The Prince of Egypt

Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, says, "Most of our best words, in fact-new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice-are the gifts of the Jews." Without a sense of history which was quite literally invented by the Jews, we would all still be stuck in the cyclical view of time which dominated ancient paganism. It was the Jews and their God who made it possible for us see life as a story, not a wheel and who made it possible to see the person as more valuable than the State.

I was reminded of Cahill's quote as I watched the new Dreamworks production, The Prince of Egypt, Hollywood's latest retelling of Exodus. It is an excellent adaptation which shows well what animation is capable of doing in the right hands and which, by its contrast with the original sources, shows how the sense of history can really change and develop with the unfolding of God's revelation.

Prince takes us through about the first 20 chapters of Exodus, concentrating on the slow awakening of Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) to the cries of his own people. The film does not present us with the bare text of Exodus, it presents us with Exodus as seen through the lens of 3,000 years of Jewish and Christian revelation and reflection (with a dollop of PG-Rated Hollywood in the mix).

Prince gives us the least severe, least august, most human Moses who has ever been committed to celluloid. We meet him as a young buck, full of mischief and high spirits (in a delightfully animated chariot race that recalls Ben-Hur). We even see him dropping water bombs on pompous priests of Ra. But most important for the purpose of enhancing the drama, the filmmakers have strongly emphasized Moses' relationship to Pharaoh's family. He is made a half-brother to Rameses himself and is left utterly unaware of his Hebrew origins until a moment of crisis descends on him like a hammer blow. When the blow falls, Moses embarks on a profound identity crisis which culminates in the killing of the Egyptian slave driver who was beating a Hebrew slave.

The film, curiously, portrays this as an accident and Moses as appalled both by his guilt and about the truth of what he has done to his own Hebrew people. Of course, we are talking about an attempt to make a PG-Rated film out of a sacred text which is often R-rated, but I found this interesting, especially because of what happens next: namely Rameses (who in the book of Exodus means to kill him for the murder), here offers to use his clout to exonerate him.

Rameses (voice by Ralph Fiennes), indeed, is the most interesting character in the film. He is supplied by the filmmakers with something that seldom occurs to biblical writers: a psychological motivation. Exodus displays no interest in what makes Pharaoh tick. Indeed, Exodus' understanding of free will (a concept which does not reach its full expression in Jewish understanding for centuries after the composition of Exodus) is so simple that it ascribes the hardening of Pharaoh's heart to the direct action of God without making any fine shades of distinction (as later Judaism and Christianity will make) between God's permissive will and Pharaoh's free choice.

The filmmakers, wisely wishing to avoid conjuring in young minds the confusing (and false) image of a God who is the author of sin, instead focuses on Pharaoh's choices as the cause of his hardness of heart: namely; his desire to please his father, to carry on the ancient traditions of Egypt and to not be the "weak link" in the dynastic chain of succession. It is this which Pharaoh chooses in his hour of confrontation with the Hebrew's God, and it is this which leads him into the sin of pride and his tragic downfall.

Moses, for his part, is appalled to discover his adoptive father ordered the death of the Hebrew children and departs for the wilderness where he fetches up with spunky young Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) whom he had encountered before briefly as a slave in Egypt. The filmmakers here fall prey to current Hollywood dogma that all lead females must be "powerful women" (by which they mean buffed-out inhabitants of Los Angeles gyms with high cheekbones and glistening biceps who have just finished their copy of Ms. before the camera started rolling). Happily she does not intrude her utterly 90's persona into the plot too much. And just as happily, Moses and she (of course) pass from antagonism to marriage in the space of a single musical number, so children do not have to endure much "mush" before getting back to the story.

This neatly allows the film to stay on track and to bring Moses to the Burning Bush (in a scene portraying this mysterious encounter better than any film version I know). When God reveals himself to Moses, it is completely believable and very moving. Unlike DeMille's version, the encounter does not leave Moses in white-haired shock; it leaves him in tears of ecstasy. He is a man who has finally found himself and his purpose (even if he is also a man who continues to doubt himself and his purpose).

The film moves at a very brisk pace from here. The filmmakers (in another unnecessary concession to Hollywood dogma) show Moses confronting Pharaoh, not with Aaron at his side, but Tzipporah. The only sibling who really believes in Moses is Miriam (Sandra Bullock), his big sister. Aaron (voiced with the patented stammer of Jeff Goldblum) remains a distant and doubting figure, not Moses right-hand man, as in Scripture.

But all this is nitnoid compared to the splendid way in which the film portrays the central confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues of Egypt. The plagues themselves are squeezed into a sort of pastiche leading up to the central disaster for the Egyptians, the death of the firstborn. And this plague is, once again, adapted to modern sensibilities by making it a sort of "what goes around comes around" result of the insecure Pharaoh's own decision to slaughter the Israelite children as his father had done (in order to look strong for his own son). Moses declares to Pharaoh "You have brought this on yourself" and the death of the firstborn (and the Passover) happen that night (in a scene which nicely portrays how creepy this most central event in Jewish history must have felt to the original participants).

What is interesting is how centuries of theological reflection on the dignity of the human person in both the Jewish and Christian traditions inform the way Moses is portrayed here. Here is none of the raw ethnic barbarism that informs so much of the Old Testament. No songs of victory, no gloating, no rejoicing at the downfall of a faceless enemy. Rather, we have in the film a well-developed sense of the worth of persons-even of enemies-that, by its contrast with ancient thinking, is a notable example of one of the "gifts of the Jews" that would reach fruition well after the time of Moses in both Christianity and later Judaism. Prince's Moses grieves deeply for Pharaoh and begs him to give up his "contempt for life" before it destroys all he holds dear. When that contempt does destroy all (in the death of his son and in the magnificently realized parting of the Red Sea and destruction of the Egyptian army), we share with the screen Moses something which is harder to find in the book of Exodus: a sense of deep grief and loss for the parting of two peoples who might have been friends.

That is why I was reminded of Cahill's comment. For the paradox of biblical revelation is that it is given to a people undistinguished from any other ancient people in their barbarism, but it and it alone has led to the ideas celebrated so well in this film: that persons-even enemies-are our brothers, that choices matter, and that there is hope even for people who seem to be beyond hope. It was, in part, to bring this revelation to birth that the Chosen People were chosen.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea