With more than a month to go before its theatrical premiere, Ridley Scott’s big-budget biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings” has become the center of a minor controversy (again) following remarks by its star, Welsh actor Christian Bale.
Speaking at a news conference in Los Angeles, the 40-year-old Oscar winner described his character of Moses in terms that many religious audiences would deem less than flattering, according to the UK’s Daily Mail.
Said the actor, “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 who fought greatly against God, against his calling.”
Bale, who admitted to having “no idea about Moses at all” before agreeing to play the character in Scott’s modern, “shocking” take on the story, said he studied in depth not only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but also the Torah and the Quran in preparing for the role.
In an interview with Hitfix from last year, he commented, “It's very few people that I've met that have actually read the Torah (and) the five books of Moses all the way through. Most people read snippets. If you read it all the way through, it's harsh. It's really 'Old Testament.' And violence in the extreme. (Moses) was not a man of any half measures whatsoever.”
Again calling him “troubled” and “mercurial,” according to the Daily Mail, the actor also said, “But the biggest surprise was the nature of God. He was equally very mercurial.”
Not too surprisingly, these comments haven’t sat well with religious bloggers, who fear another “Noah.”
“Look, I’m not talking about ridiculous fundamentalist demands to reproduce the story as the Gospel according to the ‘Ten Commandments’ starring Charlton Heston,” wrote Christian blogger/author Brian Godawa on his website. “That movie had tons of flaws to it and departed from the Bible at key points, yet religious movie watchers still loved it because it didn’t depart from the Biblical themes. I am talking about the subversion of Judeo-Christian heroes and their stories with a secular agenda.”
Godawa continued, writing, “Bible heroes are NOT perfect sinless creatures. Only Jesus fits that bill. Yes, Moses murdered a man, and he had a character arc that went from being adopted and raised as a pagan Egyptian to a conversion to his troubled and tumultuous faith. He had difficulty trusting Yahweh. He didn’t want to be God’s spokesman because he stuttered. And he even had arguments with God. But schizophrenic? Barbaric? Really?”
As Hollywood studios have begun to notice, religious subjects have a potentially huge built-in audience.
Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” remains the highest grossing R-rated film of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.
Recent smaller films like “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven Is for Real” and “Son of God” have also made sizable profits, despite their niche appeal, and whether hampered or helped by the controversy that surrounded it prior to its release, Darren Aronofsky’s environmentalist “Noah” managed nearly $360 million worldwide.
The frustration for a lot of religious audiences, though, stems from what they view as too much Hollywood tampering.
According to a survey quoted by the Hollywood Reporter that consisted of 1,200 respondents from the Oxford-based Christian News Service, “two-thirds of all adults and 74 percent of Christians are likely to see a movie related to God. However, 79 percent of those polled believe ‘historical and biblical accuracy is important.’ In regard to ‘Exodus,’ 80 percent of the Christian respondents plan to see the Scott film if it remains true to biblical accounts, compared to 29 percent if it does not.”
Of course, the question of what exactly constitutes “historical and biblical accuracy” is a can of worms unto itself.
As pointed out by Peter Chattaway on his Filmchat blog on Patheos, a movie like “Son of God” was praised for being “biblically accurate” despite getting certain details wrong and embellishing others. Meanwhile, some condemned Aronofsky’s “Noah” for being “inaccurate” even though, according to Chattaway, “it tackled lots of obscure biblical details that many people never think about.”
In other words, he says, “One film was ‘accurate’ because it gave the audience what it wanted, and the other wasn’t because it didn’t.”
Whether or not “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is deemed accurate by religious audiences, one thing is for sure: It will be a far cry from the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille version of the story portrayed in “The Ten Commandments.”
As Bale put it during a Q&A session in Los Angeles last month (via Screenrant), “You can’t out-Heston Charlton Heston.”
He elaborated on the different approach this film would take, saying, “(Moses) was a man with an incredible weight on his shoulders. This is about a man straining. He fought against being the Chosen One, kept trying to get out of the gig when he was on the mountain and it was something you can imagine was not an easy job, and I felt with ‘Ten Commandments’ it was very much sort of an uplifting (tone), with doves and ‘Aaaaah’ (sings a high-pitched heavenly/church-like note), everything took flight almost, and I felt like ours should be about the guy desperately trying to move forward because of the enormous pressure that is on him.”
“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which co-stars Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul, arrives in theaters on Dec. 12.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website FilmInquiry.com.