The question anyone has to ask is, why? Why remake The Ten Commandments, one of history's most successful movies. (Never mind that Cecil B DeMille's 1956 epic is a restaging of his own 1923 silent film.) As Moses, Charlton Heston owns the role.
This new miniseries dumps the camp and the glitz DeMille's film is famous for. You won't hear anyone say, "Oh Moses, Moses, you splendid, stubborn, adorable fool!" as Anne Baxter's Nefertiti did in 1956. This is a grittier retelling of the biblical story. It's also gorier. The four-hour production is from Robert Halmi Sr., the executive producer behind TV miniseries such as Dinotopia and The 10th Kingdom. "I am not redoing Mr. DeMille's masterpiece, I am doing my interpretation of Exodus," he said in the film's production notes.
Halmi has the good fortune of computer technology, and this time around the parting of the Red Sea looks pretty awesome. That river of blood is convincingly icky, too. Pharoah's order to kill all newborn male slaves is played out in disturbing clarity in one of these scenes a long knife is held to the throat of a screaming infant. You wonder if it was necessary to go that far, but the filmmakers want viewers to feel uncomfortable. That's a big change from The Ten Commandments that's been on TV every year for decades. "They set out to make a very traditional biblical epic," said producer Paul Lowin in the production notes: "We try to represent the harsher, reality epic, and are closer to the true spirit of the written word of the Bible, with less gloss and a lot more style."
So, no rubber frogs for this plague or fancy computer graphics. Instead, 2,000 real amphibians hopped on set. The battle scenes are something else too: When the Hebrews take on a raiding tribe, the Amalakites, the resulting butchery does not exactly make this family viewing. But 'family viewing' is not the real intent here. Director Robert Dornhelm wants to go deeper. He wants his $20-million plus epic to talk honestly about religion, hiring Christian, Muslim and Jewish advisors. "We should have different opinions as to the story itself and discuss the advantages and the disadvantages of The Ten Commandments. Maybe we should talk also talk about dogma and fanaticism and a whole bunch of issues that the old movie took for granted and just accepted as heroic deed," he said.
Actor Dougray Scott makes the preaching more palatable. His Moses is a tortured, all-too-real man, swinging from committed leader of his people to questioning follower of God with believable intensity. Omar Sharif lends gravitas to the cast as Jethro, a desert nomad. The role allowed Sharif to return to Ouarzazate, Morocco, the same desert Lawrence of Arabia filmed in over 40 years ago. With some 20,000 extras, impressive effects and lots of eye-for-an-eye violence, this remake will leave an impression.
But why bother in the first place? Because The Ten Commandments was ripe for a 21st-century take on the 13th-century story. Should you tune in? Pray for guidance.