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Ridley Scott’s Biblical Film—"Exodus: Gods and Kings"—and Its Discontents

Holy Moses, what a God-awful film—I promise that this essay contains no other insipid puns.  I am fascinated by film, ancient history, and Biblical stories.  Quite rarely since the 1960s, do all these things come together in big-budget, grand-scale Hollywood moviemaking.  Consequently, and especially because I had missed an opportunity to see Noah last spring, I resolved to experience the other 2014 Old Testament epic, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, before it left theatres.  I looked forward to the film’s December release with great anticipation and interest, which was magnified by my respect for Ridley Scott’s large body of impressive work as a director—especially for his highly original, early masterpieces such as The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner—which has had an enormous influence on film over the last almost four decades.  Unfortunately, my excitement about Exodus and my expectations of Ridley Scott were entirely misplaced.

Exodus: Gods and Kings tells the well-known story of how Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, a Biblical narrative that communicates the theological purpose of God’s relationship with the ancient Jews.  Underscoring the power of film, the solemn Technicolor spectacle of the 1956 Cecile B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, featuring Charlton Heston in his unforgettable role as Moses, is arguably so deeply imbedded in our popular culture that this cinematic account, rather than the Bible narrative itself, has become the Exodus story for most Americans.  Obviously, any challenge to the preeminent position long held by The Ten Commandments in the pantheon of Bible-inspired films would require extraordinary filmmaking talent and vision. 

The acclaimed English director, Ridley Scott, seemed a perfect candidate for retelling the story of Moses and the Exodus.  Scott is certainly no newcomer to historical film.  His first film, The Duellists, takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, 1492: Conquest of Paradise considers Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, while Gladiator, one of Scott’s most successful films, is set in the Roman Empire.  Furthermore, Scott has directed works that have focused on the intersection of history and religion.  Kingdom of Heaven, for example, looks at the Roman Catholic Crusades against Islam.  Finally, over his long career, Scott has also developed a remarkable ability to successfully bring nuance, complexity, and emotional depth to epic historical dramas, whose mammoth size tend to promote two-dimensional portrayals in the hands of less talented filmmakers.  Yet, despite his impressive record of technical and artistic accomplishments as a director, Scott proved to be poorly suited to bring life and meaning to the subject of his film.  In short, Scott’s religious prejudices and ignorance of history undermined his effort to produce a film worthy of his reputation as a brilliant filmmaker.

The most successful Bible-inspired film of the last several decades remains Mel Gibson’s 2004 global sensation, The Passion of the Christ, an emotional juggernaut which forced Hollywood to take note of a largely ignored and undervalued Christian audience.  The Passion of the Christ was written, produced, and directed by Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic who aimed to reproduce through film as accurately as possible the scriptural description of Christ’s historical martyrdom.  Conversely, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was directed by an atheist, Scott, who curiously accepts the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus as historical truth, but, paradoxically, dismisses the religious content and divine attribution of the narrative’s key events. 

Rather than reconstructing the Exodus story to reflect its religious content and meaning as elucidated in the Old Testament and the Torah, Scott uses his film to posit a materialist interpretation of the story, premised upon putatively historical and “scientific” evidence.  While Gibson was inspired to make his film because of his religious reverence for his subject, Scott was motivated by his rejection, if not also contempt, for the religious understanding of the events described in the story of Moses and the Exodus, a central figure and a watershed moment, respectively, in the evolving revelation of God for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Indeed, in recent interviews, Scott recounted memories of his boyhood in the 1950s when he scoffed at Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments.  Scott has noted on several occasions: “I didn’t believe it then, when I was just a kid sitting in the third row.  I remember that feeling and thought that I’d better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation.”  

Scott’s celebrated career and enormous influence in Hollywood, along with a budget exceeding 140 million dollars, enabled him, finally, to indulge his childhood hubris.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result is a cinematic disaster.  The respected film critic, Scott Mendelson, offered a straightforward, unvarnished assessment in his December 2014 Forbes review, writing: “Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible film.  It is a badly acted and badly written melodrama that takes what should be a passionate and emotionally wrenching story and drains it of all life and dramatic interest.” 

The failure of the film, however, extends beyond the cinematic conventions of passion and drama.  Scott’s film is a disappointment because of its conceptual and ideological underpinnings, which produce a ludicrous assault against both history and religion.  Here I want to be clear, that I do not advocate some crude religious litmus test for filmmaking: any director of a Bible-inspired film does not need to be a person of faith in order to produce a work of integrity, but producing such a work of integrity requires a director to be faithful to the film’s textual source—the Bible.  After all, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a feature film, not a documentary or religious symposium.  Filmmaking allows for, and for technical reasons often requires, creative latitude in the adaptation and transformation of textual material, including Biblical literature, into a motion picture.  However, Scott goes beyond merely making artistic or technical adjustments to the story of Exodus.  He has essentially created an alternative narrative. 

Scott’s film makes no effort to be true to the narrative of Moses and the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt.  Even this deficiency could perhaps be overlooked if Scott invoked the defense of artistic license.  However, because Exodus: Gods and Kings bears almost no resemblance to the Biblical narrative, it ultimately pretends to be something that it is not, and this is a deliberate deception that cannot be justified.  It is difficult to understand why one of the most gripping and suspenseful Biblical narratives needed so much ultimately strange altering, including the infusion of Arthurian mythology into the life of Moses.  For those familiar with the Biblical narrative, Scott’s version of the story is virtually unrecognizable.  In fact, given the omission of some of the most crucial and exciting elements of the Biblical story, coupled with the injection of entirely invented features, one may reasonably question whether anyone involved with this film ever read the Biblical account.  Were that not enough to raise concerns about the disingenuous approach to its subject, the film’s historical inaccuracies, as well as blunders in the depictions of Egyptian architecture and material culture, are too many and too vast to recount. 

Ultimately, most of the film’s problems stem from the director’s hostility towards religion.  Scott’s prejudice was clearly identified by the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society, Ellen White, a University of Toronto Hebrew Bible scholar, who observed: “The movie [Exodus: Gods and Kings] is manipulative in its anti-religious polemic.  All the supernatural elements of the story (which are in the Bible to make theological points about the God of the Hebrews and thus are literarily important to the characterization of God, regardless of one’s faith position) are stripped away or given a scientific explanation within the dialogue.  It is amazing that in the movie…Moses is a firm atheist until he suffers a traumatic brain injury, which makes him hallucinate a boy-god.  Which brings us to the petulant, malicious boy-god, who plagues the Hebrews alongside the Egyptians, ignores Moses’ pleas for mercy and binds the Hebrews to him without choice in the final plague.  All of these alterations were designed to make religion look senile.” 

The highly accomplished British actor who plays Moses, Christian Bale, apparently enthusiastically embraced Ridley Scott’s outlook in preparing for his role.  In an October 2014 pre-release interview in Los Angeles, Bale noted that, although he had not been knowledgeable about the Bible before his involvement in Scott’s project, by the time of the completion of the film he was convinced that Moses was as a terrorist and “was likely a schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about.”  Bale also opined that Moses “was a very troubled man, tumultuous man and mercurial.  But the biggest surprise was the nature of God.  He was very mercurial.”  Bale’s unintentionally comic reflections on God are instructive because they reveal that the God of Exodus: Gods and Kings is not the God of the Bible, but exclusively the God of Ridley Scott’s imagination. 

Two months before the release of his film, a confident Scott declared with no irony or humility: “it’s always interesting to address all the facts.  Out of the facts comes the logic, and out of the logic comes reality.”  Scott’s desire to produce “rational scientific” explanations to account for the events found in the Exodus narrative ultimately led him to change even the most well known Old Testament image—God’s parting, through Moses, of the Red Sea, for the Hebrews to flee to safety ahead of the pharaoh’s pursuing army.  According to his belief, Scott attributes this dramatic climax of the Biblical narrative to a propitiously timed tsunami triggered by an underwater earthquake rather than divine intervention.

Through Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott aims to discredit the religious interpretation of a pivotal Biblical story not by questioning the veracity of the story but by constructing a “scientific” explanation to replace the story’s religious explanation.  However, Scott fails to understand, among many things, that the historical authenticity of the Bible is not dependent upon material evidence, or, furthermore, that scientific explanation and divine intervention do not necessarily negate each other.  Scientific evidence is not needed to affirm the essential truths of the Bible.  For those truths, in the framework of Christian thought, are revealed and affirmed through the life and message of Jesus Christ, for whom the world was inexorably prepared, in part, by Moses.  This is a theological and historical reality that, not surprisingly, does not find its way into Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.                                 

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.