4) Thou Shalt Get All The Fall
Cecil B De Mille was born 16 years after the end of the American Civil War. So for historical distance that’s like someone born in 1961 for the World War II era, or someone born in 2005 for the end of the Cold War. It’s not actually in your living memory but it would be there in the background. From buildings, objects and other art, to your families’ memories there would be hold overs from that period that coloured your early life.
We’re about to see a fictional depiction of ancient slavery. And I felt that little intro necessary because that depiction is flavoured, at certain points, with imagery that calls on the American antebellum slavery period, but you’ll find is being acted out by some really quite white people. Less white than most of the rest of the film so far, though. Now Cecil is into some crowd shots there’s a lot more middle eastern and darker faces in there.
Still, most of them are white and it gets weirder to watch every year.
And that’s before we consider Uncle Cecil’s remarkably redundant narration. The whole audio of which is available below, should you feel like expending a whole two minutes on it.
I think the issue here is that once Uncle Cecil decided he needed a narrative section, and that he was going to do the narrative section, questions like “Do we really need a narrative section?”, “Should it be shorter than, say, an entire two minutes?”, or even “How much have we got something to say other than just describing what is happening onscreen?” apparently did not get asked anywhere near enough.
There is a powerful judgement on slavery carried in the narration, set to images that can’t help but evoke the last period of mass slavery, but being acted out by a population that’s a whole lot whiter than you’d expect. Maybe this is where the conversation was in 1956, it’s just…weirder to look at every year.
Having had our scene well and far too thoroughly set for 2018 (But, My God, those massive scale crowd scenes are impeccable) the score fades out, we start to focus in until we can hear individual voices, and then we see Moses. He got the position of ‘Trainee Mud Gatherer” at the family slaving.
#MeToo is Everywhere Those Days
Moses gathers his mud, commiserates with the Old Timers, and gets leaned over and talked at by the slave-pit office weirdo.
We learn the the slavery period has been 400 years, everyone gets a casual whip crack for talking while Jewish, and returns to their work. Back at the mudface Moses meets Lilia. Debra Paget, who I may have been underestimating because her character is so annoying, does nicely with this. Lilia’s really in her element in the first part of this scene. And her and Moses’ interactions are leaning towards being work-like interactions, but it’s the fifties so he has to find a way to call her smile pretty and she has to mention her boyfriend.
She guesses that he is new to the pits. He wonders how she knew.
Lilia also kind of recognises Moses’ voice, and he starts to get uncomfortable, when Baka the Master Builder and traveling letch rolls up in a litter and demands water. “He does not thirst for water.” says Lilia with foreboding as she walks over…
to a scene with big issues. 1) The lighting is utterly failing to work. They are dudes on some sand in front of a screen and my disbelief will not suspend itself without some scaffolding. 2) Well, now we need litter bearers I see black people have been allowed back on-screen and 3) I know too much about 1950s Hollywood.
Lilia is first harassed and then coerced into sexual exploitation by Baka and then Dathan. The trouble is Baka is played by Vincent Price, a strong advocate for gay rights when that was socially and professionally a very risky thing to do, and very likely closeted to some degree himself.
Lilia will get saved from Baka only to fall into the clutches of Dathan, played by Edward G. Robinson, married twice, and best known off screen as a long term political activist – he was very active in the struggles both against fascism and for civil rights. Although when it comes to McCarthyism and the red scare – let’s say he, ah, got himself through that one OK, and leave it at that.
Whereas if you look in the Hollywood Dictionary for “Skeevy Hollywood Guy Type. Casual sexual exploiter of women. Statutory rapist and pornography experience a plus”…
It says that John Derek, our Joshua, was skeevy as hell. He married progressively younger women until Mary Cathleen Collins, who he had sex with when she was 16 and he was 47, cheating on his then 32 year old wife, Linda Evans. He married Collins, once she turned 18, turning her into Bo Derek on the way (Although her one big film success came with another director), and spending most of the rest of his life directing her in badly made softcore porn, and others in harder core porn.
So in my head, while this scene is running and really failing to convince me we’re in Egypt, all I am thinking is : “Thank goodness she’s hanging out with that gay dude and that socially responsible adult, instead of that very worrying boyfriend that I wouldn’t mind knowing is on a list somewhere”.
In The Ten Commandments during this scene Baka is not impressed with the toughness of her boyfriend and Lilia gets recruited to involuntary date night.
Another Metric Ton of Irony, Please.
Lilia’s exploitation is too much for Old Timer with Dialogue. He says “May the hand of God strike him down.” at Baka, and he personifies a sense of outraged dignity. We’ve seen him before, many times. He is the village elder that tries to appeal to the Gunslinger’s better instincts, the gentle old man that stands up to the marauding gang in the West, usually briefly. Today he’s in a mud pit in ancient Egypt.
Old Timer gets a light whipping for that talk. Also someone needs a word with procurement – the Indiana Jones’ style bullwhips issued to every Egyptian slave guard are 1) era inappropriate and 2) really impractical for human whipping, they however remain 3) The coolest whip. Old Timer fails to take his bull-whipping as a hint (at least it looks like it really smarts) and decides to point out the rights and dignity of man.
Everyone else’s survival instinct kicks in and they get their heads back down, but Moses won’t let him die in the mud, so he pulls him out. The Old Timer thanks him, but says that death is better than bondage, for his days are done and his prayer left unanswered. Moses asks “What prayer, old man?”
Moses has to take his place and I’m guessing it’s a demotion.
A Voice of Horny Reason
There’s a bit of montage, and the score takes a real turn as the camera slowly pans over Moses’ mud pit. There’s pain in it. It feels like the score for a few phrases goes into Schindler’s List territory. And when we come back to Moses he is not the straight backed man he was when we left. Physical exhaustion is pulling him down.
So when Nefretiri arrives, a bit giggly, slave shopping and demanding ‘The very dirty one’ to be an oarsmen or something, she is dissonant with the scene up to that point. She comes across as a bit light, a bit flighty, a bit casually indifferent to the suffering going on around her.
Nefretiri takes Moses back to her barge, can’t believe how dirty he looks and just hits the joke really hard. She werks the fan, rolls her eyes, laughs, walks around him and has her most sarcastic tones of voice on shuffle as she goes through all his titles and compares them to his current state.
Once she’s done, she makes it clear that for her, nothing has changed between them, and gets to telling Moses some truths. If he carries on with this, for all the really great, totally honourable reasons he has, he is going to destroy his adopted family, and cause even more suffering to his people.
It will break Pharaoh Seti’s heart, get Bithia banished or executed, see Nefretiri married off to Rameses, who will also start oppressing the hell out of Moses’ people and kill Moses if he can as soon as he becomes Pharaoh.
But if he comes home to become a God Emperor then maybe he could help everyone. Just try not to yell out “You’re not my real Dad. I’m Jewish and I’m protesting slavery” at dinner until he inherits, all should be fine.
Moses agrees, but he’s not going to come back immediately, he will return on the day of Seti’s jubilee (I think we can imply that’s somewhere between a couple of days and a week away) because first he needs to pay a visit on the master builder.
It All Goes Down at Baka the Hutt’s Place.
Where Baka is accessorising the shit out of his new acquisition.
“No, no, no, no,no. Not the red, not with the samil gown” he says, insisting on a change of hair-flower to lilac. It’s annoying but he’s right, but more because of the necklace than the gown.
Because Baka now reads as Gay to me (he’s got that voice, his appreciation is mainly all about how great she looks in clothes, they utterly lack chemistry, some things used to be coded) the scene is now devoid of tension. When he tells everyone to go away I’m pretty sure I know what he’s going to say.
But they get interrupted when her delinquent boyfriend Joshua adds arson to his skill set and sets fire to the stables. General confusion reigns, guards and Dathan are sent to deal with it – and Joshua climbs a tree to drop down and free Lilia.
Is Joshua not allowed to use a door? Well, he’s got sturdy knees, I know that much. You’ll see at the end of that montage, he gets Lilia way from Baka. She escapes, he heads off Baka,
And then Joshua is bound between the columns, and Baka orders them off to capture the girl. And, goodness, I believe that tension so noticeably missing earlier might have made it to the scene after all. This is Pre-Ben-Hur by the way (3 years). I resist the temptation to yell “Now Kiss” at the screen and it’s just as well. Baka totally breaks the mood by making it clear he’s about to kill Joshua, but Moses finally arrives to take out Baka.
Baka gets to know who Moses is, and to die in very quick succession. Joshua wants to know why an Egyptian would kill to save him, and Moses decides to just come out as Hebrew. Joshua fangirls the hell out (stares into the middle distance, the holy strings, the whole works) and names Moses as the deliverer in a ‘John the Baptist’ type moment.
The One Guy in this Universe that understands Leverage
Dathan was hanging out by the gate. Cut to the next morning and Rameses is investigating the scene. He gets interrupted from his surprisingly competent work by Dathan who wants some face time with the Prince.
Leaving the animal insults that follow Dathan around aside for a moment, Dathan’s in a tricky spot here. He hasn’t delivered a whole lot for Rameses so far, and Rameses is definitely the ‘results orientated employer’ kind of asshole. But Dathan has the world on a stick, information only useful to Rameses but worth an Empire to him.
His negotiation is a little masterpiece, comparing the humility of his own dreams against the greatness of what he can provide to Rameses at every turn. For ten talents of Gold he’ll give Rameses the wealth of Egypt. Give Dathan his freedom, he’ll give Rameses the sceptre, and if he gives Dathan the water girl Lilia (cannot get a break, that girl) he’ll give Rameses Princess Nefretiri. Give him the house of Baka and he will give you the throne.
When Rameses gets the knife out, Dathan is far from surprised, and shows no fear.
He knows that if the information is not worth all he promised then he’s dead. But he also knows it’s everything Rameses wants to hear, and he can back it up. At the point of Rameses’ knife, he says that it was Moses that killed Baka, and is the deliverer.
The Big Reveal
In Seti’s vast throne room it is bright and golden morning.
The royal family glitter and converse brightly, but only Rameses is truly chipper.
Princess Bithiah sits off to the side, she is already nervous and concerned and wearing black. Rameses stands back and takes a moment before presenting Pharaoh Seti with…an empty bottle. Back when he told Rameses to catch the deliverer, Seti said if he were a myth to bring him in a bottle, if a man, to bring him in chains.
Well, he’s brought the empty bottle, and straight from committing treason with the blood of Baka the Master Builder on his hands…
Seti the patriarch demands to know what the hell is going on. Rameses lays it all out. How Moses is the deliverer, isn’t a prince, isn’t even Egyptian. Seti goes straight to Moses after these accusations – and Bithiah has a physical reaction, desperate that for everyone’s good he lies just this once. Nefretiri’s physicality is also on point for the duration of this scene.
That information alone is enough to get Bithiah banished, as she comes forward to plead that it was her fault, not Moses’.
And when Seti goes to Moses, saying that he does not care who he is, (So why is your sister banished again?) he just needs to hear that Moses is still with him on the slavery thing. He’s not going to foment rebellion or anything, right?
Moses says he’s not the deliverer, because delivering the slaves would take a God, not a man. But if he could…well he would. And that is that, because for Seti, that is betrayal. Moses gets a fine speech about the inhumanity of slavery. Seti announces Rameses and Nefretiri’s engagement and gives Rameses a ‘Clearly, From the Shit Show Surrounding Us, Trust Fucking No-One When You Get My Job’ talk. Rameses jumps ahead a bit, I don’t think anyone thought there would be a trial, but leaping straight to-
means Seti cannot bring himself to say it. So that’s left to Rameses’ choice (not looking great for Moses, there). There are deep, ominous drum rolls as Seti announces his decrees, stripping the name of Moses from all Egypt, from all language in his kingdom, as his family collapses around him and Moses disappears through the great doors.
Prince Moses is dead. Time for The Prophet to get born.