• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, October 04, 2010

    Comparison: Moses' Early Life

    Back in 2008 my church did a series on the Ten Commandments, and I wrote a post comparing how different films portrayed the giving of the Decalogue. Now we're returning to Exodus to take a broader look at it. We're starting this Sunday with Moses' early life, and I've been tasked to find a suitable clip.

    Because it's a young congregation (18-30s plus their kids), I don't think they will get much out of either of DeMille's versions of the story, though, in any case, the 1923 film omits the early life of Moses and the 1956 version takes somewhere in the region of 2 hours to cover it. I'm also going to exclude some of the less accessible/popular films such as Moses und Aron. I'm particularly interested in the biblical events here, so I won't offer much comment on the additional material that is added to what we find in Exodus 2:1-15.

    What strikes me about watching these four takes together is that they have a number of similarities in plot. Firstly there is no mention of the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. Secondly, in contrast to The Ten Commandment all of these films suggest that the children are drowned in the river, rather than killed by swords, although there is some ambiguity on that point. Thirdly all of them show Moses being sailed down the river, whereas to me, at least, the implication of the passage seems to be that Moses mother Jochebed intends to hide him their until the danger passes. Floating a baby in simply a basket is as almost likely to end in death as leaving him for the soldiers. The reeds would allow his cries to be drowned out by the roar of the river, but also prevent his basket from sailing out into the river. Hence why Miriam hangs around to check everything is OK. Finally, none of these films show Moses having an altercation with the Israelite who witnessed Moses killing the Egyptian.

    So that's the things they have in common, what about the things that are distinct to each film?

    Moses the Lawgiver (1975)
    Network/Granada Ventures – Region 2
    Disc 1, title 1 – 0:00 to ~40:00 [~40 minutes]
    Moses played by Burt Lancaster

    When I first saw this 8 or so years ago I was shocked by the brutality of Moses killing the Egyptian. It doesn't seem quite as harsh now. Like many of these films several others witness the murder. There's narration here which mixes the Bible with other material, and by pronouncing it in an authoritative tone must have given the impression to those not in the know, that some of it is not from the Bible. There's a nice play on the dual meaning of Moses' name. The princess gives it to him, and explains its meaning, but as Miriam is present she explains what it means in Hebrew as well.

    Testament: The Bible in Animation: Moses (1996)
    Bible Society; Nine Film Set – Region 2
    Disc 1, title 3 - 04:10 to 06:15 [2:05 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Martin Jarvis

    Testament starts during the aftermath of Moses' murder of the Egyptian. Pharaoh's soldiers swarm through the Israelite settlement whilst Aaron persuades him to flee. This leads to a meeting with Jethro (the role of his daughters is passed over) and thus Moses tells his future father-in-law his story. It's a very effective sequence, largely shot in silhouette against a blood red sky. Despite this it's fairly menacing for kids, even though the murder scene is shown as shadows on a wall. The babies are thrown into the Nile in sacks emphasising the process of dehumanisation that may have occurred in the minds of the soldiers carrying out Pharaoh's grim command.

    Moses (1996)
    Time Life Box Set – Region 2
    Part 1; 0:00 – 14:15 [14:15 minutes]
    Moses played by Sir Ben Kingsley

    This is the oldest of the Moses babies, it's complete with two bottom teeth. This section of the film is notable for depicting Moses very weakly. In stark contrast to The Ten Commandments Moses is his "brother's" inferior. Not only does he stammer, but he's clumsy and provides an easily surpassed gift for Pharaoh's birthday. The murder scene, whilst not quite as visceral as Master Lancaster's, is appropriately brutal.

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)
    Dreamworks 2006 Single Disc version – Region 2
    3:04 to 7:54; 23:00 to 25:00; 28:03 to 31:54
    Moses voiced by Val Kilmer

    The murder of the Israelite children and Moses' narrow escape form the opening of the story which intertwines two songs, "Deliver Us" and "River Lullaby", which ends passing upwards from Pharaoh's palace, through the Israelites still slaving away, to a shot of a grand monument to Pharaoh. But then it zooms beyond it to focus on a structure far away which, given the accompanying lyrics, suggests the promised land.

    What's interesting about this scene is that it is animated again, later on in the film. Moses, have discovered his true identity falls asleep and has a dream in style of hieroglyphics of his salvation (pictured above). It's perhaps the movie's most acclaimed sequence, and rightly so.

    The slaying of the Egyptian scene is however a little dishonest. Rather than playing out the character arc we find in the Bible, (Moses' transition from a murderer to the leader of God's people) the incident is portrayed as an accident. The result of hot-headed anger to be sure, but there's no suggestion that Moses intended to kill the Egyptian.

    Ten Commmandments (2006)
    Disc 1; 1:47 – 21:00 [19:13 minutes]
    Moses played by Dougray Scott

    There's an interesting addition to this film's portrayal of these events. Pharaoh's motivation for killing the Israelite baby boys comes from a prophecy that one of them will overthrow him. This seems to mirror Herod's motives in Matthew's gospel, which is interesting as Matthew's inclusion of this story in the first place seems intended to deliberately mirror the events around Moses' birth in the text of Exodus.

    Most of these films show Moses discovering his Hebrew ancestry once he is an adult, but here he finds out when he is approaching his teens. Like The Prince of Egypt the programme seeks to mitigate Moses' actions by showing them as a response to attempted rape. There's also a suggestion that killing the Egyptian was an unintended consequence.


    In the end we used the opening clip from The Prince of Egypt for our children and adults congregation, and the Testament clip for our evening congregation. This week we're looking at the burning bush and so I'll be doing a similar comparison on that sequence at some point soon.



    • At 1:35 am, October 05, 2010, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      For what it's worth, the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments also suggests that Pharaoh slaughtered the Hebrew babies because of a prophecy that one of them would grow up to deliver the Hebrews from bondage. Reportedly, this plot element was inspired by the account in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 2.205, of an Egyptian scribe who predicted the birth and future success of Moses.


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