One of the most frustrating historical issues of all time is that of how true are the stories in the Bible, and this films begs a lot of questions about that. It’s actually been banned in Egypt, because it shows the Pyramids and the Sphinx being built by Hebrew slaves, when there is no historical evidence that slave labour was used in their construction.
The film follows the popular theory that the “Pharoah of the Exodus” was Ramesses II: it IS a theory very often put forward and, when I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 2007, I paused for several moments by the mummy of Ramesses II purely for that reason. However, we don’t know – and, very annoyingly, we quite probably never will. The film, strangely, starts with the Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites. That a) IS a known event, b) can be dated to a particular time and c) is definitely NOT mentioned in the Book of Exodus. The film shows Moses saving the future pharaoh’s life at the battle. The idea was to promote a theme of sibling rivalry between the two of them. Hmm. The Old Testament is pretty big on sibling rivalry – Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – but it doesn’t hint at anything like that between Moses and Pharoah, and I think that mixing up a known battle with the book of Exodus was quite a weird decision to make.
As a film, it’s a brilliant spectacle. Big dramatic scenery and crowd shots. Plenty of action and drama. Some good performances. It’s rushed at the end – it goes along quite nicely until the crossing of the Red Sea, then rushes through getting the Ten Commandments in the space of a few seconds, but the film’s 2 1/2 hours long as it is. Also, it misses out the best bit of Exodus, LOL – when the slaves are told to go and, instead of legging it, they stop to get their food out of the oven to take with! It also deals quite nicely with the ten plagues, showing that they could have been sent by a divine force or they could just have been natural disasters … and Pharoah is shown as a loving father, absolutely devastated by the death of his first born, which is very poignant. Moses is shown as objecting to the slaying of the first born and saying that it’s not fair that ordinary people are being punished, which, whilst it’s not very Biblical, is a very good point. The burning bush incident is shown as possibly being true and possibly being a hallucination, which is fair enough. God is represented by a small child, which is a bit weird … I was just expecting a disembodied voice. It works quite well, though.
So that’s the film. Good film. But, oh, the frustration of not knowing how true any of it is! OK, I think pretty much everyone accepts that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegory … but with Exodus it’s very confusing. It’s a story that has had so much resonance at various times in history – the idea of people being freed from bondage, of an inspirational leader, and of a Promised Land. It’s plausible enough. Leaving out the bits at the end of Genesis about amazing technicolour dreamcoats and strange dreams, it’s quite plausible that people could have wandered from Canaan to Egypt looking for food in time of famine and been enslaved by the local rulers, and that, many years later, a series of natural disasters occurred which were interpreted as being a punishment for keeping slaves, and that the slaves were then freed. Maybe that all got mixed up in the telling with the tides of the Red Sea being affected by an earthquake. It’s possible. But there IS no evidence that slave labour was used in the mass construction projects of Ancient Egypt, and the only clues in the Bible to any sort of particular date are the mentions of the cities of Pithom and Ramses … and it seems likely that the site thought to’ve been that of Pithom wasn’t built until about 500 years after the times of Ramesses II.
It’s very, very annoying! The Bible plays such a big part in Western culture, and yet we just don’t know when any of this is meant to’ve happened, or if indeed it happened at all. The chances are that it’s part truth and part myth/legend, and a very simplified version of events at that. But we just don’t know. And, as the banning of the film in Egypt, and I think also Morocco, shows, that’s something that still has the power to stir up feelings rather strongly. It’s an age-old debate, and it’s one which will almost certainly never be satisfactorily resolved.