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Jews, according to tradition, are commanded to retell the story of the Exodus every year, orally recalling the birth of Moses and his eventual transformation from Egyptian prince to Israelite liberator. In the United States, Pessah observance has also long been practiced by network television, which for seemingly countless years has dutifully rebroadcast Hollywood's most famous rendering of the story, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, every spring.
This year, ABC television is sharing the Exodus with American viewers not once but two times, beginning April 10 and 11 with the airing of an original TV miniseries, also called The Ten Commandments, which stars Dougray Scott as Moses and a cast of 20,000 as the Israelite slaves he eventually frees. The following week, television audiences will have an opportunity to compare the new film with its predecessor, when the network once again broadcasts DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.
Divided into two two-hour broadcasts, the new Ten Commandments is actually significantly shorter than the older film version of the story, which stars Charlton Heston as the Israelite leader and clocks in, even without commercials, at a whopping 220 minutes. (The new film, if shown commercial-free, would wrap up after 166 minutes.) The relatively short length of the new miniseries is reflected, for the better, in the film's more concise depiction of Moses' time urging the intransigent Pharaoh to liberate his Israelite slaves.
Though the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments has more or less attained the status of a classic, that picture is also famous for its flaws, which include an at times painfully melodramatic script and acting to match. At times, the film slows almost to a stop, particularly in sections devoted to a contrived romantic subplot only a major Hollywood studio would feel the need to add. The Biblical account of the Exodus certainly has no shortage of intrigue, conflict and suspense, but it's with pure soap opera style that DeMille's famous film gets so much of its tension from an ancient Egyptian love triangle, with Pharaoh angered more by his wife's attraction to Moses than by the demand that his empire's enslaved work force be freed. Fans may not like to admit it, but the film has come to feel dated in spite of its timeless story and the celebrated place it's achieved in the pantheon of classic films.
The new Ten Commandments, by contrast, creates a relatively nuanced view of the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh, depicting the Israelite leader's initial hesitancy to represent his people. Taking on the title of God's earthly ambassador is not something to be taken lightly, and Scott (Ever After, Dark Water) is given abundant opportunities to express Moses' own momentary failings of faith, which can come even as he castigates his followers for their own skepticism about their destiny. Moses' ambivalence toward the Egyptian royalty results here not from the advances of a coyly manipulative princess, but from the filial connection he feels with Bithia (Padma Lakshmi), the elder Egyptian princess who saved him as a baby and remains tender toward him even as he brings plagues on her people.
More compelling still may be the new film's portrayal of the Egyptians, who are fleshed out to the point that a few of them become real characters. The "hardening" of Pharaoh's heart, simply taken for granted in so many tellings of the Exodus story, is examined in the miniseries with refreshing diligence; his refusal to release the Israelites, even in the face of ever-worsening punishments, is a pivotal plot detail that deserves a decent explanation. The film doesn't labor excessively to apply modern psychology to a Biblical tyrant, nor does it excuse the pharaoh's cruelty, but the decision to give the character some depth lifts the drama above that of its frequently kitschy predecessor.
Also improved in the new film are the story's requisite special effects, most of which were created via technology DeMille couldn't have dreamed of. With an estimated budget of $20 million - a massive figure for a TV production - the new Ten Commandments offer a vastly more believable picture of both the ten plagues and the miracles performed during the Israelites' subsequent years wandering in the desert. But while filmmakers' technical inventiveness and flare are certainly on display, it's interesting that the best onscreen rendering of these scenes still comes from an animated film: the other major Hollywood depiction of the Exodus, the 1998 Dreamworks hit The Prince of Egypt. Perhaps Peter Jackson, given a budget like he had for The Lord of the Rings, could have recreated the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea with convincing precision; as things stand, only a cartoon so far has captured the story's nature-defying elements in a manner sufficiently vivid and grand.
With its 50-year head start and a hero portrayed by one of the leading figures in film history, the original Ten Commandments is unlikely to be budged from its place as the standard-bearing Exodus film. The fate of the new Ten Commandments will likely be decided by its popularity with fickle American TV audiences, who may decide they prefer their Bible told as camp rather than as credible human drama. Even if they do, however, the production of a twenty-first century Ten Commandments demonstrates the Exodus' unparalleled persistence as a source of both spiritual and artistic inspiration. The Passover story, it appears, will continue to be told for generations to come.