Thursday 16 September 2010
I watched DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" the other day. Unfortunately I have to put it in the category of classic films which have not stood the test of time. I can overlook the stony acting, but it's even harder to overlook the special effects, which are unsurprisingly laughable by today's standards. The most disappointing aspect is that Moses is a far less interesting character in the movie than he is in the Bible. The movie adds a lot of extra-Biblical material, some from ancient sources but a lot that they just made up (like a romance with Pharoah's future wife), but that isn't very interesting. Yet after the encounter with the burning bush, Moses is portrayed as essentially a one-dimensional inerrant servant of God. We see nothing of his lack of self-confidence (even faith!) before God that led to God appointing Aaron as his mouthpiece. We don't see Moses pleading with God for mercy for the Israelites after the golden calf episode, or the conflicts he had with Aaron then and at other times. We don't see Moses' sin at Meribah, or the grief he must have had over God preventing him from entering the promised land. It's telling that the Bible gives us a more nuanced portrait of major characters than some modern storytellers can manage.
I think that DeMille's stated theme for the movie --- that people everywhere should be free from slavery and the despotism of kings, being subject only to (God's) law --- is misplaced. Worthy as it is, as far as I can tell it is not a significant theme anywhere in the Torah. God delivered the Israelites from oppression, explicitly not because of they deserved it, but rather because of his promises to Abraham and his desire to set apart a chosen people for his own glory. DeMille's theme would not have sat well if the movie had shown the non-democratic aspects of Moses' rule, or the Israelites continuing to take slaves; I think he was imposing his own priorities on the story. (The story of Samuel would be much better foundation for that theme --- when the Israelites demand a "king such as other nations have", with severe consequences.)
One part of the movie I thought was really good was the depiction of the night of the first Passover. It captured just a little of the horror and dread that must have been experienced by everyone, including the Israelites.