• 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


    Saturday, June 02, 2018

    Wholly Moses! (1980)

    Such was the unexpected financial success of Monty Python's Life of Brian that other filmmakers quickly decided to follow suit. With the taboo broken, and most of the objections to irreverent biblical comedies having already been faced down, producers Freddie Fields and David Begelman, the ex-president of Columbia, hastily developed plans for a comic film which would appeal to a similar audience. For Begelman it was also a shot at redemption following his sacking from Columbia for forgery. Teaming up with writer Guy Wood they devised a movie that traced the contours of Python's film, only relocating the story to the time of Moses rather than that of Jesus.

    Wholly Moses shows a staggering lack of originality in this respect. Not only is it a biblical spoof, which also happens to star a famous Oxbridge comedian, but it's a film where the hero's life comes into very close proximity with a famous biblical figure. Whereas Python's Brian is mistaken for the Jewish Messiah, so this film's lead, Herschel (Dudley Moore), tracks the life of Moses. On the day that Moses' parents set him adrift on the Nile, so too does Herschel's father place his son in an ark on the river, only for the baby Moses to nudge Hershel's basket past the princess's palace. As an adult Herschel also has to flee to the desert where he meets Jethro and marries one of his daughters, Zrelda. Shortly afterwards Herschel mistakenly hears a voice from heaven instruct him to set his people free, without realising that the voice's intended target, Moses, is getting the full works around the corner.

    Sadly the one aspect of Life of Brian which the team behind Wholly Moses fail to reproduce is the sharpness of its humour. Not only are its jokes fewer and less pointed, but they are also not very amusing. Moore always seemed somewhat bereft when separated from his comedic partner Peter Cook. His success in 10 the year before was due more to its melancholy romantic elements more than its humour. His other major success, the Jeeves and Wooster-esque Arthur, (1981) owes its success as much to John Gielgud's waspish valet as to Moore's alcoholic millionaire. Here he later reflected that he had "allowed himself to be flattered and 'wet-noodled to death'" (Paskin 203).

    That said, the lack of humour is not so much Moore's fault, as Wood's script. There are perilously few good moments in the script, as evidenced by the fact that Richard Pryor also struggles in his cameo as Pharaoh. Director Gary Weis had a strong track record with comedic material from his time at Saturday Night Live (along with the film's female co-star Laraine Newman), but in his first proper feature film he struggled to pull things together or make the most of the comedic talent at his disposal.

    As the film's problems became apparent various changes were discussed to try and get things back on track. At one point there were plans to add a narrator. Whilst that idea was never fully developed, eventually the filmmakers decided to add modern day scenes at the start and the end of the film. As with Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) the narrative starts and ends on a bus in the desert. Their Moore's language scholar Harvey Orchid, strikes up a friendship with Newman's character Zoey. During an unscheduled stop the pair wander off and stumble across some ancient scrolls telling Herschel's tale.

    Whilst Weis' direction is pedestrian, cinematographer Frank Stanley, who had worked with Moore on 10, does manage to capture some nice scenes of the blue skies over Death Valley. Occasionally the odd bit of slapstick works and fans of DeMille's second version of The Ten Commandments (1956) will appreciate the recycling of it's famous dictum "So let it be written. So let it be done."

    Despite numerous troubles on the set and a critical slating, the film performed impressively during it's opening week, though business quickly trailed off. Orthodox Jewish groups however called it "the most vicious attch on the Jewish religion in the history of the American movie industry" (Paskin 205).  Undeterred, the following year, the Jewish writer and director Mel Brooks featured Moses in a short scene in A History of the World: Part 1, where a butter-fingered Moses drops a third tablet leaving commandments eleven to fifteen smashed on the floor. It's a scene that in seventy seconds manages to conjure up more laughs than Wholly Moses does in over an hour and a half and carved out its place as comedy's most memorable depiction of Moses. Moore struck gold with Arthur, and Begelman went off to be head of MGM. Weis and Wood barely worked in the movies again.

    Paskin, Barbra (1998) Dudley Moore: The Authorized Biography. London: Pan Books

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