Twentieth Century Fox
In case you hadn’t realized it from Exodus: Gods and Kings, Noah, The History Channel’s The Bible, that Ben-Hur remake due out in 2016 and the second Bible pic Ridley Scott plans on making sometime in the future, the Bible epic is back in a big, big way.
Which hasn’t been the case since the late ‘50s/early ’60s, when Bible heroes were as prevalent onscreen as superheroes are today (although they’re basically the same when you think about it: cool capes, mystical powers, characters who totally seem to die yet are retconned back to life for the sequel). Ben-Hur. The Ten Commandments. The Greatest Story Ever Told. King of Kings. Huge films that bore equally huge amounts of profit.
But is there some kind of connection between this new Bible craze and our last frenzy to put butts in seats with talk of Christ, God and “In the beginning”? According to Exodus — the new swords ’n’ sandals project from Scott, Christian Bale and a cast of millions ‐ there totally is. And also, there isn’t.
It’s kind of confusing. Here’s why.
Our own “in the beginning” starts with the Exodus footage Fox showed off last week. Surprisingly, we were invited.
There, in the reasonably spacious Zanuck Theater, I sat as the studio proudly screened a chunk of Exodus for the crowd, followed by that trailer that recently popped up online, followed by a brief on-stage interview with Bale, followed appropriately by all of us being led out of the building.
The footage, when chopped into slimmer pieces and stitched into a three-minute trailer, would look almost exactly like the following trailer (a good two-thirds of those shots were in the 40ish minutes shown), cutting a fairly standard path through the story of Moses and what seems to be the basic narrative of the film.
We begin with Moses and Ramses, both reasonably youthful and both going off to war. Their father (bio-dad to Ramses; surrogate dad to Moses), played by John Tururro, has a plump white waterfowl slaughtered and learns of a prophecy. At some point in the battle, someone will save the life of a leader, and that life-saver will go on to be a true leader (as opposed to the poor schmuck whose life he saved). Ramses, unsurprisingly, is set on edge. Then, after a truly massive escalation (think Lord of the Rings and Pelennor Fields), we see the Egyptian forces trudge out into the sand, ready to slaughter them some Hittites.
The battle is just as gigantic. Throngs of foot soldiers are crunched underneath Egyptian chariots (one helmed by Ramses, who’s enjoying the carnage maybe a bit too much), while Moses stands among the Egyptian men, whirling and parrying and slashing on foot. Eventually, Ramses’s chariot is totaled and he’s thrown to the ground. And sure enough, he’s about to enter the bosom of Abraham (as they used to say) when Moses intervenes and saves his life with a nifty spear move.
Thus, the prophecy has been fulfilled.
This was the first of many clips, but it’s the one that stands out the most, especially when looking at Exodus through the lens of the old timey Bible film. The battle is gargantuan. Kingdom of Heaven is an extremely valid point of reference, but there’s more “stuff” overall. More horses, more people, more chariots. Although the camera is more stolid; there’s less freneticism and less slow-mo than Kingdom; more of a no-frills look at a really, really, really large conflict.
And size is one of the distinguishing factors (if not the distinguishing factor) of the ‘50s/’60s Bible film. Both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur were, at certain points in time, the most expensive films ever shot (The Greatest Story Ever Told grumbles in protest with a smaller achievement- most expensive ever shot… in the US). Greatest Story was shot on forty seven separate sets. Ben-Hur featured 2,500 horses and some 10,000 extras. In short, these were big movies.
And in speaking about the film (along with Bale, producer Jenno Topping was also talking up Exodus) size was at the forefront of the conversation. Exodus’ own numbers include:
- 400 folks hard at work on the practical pieces
- 400 frogs in a plague scene
- 120 horses and
- According to a piece in Yahoo, a completely unheard-of 30 fully working chariots, which will be CGIed up to 2,000 come December.
Exodus, unlike The Bible and Noah (the latter aiming for record-breaking size with its CGI animals rather than anything practical) is aiming to be just as grand in scale as its predecessors. Which is more or less confirmed via Deadline, who snagged an exclusive quote from Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos at the presentation.
“You don’t see movies on this scale anymore. You don’t see movies using these numbers of people in these massive scenes unless they are computer generated.”
Onscreen, it shows. But at the same time, there’s a sense that those championing Exodus are also trying their damndest to distance themselves from Charlton Heston and Bible-sized movies that starred him.
Says Exodus production designer Arthur Max (also via Yahoo): “I hope we haven’t gone back to those ’40s and ’50s biblical films. We looked at them and they were useful for what not to do. The technology was very primitive. The style of acting is very stilted and period-dated.”
It’s worth noting that Max adds that Scott “is trying to romanticise the story he’s telling, rather than a ‘scholastic British museum goes to the Cairo museum’ type of storytelling.” Which is something the old epics used to do as well. Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, which shot the life story of Jesus in the extremely un-Arabic setting of the American Southwest, because it looked prettier.
Twentieth Century Fox
At the presentation, Bale seemed far more reverent of the older films, but still eager to put some distance between his Moses and Heston’s (although that was likely out of respect for Heston’s performance, and Bale’s insistence that “you can’t out-Heston Charlton Heston”). Says Bale:
“In my reading, from looking at the five books, was that this was an incredible weight that he was lifting on his shoulders. That this should be something where you see a man who really is straining… and I felt that with The Ten Commandments it was very much sort of an uplifting, doves, you know ‐ Ahhhhhhhh [it is at this point that Bale makes the choir noise every angel makes when floating down from Heaven in a pillar of light], and he was sort of ‘Flying Moses.’ Like he would levitate through the scenes. And I felt that ours should be someone that is just desperately trying to keep moving forward, because of this just enormous pressure that this is on him.”
Can Exodus balance the two? Can it take on the size and scale of a ’50s Bible epic while scooping out the innards and adding a grittier, put-upon hero of today? From the looks of the footage, Scott and company have done a decent job of it. Nearly every scene in the presentation (save for one, when Moses meets with Ben Kingsley’s Nun in a cramped cavern streaked in brownish grime) is massive in some form, be it the size of the sets, the decadence of the palaces or the squishiness of 400 frogs forming a warty blanket over the Pharaoh’s wife while she sleeps (it’s gross).
And for the most part, everyone’s all grave, all the time. Other than the pre-battle preamble in the first scene, there were no doves nor angel noises to be found in the presentation footage. Either it’s waiting for us in the less essential (or less finished) sequences Fox didn’t want to show, or “stern and serious” is a constant thematic presence. (And for what it’s worth on the levity front, Bale mentioned that two of the first films he watched in researching the part of Moses were Monty Python’s Life of Brian and History of the World, Part I. So there’s that. Something to remember through all the brooding.)
Either way, the tonal goal of Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to have been accomplished. Now, only one thing remains: to see if a dark and brooding Bible epic is actually any good. We’ll see December 12th.