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Terrorism and Police States in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Those looking for a profound spiritual or religious message in Ridley Scott’s new film Exodus: Gods and Kings, will probably be better off re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark instead.
As an exercise in political and military themes, however, Exodus is moderately successful. Fundamentally, Exodus is movie about a slave revolt led by a former Egyptian general named Moses. Also, the slave rebels have an unwieldy and very powerful superweapon on their side which they call the God of Jacob. Any other similarity to the God of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, however, is purely coincidental.
The film begins with Moses, a member of the Pharaoh’s royal household, helping Pharaoh’s son Ramses (the future Ramses the Great) lead a pre-emptive strike on a band of Hittites who have aroused the ire of the Egyptian state.
The old Pharaoh is quite fond of Moses, and is a wise old man, giving us the first hint that this is to be a movie about politics when he tells Moses that “men who crave power are best fitted to acquire it, and least fitted to exercise it.” Such wisdom escapes young Ramses, however, who soon succeeds his father.
Things go badly for Moses when it is revealed that he is in fact a Hebrew, and he and his relatives are exiled for having deceived the royal household all these years.
While in exile, Moses marries, has a religious experience and meets the Hebrew God (or possibly his messenger). Moses then leaves his new family to return to Egypt where he feels he is called to free the Hebrews from their state of bondage.
Back among the slaves in Egypt — unknown to Ramses — Moses begins to agitate for an uprising among the Hebrews and trains them in military skills.
Moses (and God) as Terrorist
Having assessed the strategic position of the Hebrews, Moses rouses them in a speech, noting that if the Hebrews were larger in number, they might be able to engage in conventional warfare — and attack the enemy head on. But, as they are too small in number for this, they instead must get to Pharaoh by attacking the common people of Egypt first, and get to the rulers through the people. In other words, the Hebrews are to adopt the strategy of terrorists — targeting the civilian population to effect political change at higher levels.
At this point, the Hebrews then take to destroying the Egyptian food supplies, trading vessels, and trade lines. Clearly, their aim is to starve out their enemies.
Eventually, God becomes impatient with the war of attrition, and declares that it is taking too long. When Moses asks what he should do, God simply advises him to “watch.” The plagues of the biblical Exodus then come, and the Egyptians begin to starve.
Finally, God’s coup de grâce (of sorts) is his killing of every first born son in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s infant son.
With the death of his son, Ramses relents and orders the Hebrews to leave, but not before holding his dead son up for Moses to see and asking “Is this your god? Killer of children? What kind of fanatic worships such a god?” It's hard top not to notice that Scott is apparently trying to make comparisons between the modern Palestinians in Israel and the ancient Hebrews in both their motivations and tactics.
This would be an interesting theme to explore on its own, but the film lacks the self-discipline to stick to one theme. Instead, Exodus toys with several themes — none of which lead to any satisfactory payoff — and in addition to implying that the Hebrews are religious fanatics, it briefly hints that this might be a film about the effects of the ten plagues on Egypt’s internal politics, or a film about how nonbelievers might view the ten plagues from an Egyptian pagan perspective. Unfortunately, with Exodus, the viewer just isn't that lucky and ends up with nothing carried through enough to be engaging.
Pharaoh's Police State
Within the half-told story of Egypt's internal politics, Scott does at least touch on the idea of Egypt as a police state in both imagery and theme. The images of Pharaoh's troops hiding behind what are shaped like modern-day riot shields call to mind present-day police-state actions, and the troops are also sent forth into the slave ghettos to extract guilty parties in a sort of ancient Kristallnacht. Other tactics are employed against the slaves as well, including mass hangings of innocents ordered by Pharaoh in a vain attempt to motivate the slaves to turn Moses over.
Pharoah's brutality does not stop with the Hebrews, either. When the Egyptians begin to starve as a result of God's plagues, Pharaoh has his own emergency stores of food for himself and presumably for the protectors of the regime. But, when ordinary Egyptians attempt to steal some food for themselves, they are mowed down by Pharaoh’s troops who do not hesitate to fire upon their own people. When faced with a threat from a separatist ethnic group, there is no solidarity among the Egyptians. It's the regime versus everyone else.
Unfortunately, these scenes are largely ignored by the overall narrative which remains unfocused. Moreover, we never see the reaction of common Egyptians to being mowed down by their own king, and there is no story arc for the Hebrew population, as we are simply left to guess as to the effects of Pharaoh's tactics on their population. They eventually follow Moses out of Egypt, but is this out of disgust with the Egyptian regime, or due to religious faith? We'll never know.
A Movie About Politicians
Indeed, the key flaw of this movie is that it purports to be about enormous political events that affect thousands of people, but at no time does the film provide a look into how any of these thousands of ordinary people are truly affected. For films that take place against the backdrop of enormous historical or fantastic events, most filmmakers are careful to provide an "everyman" with whom the audience can identify. Examples include Frodo the Hobbit, Forrest Gump, or Marco Polo himself in the new Netflix series of the same name. Instead, what we get with Exodus is a movie about a prophet, a king, and a deity, none of whom are representative of the people they each claim to lead, nor are any of them all that interesting within the context of the film.
The movie is well made enough that the main human characters have identifiable motivations, but we never get to the point where we care about any of them enough that the movie achieves much dramatic tension. God is even more amorphous as a character, so ultimately, it’s unclear whether Pharaoh is the villain in this movie, or if the true villain is Moses’s god. Scott himself may not know. In the denouement, Pharaoh escapes with his life, although thousands of Hebrew slaves, and thousands of Pharaoh’s innocent subjects — none of whom we ever get to know — do not.