7th 05 - 2014 | 11 comments »

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

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By Roderick Heath

Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear.

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DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a patina of unflinching moral import. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.

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The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including, yes, On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.

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DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.

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DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.

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Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.

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Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law. The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike.

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Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist. Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. She is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.

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Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution. Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind.

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Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format. DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.

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Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence. Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness.

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DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent. Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, whilst also perhaps instilling quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?

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For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have pointed humanist messages. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic. If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people.

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The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line. But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).

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DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.

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The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.

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Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.

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The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience. But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme.

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DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd. One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.


15th 04 - 2014 | 6 comments »

Noah (2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky

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By Roderick Heath

The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread variations of it are, scholars have speculated whether the story might be sourced in an oral tradition extending back to the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.

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How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.

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In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.

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Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).

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Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.

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Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.

Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.

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Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.

Universe

The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.

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Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.

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Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.

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Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.

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Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.

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Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.


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