect recent memories of Nazi Germany. The underlying message of how God made man all equal in his image, but men make other men slaves, was being told at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to make a real impact in America - 1956 was the year of Rosa Parks' Montgomery Bus Boycott. In his introduction DeMille explicitly states:
The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God's law, or whether by the whims of a dictator like Ramesses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.
This message, told during Hollywood's McCarthy era, was also seen to be very pro-American and anti-Communist. It is notable that the heroic characters are all Americans while Europeans are cast as the main villains; Russian Yul Brynner is Ramesses, British actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke is Sethi and British/Australian Judith Anderson is Memnet. That said, Vincent Price and Edward G Robinson who play the other villains were American. The film then ends with a quote from Leviticus, 'Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof', which is also a quote on the Liberty Bell.
The 1950s were also a period in which film companies were feeling threatened by the invention of television. To entice viewers into cinemas, Hollywood studios made films bigger, brighter and longer. Screen sizes changed to emphasise how the picture was much bigger than a television screen - many studios made widescreen productions in Cinemascope and Cinerama (Paramount Pictures used VistaVision which retained a squarer picture but, being a higher resolution, was much better quality). Colours were increasingly vivid - The Ten Commandments has incredibly bright colours, noticeable from the start in the Paramount Pictures logo that has been adapted to resemble Mount Sinai.
A small amount of location filming took place in Egypt. Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner were the only actors to travel there. Fantastic city-scale sets were built and entire villages of people and their animals were hired to represent the Israelites leaving Egypt. When DeMille had enquired whether it would be possible to film in Egypt he had fully expected to be turned down; however, his film The Crusades, with its positive portrayal of Muslims, had so impressed the Egyptian authorities that they were eager to assist him, even allowing the Egyptian cavalry to portray the charioteers. The chariots themselves were made in America, shipped to Egypt and then returned to America.
During the production DeMille suffered a heart attack. Determined to finish the film, against his doctor's orders he resumed work. This was his last, and by far most successful, film. To date (2019) it is the eighth-highest-grossing film (adjusted for inflation) of all time, behind only Gone with the Wind (1939), Avatar (2009), Titanic (1997), Star Wars (1977), Avengers: Endgame (2019), The Sound of Music (1965) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
|Director||Simon Wells, Brenda Chapman & Steve Hickner|
Having survived the genocide of Hebrew boys as a baby, Moses is raised as a prince of Egypt and brother to Ramesses, the heir to the throne. The two are virtually inseparable, constantly getting into mischief while their father Pharaoh Seti builds the Egyptian empire around them. Moses is unaware of his true heritage until chance encounters with two Hebrew women, Tzipporah and his sister Miriam, result in a voyage of discovery in which he finds his true family, faith and people. After a self-imposed exile in Midian where he is reunited with Tzipporah, whom he marries, he encounters a Burning Bush, then returns to Egypt to demand that Ramesses, now Pharaoh, sets free all Hebrew slaves.
A series of plagues afflict the land. What can be done to affect Pharaoh's heart enough to let the Hebrews go?
|Setting||Egypt, circa 1400 BC|
|Music||Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz|
|Bechdel Test||Pass – Miriam and Tzipporah sing a duet.|
|Oscar||Winner Best Original Song: 'When You Believe'|
Nominee: Best Music (Original Musical or Comedy Score)
The Prince of Egypt features some truly spectacular scenes set in Ancient Egypt, shown in all its glory at the height of its power. Lead director Simon Wells11 is the great-grandson of HG Wells. Brenda Chapman is the first female director of an American animated film.
The effort made in researching the film is apparent - many of the filmmakers travelled to Egypt. That said, a few changes were made to the traditional story so that Aaron's role is downplayed and Tzipporah's role enlarged. Instead of being left behind in Midian with her son, she remains by Moses' side when he returns to Egypt. Moses is no murderer but instead accidentally causes an Egyptian slave-driver's death and it is Pharaoh's wife rather than daughter who finds Moses. The brotherly relationship between Moses and Ramesses is also the closest in this film. Despite the attention to detail, the film was banned in the country in which it is set. To put it another way, there are no prints in Egypt of The Prince of Egypt.
It is also rather refreshing to see that the first DreamWorks animated film to feature humans does not feature any Caucasian characters. That said there are Caucasian actors - once again Americans play Moses and his wife and family while Ramesses, Seti and the Queen are played by British actors. Val Kilmer begins the tradition of actors who have played Batman playing Moses, which would be continued by Christian Bale. Ofra Haza who played Yocheved was Israeli.
Numerous scholars from Judaism, Christianity and Islam were consulted in the preparation stages. In a gesture of interfaith unity, the film ends with one quote each from their holy texts: Deuteronomy 34:10 from the Hebrew Bible, Acts 7:35 representing the Christian Bible, and Qur'an-Surah 19:51. This reflects how the late 1990s was a more culturally accepting time than the years that followed, when xenophobia, racism and intolerance increased after the World Trade Center attack.
The film was briefly the most successful non-Disney animated film until being superseded by Aardman's Chicken Run. It remained the highest grossing non-Disney cel-animated film for almost a decade until The Simpsons Movie in 2007. A direct-to-video prequel, Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) flopped.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
|Director||Sir Ridley Scott|
|Studio||Scott Free Productions, TSG Entertainment, distributed by Twentieth Century Fox|
Princes Ramesses and Moses grow up as close as brothers until, during a war with the Hittites, a Priestess foretells that a leader will be saved and the saviour will lead. Moses saves Ramesses' life and is sent from Memphis to Pithom to oversee the produce of slaves shortly before Pharaoh Seti dies. There, Moses is shocked by the conditions and the corruption of Viceroy Hegep. Hegep reveals to the now-Pharaoh Ramesses that Moses' father was a Hebrew. Moses is banished and meets Zipporah, with whom he falls in love.
Seven years later Moses, after being hit on the head by a rock during a storm on the sacred Mount Sinai, sees a Burning Bush and a boy who is the voice of God. The boy tells Moses that he is now God's general and to set the Hebrews free. After an insurrection utilising guerrilla tactics achieves little, the Nile turns to blood and nine plagues afflict the city while Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrews go. The tenth plague results in the death of all Egypt's firstborn sons in Memphis. After the death of his son, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews leave before plotting revenge and leading 4,000 men in his cavalry after the largely unarmed Hebrews. Trapped against the Red Sea, how can the former slaves escape?
|Period & Setting||Egypt 1300 BC|
The 2013 adaptation has quite a different emphasis than the previous films and notably has an atheist interpretation. Moses begins the film as a sword-wielding hero who later leads an armed insurrection against Egypt, which goes nowhere. Moses sees the Burning Bush after hitting his head. His wife wonders whether his hearing the voice of God is a hallucination, as Moses is frequently seen having conversations apparently with himself. Moses doesn't have Aaron's staff turn into a snake and only gives Pharaoh a vague warning about bad things about to happen, without prophesying exactly what, before the plagues begin. The plagues themselves are explained away as having natural causes by an expert, and the later parting of the Red Sea and Pillar of Cloud are shown as resembling natural phenomena such as tsunami and tornadoes.
While Exodus: Gods and Kings avoided the cliché of having stereotypically American heroes and British baddies, the film understandably received criticism for having a predominantly white cast, with only a small number of non-Caucasian actors in smaller roles. Director Ridley Scott, whose 2005 film about the Crusades Kingdom of Heaven also attracted criticism for its portrayal of religion and interfaith relations, controversially said that the only way he would be able to raise funding for the film was by employing big names in the main roles and so casting North African and Middle Eastern actors was not considered. This seems an odd response as the only big names in Exodus: Gods and Kings were Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver, while Sir Ben Kingsley perhaps attracts more critical acclaim than raw star power. It was, however, banned in Egypt, where the presentation of Egyptians as oppressive slave drivers does not go down well.
How the story of Moses is portrayed has certainly changed over the years. There has been a noticeable trend in the character of Moses getting younger and younger each time he is played, which correlates with Moses' beard becoming noticeably smaller and less bushy in each subsequent adaptation. The golden calf orgy sequence while Moses gets the tablets has also become less prominent, from the scantily-clad girls of the 1923 version to not being mentioned in The Prince of Egypt and only hinted at in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Conversely the plagues have grown in both importance and number shown.
One thing that is apparent is that CGI and animation have to date been unable to replicate the scope of Cecil B DeMille's sets and the number of extras involved. It is also unlikely that any adaptation will ever be as colourful as the 1956 adaptation; Jethro's daughters in that film are each colour-coded with bright outfits that dazzle and shine, while in Exodus: Gods and Kings their garb is the dull, worn colour of the dusty desert.
The story of Moses has long inspired filmmakers and will continue to do so, with each new generation bringing a new interpretation and change of emphasis to the tale, which is a cornerstone to the Old Testament and many people's faith.