Moses and the Reel Exodus

by G. Andrew Tooze


1. Ideally this paper would also include an examination of the 1975 made for television film Moses the Lawgiver, staring Burt Lanchaster as Moses. Unfortunately, this film is not available on video at the present time.

2. It is difficult not to attribute this process to the increasingly youth oriented focus of Hollywood. The exception to this trend to make Moses younger is the 1956 film in which Moses is instantly aged by his encounter with God at the burning bush.

3. It is important to recognize that while the values and views of Hollywood and those of the larger culture are intricately connected, they are not necessarily synonymous.

4. In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses' authority and God strikes Miriam with leprosy.

5. Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) was a British writer of popular, action filled romance novels. In the 1920s, Glyn worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, including working on the adaptation of several of her own novels. The 1927 version of her novel, It, immortalized actress Clara Bow as "the 'it' girl." In 1921, Glyn played a small role in The Affairs of Anatol, directed by DeMille.

6. The building inspector, Redding, warns Dan, "Go easy, Son!  This Sally Lung is half-French and half-Chinese. The combination of French perfume and Oriental incense is more dangerous than nitroglycerin." As with Miriam in the biblical story, DeMille equates the female Sally Lung with sensuality and pleasure and therefore she is a threat to the moral order represented by the Ten Commandments. Melanie Wright, ("Moses at the Movies: Ninety Years of the Bible and Film," Modern Believing 37 (October 1996): 48.), suggests that Sally Lung plays on viewers "fears about the infection of American society by the newly-arrived immigrants who crowded city tenements." Sumiko Higashi (Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 12.), observes "DeMille's moralizing in the Modern Story, which condemns a consumer culture linked with degenerate Orientalism, undoubtedly appealed to fundamentalists in the country."

7. The title of the record is "I've Got Those Sunday Blues."

8. According to Jeanie Macpherson, the writer of the script, this theme was the nucleus around which the rest of the script for the modern story crystallized. (Anne Edwards, The DeMilles: An American Family (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1988), 94.)

9. It is not entirely clear if Mary actually did have leprosy. The specific term is never used. Mary tells John, "Don't touch me - I'm branded," to which he responds, "You're not branded by anything but fear." This would seem to indicate that Mary is not suffering from a physical affliction, but her comment at the end of the film that "in the light it's gone" suggests that there was something physical and visible.

10.In Num 12:13, Moses does intercede with God on Miriam's behalf, asking God to heal her.

11. The film briefly narrates the story of Moses infancy, but doesn't really pick up until Moses is an adult in pharaoh's court. In his speech at the start of the film, DeMille addresses the fact that much of the story of Moses is left untold in Bible. He assures the audience that the story created to fill in these gaps is not mere speculation; but that it is "based on the work of ancient historians, such as Philo and Josephus" who, in DeMille's words, "had access to documents long since destroyed, or perhaps lost, like the Dead Sea Scrolls." The work of these ancient historians is even included in the opening credits, along with Eusebius and the Midrash. The referencing of these non-biblical historical sources indicates DeMille's desire to impart an academic stamp of approval on the accuracy of the film and therefore on its message. This desire was also the impetus by the publication of a scholarly work detailing the archeological research that DeMille drew upon in his depiction of the world of the Exodus: Henry S. Noerdlinger, Moses and Egypt: The Documentation to the Motion Picture "The Ten Commandments" (Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1956).

12. This sentiment that personal actions and achievement are to be valued over inherited position is also expressed in the scene where Moses presents the Ethiopian king and his sister to Sethi. As the king and princess approach the throne, Rameses commands them to kneel before the Pharaoh. Moses responds to Rameses, "Command what you have conquered, brother" and the two Ethiopians remain standing.

13. The statement that God was revealed to Moses' mind serves two purposes. First, it is a nod to the psychological understandings of religion. More importantly, it solves the problem of having to make the risky decision about what God sounds like. God speaks to each person in his or her own voice. In the film, this is achieved by using Charlton Heston's own voice recorded and then mechanically slowed down and treated with an echo effect. According to Heston's autobiography, this was his idea. He recalls telling DeMille, "When we were filming today, I was trying to imagine God's voice. Surely I heard Him inside my own head, my own heart. I think it should be in my own voice, too." (Charlton Heston, In the Arena (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 132.)

14. The identification of Rameses with modern communism is underscored by "his Eastern European accent and Kruschev-like bald head." (Wright, "Moses at the Movies," 51.)

15. Rameses also derides the God of the Hebrews as a "desert God," creating a contrast between the pampered, civilized, and in the film's view, decadent Egyptian society and the harsh, austere, but pure life of those who dwell in the shadow of Sinai. In a similar fashion, Nefretiri mocks Sephorah, asking Moses how he can prefer his wife's dry skin, chapped lips, and smell of goats to her smooth skin, moist lips, and perfumes. Moses' reply is that "there is a beauty beyond the senses."

16. Rameses is articulating a theory that can still be found in some scholarly works on the Exodus.

17. Whereas Rameses represents the communist threat from the outside world, Dathan is the enemy within, a figure that would have been easily recognized in the era of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Ironically, Edward G. Robinson, who played Dathan, had been removed from the Hollywood blacklist of suspected communist sympathizers only a short time before filming of The Ten Commandments began.

18. This statement is difficult to reconcile with Dathan's plan to return the people to Egypt and, presumably, slavery.

19. This is not to suggest that DeMille was unique in this. As recent events have highlighted, the phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance" during this same period of history to highlight one of the distinctions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

20. The film does depict the celebration of Passover, but this is the one exception to the avoidance of ritual activity.

21. The film explains this by saying that it is through Nefretiri that God hardens Pharaoh's heart. Nefretiri tells Moses "You will come to me or they (the people) will never leave Egypt ... Who else can soften Pharaoh's heart? Or harden it?" Like Miriam and Sally Lung in the 1923 film, Nefretiri represents the temptations of the flesh. She is not the only woman in the 1956 film to play this role. When Moses learns of his true identity, Bithia, his Egyptian mother implores him to reject it, saying that he could serve the causes of justice and truth better from the throne than he could from the brick pits. It would seem that, in DeMille's view, women are closely tied to physical comfort that corrupts men and diverts them from their true calling. Even Sephorah seems to play this role, and she tells Nefretiri, "He has forgotten both of us. You lost him when he went to find is God. I lost him when he found his God."

22. Mernefta, the son of Ramses poses the following riddle to Ramses, "When is an Egyptian not an Egyptian?" When Ramses presses him for the answer, Mernefta claims to have forgotten, but looks pointedly at Moses.

23. In contrast to the women in DeMille's movies, the women in Moses do not represent a hindrance to Moses' mission. In the film, Zipporah encourages Moses. After God calls him, and he is trying to figure out what to do, Zipporah tells him, "It is a true call. You must answer it. When Moses says he could get killed, she tells him, "I will trust in God. Will you?"

24. In contrast to DeMille's films, Moses does depict the practice of some of the rituals of the Bible.

25. His hair turns white and becomes permanently windswept

26. The queen here is similar to many of the women in DeMille's versions of the story, offering physical pleasure and comfort over the hard reality of truth.

27. The film does not show Moses receiving the law. It also omits the story of the golden calf and as a result, there is never any acknowledgement of the responsibilities of freedom.

28. A similar critique could be made about The Ten Commandments (1956). Heston's Moses does not fully come to understand the evils of slavery until he learned of his Hebrew heritage, but prior to that revelation, he had demonstrated a growing awareness of human dignity, as evidenced by his compassion, motivated as it was by utilitarianism, as the overseer of the slaves.

29. David Barton, "Let All People's God," Denver Rocky Mountain News, December 31 1998, 1D.

30. Although the Turner biblical films preceded it, The Prince of Egypt was the first film from a major studio to deal with biblical material since the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, some ten years earlier. I believe the protests and controversy surrounding that film had a tremendous impact in the way biblical material was treated by Hollywood.

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