• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, November 04, 2008

    Moses, Called by God (1958)

    Having covered the gospels in 1951 and Acts in 1957, The Living Bible series turned to the Old Testament in 1958 with 14 episodes from Abraham to Elijah. The Moses story was given two episodes: Moses, Called by God which covered the events in Exodus up to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds; and Moses, Leader of God's People which covers Israel's wilderness years. Given that just the year before DeMille's second version of The Ten Commandments had been playing in cinemas it's interesting to see how the two productions compare. Because the latter films were part of a series, the intention behind their created was not a direct rebuttal, even if aspects of the film tries to put the record straight. That said, I'd argue that films which cover the same material as an immensely popular film very shortly after it, are perhaps those that are least influenced by it. It's too early for intentional homage, any copying would be too obvious to the casual viewer. Furthermore, any filmmaker visiting the material so soon after a major release would, in all probability, already have had their own strong ideas about how the story should be told. But a decade later, it would be likely that filmmakers would have been influenced before they started thinking through how they would shoot the story.

    In this particular case, it was inevitable that the two productions would be very different. The Living Bible series typically adopted a slavish dependence on the Biblical text, whereas DeMille added in a huge amount of extra-biblical material. And then there's the budget. Whilst DeMille saves his special effects for mere a handful of scenes, everything about the latter two films suggest they were made for the smallest possible budget. There's no eerie greenish mist stealing away the Egyptians' first born, just a scene in Pharaoh's palace moments later. Heston's staff morphed effortlessly into a snake.; here there's just a cheap jump cut. Ironically, the best managed effect occurs during the parting of the Red Sea when the latter film throws aside biblical fidelity in favour of a DeMillean instant parting (although it's perhaps DeMille's 1923 version that is more the influence here than his 1956 film).All of that aside, this is one of the stronger entries in the Living Bible Series. The uncredited actor playing Moses has a few good moments and the film's pacing is very good. In particular, many films about Moses skip a plague or two, presumably to avoid monotony. But here they include all ten without things ever feeling dragged out. And there's something very refreshing in the way which this film sticks to the basic story without trying to puff up the relationship between Moses and Ramsees. In fact the Pharaoh's are never even named in this particular film.

    Anyway, here's a run down of the scenes that the film covers:
    Introduction - (Exodus 1:1-14)
    Slaughter of the infants - (Ex 1:22)
    Moses put into the river - (Ex 2:1-4)
    Princess finds Moses - (Ex 2:5-6)
    Miriam finds a wet nurse - (Ex 2:7-8)
    Moses kills an Egyptian & flees - (Ex 2:11-15)
    The Burning Bush - (Ex 3:1-4:17)
    Moses meets Aaron - (Ex 4:27-28)
    Moses before Israel's leaders - (Ex 4:29-31)
    Moses asks Ramsees - (Ex 5:1-3)
    Bricks without straw - (Ex 5:4-21)
    Ten Plagues - (Ex 7:14-11:10; 12:29-30)
    Pharaoh releases the slaves - (Ex 12:31-37)
    Pharaoh changes his mind - (Ex 14:5-8)
    Parting of the sea - (Ex 14:10-31)
    Song of Moses - (Ex 15:2)
    A Few Notes
    This is the only time, at least that I can think of, where Moses's adopted mother (here Pharaoh's daughter) both recognises and openly acknowledges that the baby that has just been pulled from the Nile is an Israelite. It's an interesting angle, particularly as it leads much more naturally to the conversation between her and Miriam which results in Moses's mother being brought in as a wet nurse.

    It also means that the emphasis for Moses's slaying of the Egyptian is put back on him, rather than his struggle to some to terms with a new identity or anything like that. By this point the film is only 4 minutes in, which strongly contrasts with DeMille's film. Obviously that film was around 15 times as long as this, but even as a proportion of the overall run time, this film deals with that part of the story much quicker (in the 1956 film it takes around half of the film's runtime).

    The other scene that particularly interested me was the one where Moses first appears before Pharaoh. Firstly, we're told it's a new Pharaoh, but he's played by the same actor. Presumably it was cheaper to make it this way, and a strong family resemblance is certainly not unusual. But it also gives the film a bit of extra meaning. It strengthens the link between these two Pharaohs (DeMille consciously tries to break the continuity by inserting an extra, more sympathetic Pharaoh in between the one who killed the babies and the one who was on the throne during the plagues. It also could be read as a symbol of Egyptian unity, or their facelessness to the Israelites. Perhaps I'm reading too much in.Secondly, both Aaron and Moses speak to Pharaoh. In the Bible Aaron is brought in as a mouthpiece for Moses, but it's unclear whether it's he or his brother that actually speak the words to Pharaoh - If Aaron was Moses's mouthpiece then it would not be surprising if words physically uttered by Aaron, were attributed to their source, Moses. Alternatively, it may just be that once Moses was inside the palace he found he didn't need his brother's help. From a cinematic point of view, it doesn't work so well if your leading man and hero figure seems to lack the courage even to speak so the majority of films have had Moses do the speaking. One notable exception here is the 1996 Moses which actually goes as far to give Moses a stutter first time we meet him. It's also the central theme of Straub and Hulliet's adaptation of Moses und Aron, but to go into that would be a major tangent.

    Thirdly, and again siding with the Bible against the majority of Moses films, Moses and Aaron's initial request is for three days time off to worship in the desert. It's never really clear in the Bible how this ends up as a request for permanent freedom - the most likely explanation lies in differences between the four sources that lie behind Exodus. Likewise here, it's unclear at what point the request changes. But it appears that rather than trying to copy the Bible's confusion, this is mainly due to the way that the plagues are shown through narrated over montage.

    Finally, the cries of the Egyptian people seem to have some bearing on Pharaoh's decision to release the Israelites. Again the voices of the ordinary Egyptians generally tend to go unheard in these films; Pharaoh makes his decisions either in isolation or only in the presence of his court. This is significant, because, the ordinary Egyptians probably also suffered greatly under their rulers. Looking at the Exodus story from their point of view is fairly disturbing. Having suffered under Pharaoh's lavish building programme they suffer terribly under the ten plagues culminating in the death of their children. Whilst a lot of them would have had roles in the Egyptian hierarchy, many of them would be entirely "innocent", in a sense, and the terrible suffering they faced at the hands of this loving God should trouble us and cause us to re-examine the passages in question. Whilst the film doesn't quite go this far, like the original text, it does at least allow the ordinary Egyptians a voice unlike other films which have bypassed such difficult questions by leaving them in the wings.

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