Throughout the 2000’s and beyond, the historical epic genre had become something of director Sir Ridley Scott’s bread and butter. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the bread went stale and the butter congealed. He had been lucky in that 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN only narrowly escaped artistic ruin by dint of an excellent Director’s Cut. 2010’s ROBIN HOOD was too down-the-middle to register as anything more than a passable night at the movies. 2014’s EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS proved the peril of going back to the well one too many times, inviting a critical and financial shellacking that dared to finally raise the question of retirement for the venerated — yet septuagenarian — filmmaker.
Of course, it was impossible for Scott and company to know this at the outset. Indeed, the film’s development positioned itself as a rather exciting and bold prospect. Arriving in the same year as NOAH, Darren Aronofsky’s take on the eponymous biblical figure and his Ark, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS was riding a small wave of radically-revisionist retellings of stories from the Old Testament. Scott had become involved in 2012, after reading an initial script that revealed how little the avowed atheist actually knew about Moses as a historical figure (2). Furthermore, he was drawn to the idea of depicting iconic supernatural moments like the Plagues or the parting of the Red Sea as byproducts of natural causes. One could certainly argue about the artistic merits (or wisdom) of removing God from any biblical story, but Scott’s atheistic take provides a compelling counter-argument: by conflating these “Acts Of God” with naturally-occurring developments like tsunamis or ecological chain reactions, one reinforces God’s presence within them. As an artistic and ideological entry point, this conceit positions EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS as a film worth making. However, its making is its ultimate undoing — any opportunity for nuanced insights or artistic ingenuity is quickly smothered by the commercial demands of a gargantuan $140 million budget, servicing no less than five active producers as they endeavor to realize a bloated and muddled screenplay by four different writers (one of whom being frequent Scott scribe, Steve Zaillian).
To hear Scott tell it, the film’s enormous budget is also the source of its biggest point of contention: its alleged “whitewashing” of history. The film is ostensibly about the conflict between the ancient Egyptian ruling class and Hebrew slaves, taking place in a section of North Africa that borders modern-day Israel. And yet, core members of the cast — Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Mendelsohn — are undeniably, inescapably Anglo-Saxon. This tactic may have sufficed in the heyday of midcentury Technicolor epics like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, BEN-HUR or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (films that Scott is clearly trying to emulate), but it does not pass muster today. Neither did Scott’s reasoning, when pressed by socially-conscious critics about a cast that seemed totally at odds with the diverse approach he’d applied to previous pictures. His excuse was that it would have been impossible to finance a film of this scale with ethnically-appropriate actors, but such a disappointingly-disingenuous response only prompted more scorn by critics — many of whom can now point to several recent examples of diverse blockbusters whose huge success would instantly disprove Scott’s thesis. Edgerton and Weaver’s casting as Egyptian royalty seems particularly egregious, projecting a foundation of Hollywood pageantry as phony as the layers of computer-generated backgrounds behind them. What makes it even more unforgivable is that Edgerton’s role had been previously offered to previous Scott collaborators like Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem (1) — actors who, while not exactly North African in background, were much more ethnically-suited to the role of an Egyptian pharaoh than Edgerton. The whole thing just feels like a missed opportunity, and Scott’s refusal to own up to his failures here tarnishes his legacy at a critical moment.
If there’s one thing EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is particularly good about, it’s the conveyance of how old the ancient pyramids of Egypt really are. The film takes place in 1300 BCE, but the Great Pyramid was already one thousand years old at this point— as old as the Crusades depicted in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN seem to us today. One truly gets a sense of the Egyptian empire at its zenith, akin to the immersive feeling we had watching Scott recreate Ancient Rome in GLADIATOR (2000). The story borrows a similar narrative template, wherein a celebrated general is regarded as a son by his Emperor, favored for succession even over the rightful heir (with whom the general shares a brotherly bond). Christian Bale’s Moses is not the white-haired, bushy-bearded mountain man often depicted in pop culture, but rather a brilliant tactician in command of the Pharaoh’s army. While he openly acknowledges that Moses could never actually succeed him, King Seti — played here by John Turturro with the same fatherly eminence as GLADIATOR’s Marcus Aurelius — nevertheless concedes his preference for the bright general. Naturally, this creates a massive inferiority complex in Seti’s biological son, Prince Ramesses II (Edgerton). When Seti unexpectedly dies and an elder from the Hebrew slave population (Ben Kingsley) reveals to Moses that he is actually one of them, the disgraced commander decides to seek the safety of exile. He proceeds to live in the desert for many years, becoming a lowly shepherd and the head of a modest family. However, just as he’s consigned himself to a quiet life, he’s hit in the head by a rock during a landslide. He’s thrown into a brief coma, where he experiences his iconic vision of The Burning Bush, accompanied by a divine messenger in the form of an ethereal little boy commanding him to free his people from bondage and lead them to a bountiful Promised Land. Having grown up as a firm cynic in all things religious or spiritual, Moses initially grapples with this daunting task, but his burgeoning faith eventually gives him the courage to return to his homeland for a confrontation with his old friend and new king. Thus initiates a titanic struggle for the freedom of the Hebrew people that will see nothing less than the parting of the Red Sea before it is finished.
This struggle naturally ensnares a variety of background characters, many of whom fall prey to the aforementioned whitewashing controversy. Aaron Paul plays a Hebrew slave named Joshua, a man whose inability to feel pain strengthens his role as Moses’ de facto lieutenant. Ben Mendelsohn brings added dimension to his role as the slave overseer, Viceroy Hegep, lining his performance as an urbane, extravagant bureaucrat with the purple velvet of ambiguous sexuality. Indeed, he comes across as neither heterosexual or homosexual as much as he does pansexual— his taste for the finer things in antiquity having given him an open-mindedness towards anyone and anything. Weaver, who hasn’t worked with Scott since 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992), finds her talents utterly wasted here. Her performance as Tuya, the Queen Mother, possesses a vindictive, Lady Macbeth-ian quality that initially promises new depths from Weaver as an actress. Unfortunately, many of those moments are excised from the finished product, rendering her presence inconsequential and ultimately unnecessary. Scott’s experience in working with seasoned Middle Eastern actors does yield a few appearances from talents like BODY OF LIES’ Golshifteh Farahan and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s Ghassan Massoud, albeit in very minor, peripheral roles: Farahan as Ramesses’ wife, Nefeteriat, and Massoud as the Grand Vizier, a sagely advisor to King Seti. That these fantastic, ethnically-appropriate actors are wasted on smaller bit parts only further reinforces the film’s tone-deaf casting approach.
Scott’s always-impeccable craftsmanship labors valiantly to lessen the wincing sting of its Anglo-heavy cast, in the process cementing his comfort with the burgeoning tools and techniques of the digital revolution. Reteaminging with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for their third consecutive collaboration, Scott’s vision for EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS shares the sweeping epic tone that marked the Technicolor CinemaScope spectacles of yesteryear. The Red Epic camera gives Scott and Wolski an unparalleled latitude for image manipulation in post, allowing them to dial in a desaturated, stone-hued color palette beset by punches of regal red and golds. Many scenes — especially nocturnal sequences that employ exotic torch light as practicals — hinge on Scott’s signature blue/orange dichotomy, adding yet another link to an unbroken stylistic chain that spans the celebrated director’s filmography. Ultra-wide 2.35:1 compositions position characters as small figures against a colossal landscape, working in tandem with classical camerawork to establish the film’s old-school epic ambitions. Granted, Scott doesn’t necessarily emulate the style of David Lean so much as he builds upon it, giving EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS a modern flair through majestic aerial shots, chaotic handheld battle sequences, and evocative atmospheric effects like flares, smoke, and silhouettes to give his otherwise-flat frame some much needed dimensionality. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS finds Scott and returning production designer Arthur Max taking advantage of their familiarity with the arid Spanish vistas they’d used in THE COUNSELOR to recreate the ancient Egyptian empire in all its golden glory. Their efforts benefit from an innate understanding of urbanity — the various ways in which people interact with and move through the built environment — subsequently imbuing the film’s ancient favelas, encampments, and homesteads with a palpable grit and grime that most pictures of this scale lack.
By now, it’s become well-established that Scott is at his artistic best when he’s able to create giant worlds and use xenophobia as a thematic vehicle in which to move through them. The narrative conflict between the Egyptian elite and their Hebrew slaves, or the deeper conflict between monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs, quite clearly positions Scott for success in this regard— it doesn’t get any clearer (or more on-the-nose) than Ramesses’ dehumanizing dismissal of the Hebrews as “animals”. And yet, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS would incite the very sort of xenophobia he set out to soothe. His ill-advised casting choices certainly didn’t help matters, but it seems his revisionist, agnostic take on a revered biblical story is what ruffled the most feathers abroad. More than the surface racial objections, countries with hardline religious beliefs were taken aback by Scott’s suggestion that the Old Testament God’s wrath and mercy could have an earthly explanations. As such, the film was banned in several North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and even Scott’s beloved Morocco (albeit temporary) (1). Not that being accessible in more countries would have saved the film from its fate as a financial and critical bomb of biblical proportions; a swath of negative reviews likely dampened the audience’s enthusiasm for a film that already looked like an inferior version of something Scott had done before. Its paltry $65 million domestic take couldn’t even justify the home video release of a reworked “director’s cut” a la BLADE RUNNER or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, despite Scott stating in interviews that his preferred cut ran four hours (1). Simply put, the film is most definitely not one of the pillars of Scott’s cinematic legacy; its bombastic filler, the parts far more valuable than the whole.
Still, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS must hold some sort of artistic or sentimental value for Scott, judging by its dedication to his late brother and business partner, Tony. His exploration of the brotherly, yet complicated and competitive, dynamic between Moses and Ramesses stands as the film’s chief source of emotional resonance. There had been great mystery and speculation regarding the motive of Tony’s unexpected suicide in 2012, and it’s very understandable that Scott wanted to work out his own feelings through the work he loved to do. A core part of his identity for nearly seven decades was now gone; consigned to the warm oblivion of memory. How does one move forward from something like that, or begin the process of building a new identity? In its own veiled way, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS attempts to lay bare Scott’s processing of grief in all its mess and convolution. Time has shown it to be an ugly process, but a necessary one; its outcome yielding a much needed respite from his late career’s inescapable wane.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is currently available on 4K Ultra High Definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Written by: Steve Zaillian, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine
Produced by: Peter Chernin, Michael Schaefer, Jenno Topping, Mark Huffam, Ridley Scott
Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Edited by: Billy Rich, Ali Degismis
Music by: Alberto Iglesias
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: Ridley Scott (June 4, 2012). “Q+A: Ridley Scott’s Star Wars”. Esquire (Interview). Interviewed by Eric Spitznagel. Hearst Corporation. Retrieved April 18, 2015. “I’ve got something else in the works. I’m already doing it. It’s called Moses…Seriously, seriously. It’s going to happen.”