Ridley Scott tackles the Bible in the new film Exodus: Gods and Kings , which tells how the Jewish leader Moses frees his people from bondage in Egypt with the aid of ten plagues sent by God. Previous adaptations of the story include The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Moses the Lawgiver with Burt Lancaster, as well as the animated film The Prince of Egypt . So how does this latest effort stack up? For Bible scholar Robert M. Price, Gods and Kings is just a pale shadow of the Heston classic.
“I would say that The Ten Commandments is the definitive version of the Exodus, moreso than the Bible,” says Price in Episode 130 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Historian Richard Carrier agrees that Gods and Kings is a lackluster effort. “I thought it was the worst Ridley Scott film ever made, frankly,” he says.
The film has been heavily criticized for casting mostly white actors in the lead roles, but its problems hardly stop there. The theatrical cut was reportedly whittled down from a four hour version, and the seams show plainly, from the oddly irrelevant appearances of familiar actors like Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul to the choppy, illogical presentation of many of the film’s events and ideas. But the movie’s biggest problem is its lack of viewpoint and identity. The God presented in Gods and Kings is too offputting to appeal to believers, but far too bland to make for an interesting villain.
“It’s trying to toe that line of ‘not offend’ or ‘totally offend,'” says Carrier. “You should have gone all one way or the other. Trying to have it halfway makes friends of none, really.”
Some of the problems stem from trying to adapt an ancient story for a modern audience. When a key plot point involves the heroes killing thousands of sleeping children, it’s hard to keep a modern audience on board, something that wouldn’t have been a problem in ancient times, when audiences would see nothing troubling about unrestrained hatred of rivals.
“They don’t view them as real human beings,” says Price. “It’s like the orcs in Lord of the Rings , they’re just a race of evil, and so really who the hell cares what happens to them?”
But in this contemporary version Moses is made to argue half-heartedly with God, a conflict that, like most things in the film, never really goes anywhere. God himself is presented as a creepy, petulant child straight out of The Ring or The Grudge . It’s an interesting concept, but one that the film plays far too safe to get any real mileage out of.
Rather than re-hashing Exodus, Price suggests that Hollywood should turn their attention to the Book of Revelation, which has gonzo, hallucingenic imagery that cries out for big-budget CGI treatment. (A seven-headed dragon features prominently.)
“That would be mind-blowing,” says Price. “I think that would be terrific. Anybody watching that would just get a huge kick out of it. I think they ought to do that.”
Listen to our complete review of Exodus: Gods and Kings, featuring Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier, in Episode 130 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Richard Carrier on augury:
“In the Roman period you have Cicero writing this whole treatise about being an augur himself. … He was a total rationalist, he didn’t think it was real, but he would also at the same time endorse these Stoic attempts to rationalistically explain how augury could actually work somehow. But I don’t think even he bought it. … But there are famous stories that tried to combat that skepticism. You have a famous one in History of Rome where one of these Roman generals got sick of the augurs and thought it was baloney. They used to do augury with chickens, and the behavior of the chickens—how the chickens would eat or not—would tell them things. It would be good luck if the chicken ate, or something like that. And the chickens wouldn’t eat, and this general was absolutely certain that they were going to be victorious, and he said, ‘Well, then let the chickens drink!’ and they threw them in the ocean to drown the chickens. And then of course they lose, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you see, augury works!’ But of course that’s myth, right? They make up that story specifically to sell augury as a genuine thing.”
Richard Carrier on Exodus vs. Noah :
“I think Noah was a much better movie than this, on many levels—almost every level. In Noah there were only a few things that they didn’t explain. With most things they assumed that you didn’t know the story, and so they put some explanation in it or made stuff mysterious, whereas in this they had a few things that they just didn’t explain at all. And I expect a movie to treat it like fantasy source material, like you’re doing Lord of the Rings or something, where even if the audience may already know the story, you have to include it, as just part of the narrative, but they never explain why he’s telling them to put lamb’s blood on the doors—what’s the point of that? Maybe that’s another scene that got cut. But you really have to include that. You can’t just assume the audience knows this, especially today in this global society where a lot of people don’t know that story. You can’t just assume that everybody does.”
Robert M. Price on the Bible as literature:
“That’s a sign in Exodus that you’re dealing with fiction. The fact that Pharaoh has foremen, for instance, makes the obvious even more obvious, that he’s got building plans that he wants carried out. He’s not going to make it impossible for the slaves to do the work just to spite them, that would be insane. He’s just a storybook villain, as is the case when he says he wants the two Hebrew midwives—for a nation so big he’s afraid they’re going to overthrow his government, there are two of them—and he says, ‘Now, I want you to kill the male babies as soon as they’re born.’ As if they’re going to get away with that one time! And then they say to him, ‘Well, you know, sorry, we’re trying, but the Hebrew women are so hearty and vigorous that they give birth before we can even get there.’ In other words, they don’t use or need midwives. Well then what the hell are you there for? It’s like if the Hebrews were all vegetarians. ‘Yeah, I’m the kosher butcher there.’ What the heck? And Colonel Klink here believes it. I mean, it’s obviously just mockery of the pharaoh and so forth. There’s no way this is history. It’s incredible.”
Robert M. Price on parting the Red Sea:
“Another interesting wrinkle in this is that the Exodus story is obviously—if you look at it closely—a patchwork, and there are indications that an earlier version of this had it not be that much of a miracle, because what they cross is not the Red Sea but the ‘Yam Suph,’ the ‘Sea of Reeds.’ In the Greek Septuagint, for some reason, the translators introduced the idea that it was the Red Sea. Well, the Yam Suph—the Sea of Reeds—is obviously a marsh, and it says that the Israelites were heavily armed, though in the rest of the story you hear no more about it, and that when the Egyptian chariots tried to follow them, the wheels were clogged in the mud, and it implies that gave the armed Hebrews the advantage, and they won an upset victory. So you still find pretty pronounced traces of that, and then it got magnified more and more. That doesn’t mean that anything actually happened, but there is evidence of an earlier, simpler, non-miraculous version. And that could have happened, but then you’ve got no movie.”