Not So Holy Moses?

November 17, 2014

exodus_01-plague-battles-and-big-waves-in-first-exodus-gods-and-kings-trailer If you’re a stockholder of 21st Century Fox, you might be a bit nervous these days. 21st Century Fox is publicly traded company that owns Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, and that company is the second biggest movie studio, behind Warner Brothers.

They are also the latest studio in the Bible movie sweepstakes. And, with their epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings slated to open December 12, 2014, stockholders should be anticipating an epic windfall.  But a few cracks are showing – and they’re not in the walls of Jericho.

It was inevitable that Hollywood would return to the Bible as source material for its blockbuster entertainment projects. Since the days of silent pictures, films based on the Holy Book have made vast fortunes for movie moguls. Even the most uninterested film fan can reel off a list of classic Bible successes on the silver screen, including Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Story Ever Told and, of course, The Bible: In the Beginning.

The genre was ubiquitous throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, but, as the entertainment industry became hostile to traditional American values and beliefs in the 1970’s, things changed. For several decades, no major studio would venture into the Bible arena, at least not in a positive way.

Hollywood’s iconoclasm toward tradition led to a few Bible pictures that were abhorrent to religious Christians and Jews. In the 1980’s, Paramount Studios brought us Richard Gere as a thoroughly disturbing King David, and Universal Studios soon followed with a film that generated intense antipathy among the faith world, The Last Temptation of Christ.

More than a decade would pass before a Bible film would command serious attention in the culture. The Passion of the Christ would eventually change Hollywood’s thinking on Bible films and set in motion a trend that is accelerating, though still deeply flawed.

Mel Gibson’s epic film about the final days in the life of Jesus would break box office records and rally the faithful, but only after Gibson, rejected for distribution by every major studio, took his film to the theatres through a weak independent company. The vehicle didn’t matter, as millions of traditional viewers rushed back to the cinema for the first time in years, and rewarded the film with a gross recoupment approaching a billion dollars.

Like any industry, Hollywood can smell money. At first, they ascribed Passion’s success to the controversy that surrounded the film’s supposed anti-Semitic undertones. Eventually, the moguls came to realize that there were millions of Americans who had no interest in the typical Hollywood fare, and would support films based on their interests – and that there was no greater interest for this community than the Bible.

It took a number of false starts – one shudders when contemplating the fact that the Tinseltown titans tried to sell the hopeless yarn Constantine to the faith and family crowd – but, eventually, Paramount returned to the Bible world with a film about Noah and the flood. Starring one of the great actors of our time, Russell Crowe in the title role, the film geared up by hiring Christian marketers to promote the film among the faithful.

When Passion made its debut, it was only after spending months being promoted by pastors across the nation. When I asked one of the more prominent televangelists about his enthusiasm for Gibson’s picture, he told me that he had purchased 30,000 retail tickets to the picture, which he put on the seats of his mega-church for the three services of the Sunday prior to the film’s opening. He also averred that he and others with television platforms had spent countless hours on the air to promote the film. No wonder the film was so popular among the faithful.

I asked why he dedicated so much time to this picture, as opposed to promoting one of the various low budget Christian films, such as that era’s iteration of the Left Behind series. He responded that, while he supported all Christian films, the rest of them were, basically, junk. The Passion was a top Hollywood film. If the studios were to produce top flight versions of the Bible, he would be there. But he decided to stay away from Paramount’s reentry into the Bible business.

So, why did he skip Noah? Because that film was handed to a director whose priorities did not adhere to the tradition of the Bible. Darren Aronofsky is a fine director, but he has no discernable religious sensibilities, at least none that match the traditional faith world.

The film was produced for a gargantuan budget and had pretentions to join other Bible epics, but the palpable ideological bent of the director stunted the film’s potential in the faith world. Aronofsky converted Noah into a modern liberal environmentalist, and filled the picture with philosophical pap that kept droves of the faithful at home.

Consequently, while the picture grossed $101,000,000 at the box office, with an estimated budget of $125,000,000, it was a shocking failure. Can this be ascribed to the disappearance of the faith community? Hardly. While Aronofsky was at sea with a massive movie undone by his ideological predilections, others were devotedly serving the religious market and reaping huge rewards, including television producer Mark Burnett and his series The Bible.

Now comes Twentieth Century Fox with their Bible offering. Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to be a Bible film on an epic scale not seen since Charlton Heston smashed the tablets of The Ten Commandments. But, there are some troubling developments bubbling to the surface which could give pause to the core audience that the studio needs to turn a hopeful into a hit.

The most memorable scene of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic blockbuster was certainly the splitting of the Red Sea and the crossing to safety of the Children of Israel.

If Exodus: Gods and Kings director Ridley Scott is taken at his word, his viewers might not be treated to the same miraculous event. In a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly, Scott opines that one of the central Biblical miracles was likely just a serendipitous tsunami. How this will play out in the film is anyone’s guess at this point, but having yet another heretical director for a Bible film is not a good start.

As far as we know, though, at least Scott does not view the main protagonist, Moses, as a terrorist, as does the actor chosen to portray the Bible’s greatest prophet. In an interview with Total Film, thespian Christian Bale, perhaps trying to make Moses palpable to the crowds wowed by his Batman portrayal, proclaimed that the man chosen by God to lead His people out of bondage was a “terrorist” and “a man of extremes.” Great.

Just to make sure no one missed the point, Bale elaborated in another interview: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life. He’s a very troubled and tumultuous man.”

The studio moguls must have been lunging for their Prozac with those quotes. But it does not end there. The drip torture of those hoping for a great Bible film to crown the Christmas season continued with the announcement that the role of God would be played by an 11 year old boy. I wish that last statement was a typo, but you read it correctly.

I realize that casting God is the most difficult task possible in the history of film. DeMille solved the problem brilliantly by using his own voice for the Creator of the Universe. I realize that we live in a PC world, where the voice of a white male is no longer acceptable, but how about one of the great African American acting giants of our time?

The booming voices of James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Dennis Haysbert or even Samuel L. Jackson would certainly have been far less unsettling to the core faith audience that the studio must draw than that of an 11 year old boy?

In the Bible, Moses exhorts the Children of Israel to take a leap of faith into a Red Sea as yet unsplit. They jump into the sea and save their lives because of their faith.

As our faithful listen to exhortations by our second largest movie studio to take a leap of faith and spend their entertainment dollars on Scott and Bale’s version of the Holy Book, one wonders who will jump and who will skip.