New 'Ten Commandments' Makes Moses All Too Human
After all, the story of Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt has been told before, and unforgettably, by Hollywood showman Cecil B. DeMille in his ultralavish 1956 production starring Charlton Heston as Moses. Adapted from a variety of religious novels, that earlier version introduced a number of extraneous characters and story lines to the biblical account, yet a fair number of fans today regard DeMille's epic with near-reverence.
(In fact, ABC is hedging its own bets, airing DeMille's version on Saturday, April 15, just days after this new "Commandments.")
Small wonder, then, that Dornhelm initially declined when executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. came to him with the project.
"My first reaction was, 'Why? Why should I be the sacrificial victim who gets slaughtered?' " Dornhelm recalls. "To do a television version of this huge epic (seemed foolhardy). Then I saw (DeMille's version) again and thought it really wouldn't be that hard to top, not to sound immodest. Then, when Mr. Halmi told me he wanted to make it as real as possible, that made it even more interesting."
Halmi's own interest in revisiting the story of the Exodus arose from his conviction that great stories need to be retold for new generations every 35 years or so. "And I wanted to do it as reality," Halmi says. "My characters are real. The location is real. There is as much reality costumewise, researchwise [as we could manage]. I had three different religious advisers, a Muslim, a Christian and a rabbi, going through every word of the script. I wanted to be more true to the story and its characters."
That meant, in turn, examining the principal character of Moses as a human being, not the powerful icon Heston portrayed in DeMille's account. It was Ron Hutchinson's script that helped persuade actor Dougray Scott to sign on as Moses.
"You tell people you're playing Moses in 'The Ten Commandments' and they just go, 'You're what?'" Scott says, laughing. "But I thought the writing was just terrific. I knew Ron Hutchinson from his days as a playwright in London. He was terrific then, and he has become a really good Hollywood scriptwriter. He did a great job with that story, I think, examining it from a point of view that I don't think the audience ever has seen before. Certainly it's very violent, because it really tries to capture that period of history.
"Instead of the iconic figure that Charlton Heston portrayed, you get to see and even kind of smell what Moses must have gone through."
The new version charts mostly familiar territory, especially in its first half, tracing Moses' narrow escape from death as an infant to his encounter with the burning bush and subsequently, his confrontations with the Pharaoh, Ramses (Paul Rhys), leading to the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves and their long, frustrating quest in search of the Promised Land.
Whereas Heston's Moses was a towering, thunder-voiced pillar of authority, Scott's Moses is plagued by self-doubt. He is virtually horrified to learn that God has selected him for such a formidable task, since he is painfully aware of his inner flaws.
"The character starts off at quite an intense pitch and then becomes even more intense," Scott says, "so that was the challenge for me, to see how far we could take this character on his emotional journey, this arc that he goes through and his relationships with everyone: with himself, his family, his tribe and, of course, God. Moses has to deal with his fear, his paranoia, his loneliness, his pain, his anger, his temper and his lack of compromise. He's unrelenting, and a very multilayered human being, albeit an extreme one."
Give Scott full marks for his commitment to the role, since the inner torment of his Moses comes across unrelentingly. The big question, of course, is whether viewers will want to spend three or four hours with such a tortured soul.
If some viewers ultimately find this remake too much of a downer, Dornhelm is OK with that, as long as they come to his "Commandments" with an open mind. It's the zealots who insist DeMille's version is somehow untouchable that make him see red.
"I find that notion offensive, myself," he says. "I was really impressed with [DeMille's version] when I saw it as a young boy, because it was such a wonderful cinematic extravaganza. But it was what it was. The only thing missing was Esther Williams performing one of her water ballets in the Nile. It was a show, first and foremost. And it still works very well for some people who love that spectacle. But to me, if I am talking about important issues like faith, spectacle is the last issue that I would like to deal with.
"Just because there has been this huge, colossal canvas painted with one man's vision doesn't mean we can't retell it. We've been retelling every silly police drama a million times, and nobody questions why. I've been asked this question: Why would you redo such an important masterpiece? And the answer is always, if it's a good story, and there is something we can learn from it, there are always new ways to interpret it and to gain new perspectives on it."