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For more than three decades, biblical plagues and divinely inspired miracles have proven just the right size for the small screen, with Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments proving a perennial ratings winner on American television network ABC. The film has become such a spring staple for the network that this year, for the first time, the channel will air the story of the Israelite exodus two times, beginning tonight with the first half of a new miniseries also called The Ten Commandments.
Produced by Emmy-winning miniseries mogul Robert Halmi, Sr., the new Ten Commandments concludes tomorrow night and will be followed next weekend with an airing of DeMille's 1956 classic, which is itself a reworking of the director's 1923 rendering of the story. (That film combined scenes from the Biblical narrative with a contemporary storyline intended to show the commandments' ongoing relevance.) Israeli TV programmers aren't yet sure when the latest Ten Commandments will air here, but the miniseries is likely to appear in the future on Israel's Hallmark Channel, which frequently airs other TV movies produced by Halmi.
With a budget of roughly $20 million, Halmi said his film is "probably four or five" times more expensive than most made-for-TV movies. Its scale is impressive indeed. Production notes for the new Commandments report that more than 10 miles of cloth were used to outfit the film's principal cast and 20,000 extras, and that 300 stunt performers were used in battle scenes in the latter half of the miniseries, when the newly freed Israelites engage in bloody warfare against the Amalekites. Nearly 700 crew members from 23 countries communicated in 15 languages during the making of the film.
Shot last year in Morocco, the miniseries' cast is equally international, featuring a Scottish Moses, a Welsh Ramses, an Argentinean Zipporah and an Indian Princess Bithia, who pulls the baby Moses from the Nile near the story's start. (Egyptian actor Omar Sharif contributes a polished performance as Jethro, the nomadic goat herder who ends up becoming Moses' father-in-law.) The new Ten Commandments adheres carefully to its biblical plot, differing notably in several ways from DeMille's 1956 standard bearer. Gone, for the most part, are the melodramatic dialogue and stiff acting of the first film, with surprisingly nuanced psychological portraits replacing the one-dimensional characterizations of the earlier version.
God, in this Ten Commandments, speaks not in the booming, all-knowing voice of the preceding film, but in a whisper provided by Dougray Scott, who previously played the villain in Mission: Impossible II and here portrays Moses. In contrast to the resolute severity of Charlton Heston's classic Moses, Scott's Israelite leader is deeply uncertain about the role he's been given, even after he's successfully led the Israelites out of bondage and onto the path toward independent nationhood. Modern skeptics will find sufficient room to interpret Moses' discussions with God as internal dialogues, while traditional believers can view the sessions literally as conversations between the Israelite prophet and his divine counselor.
"[As Moses,] I just want to be an ordinary man," Scott said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles last week. "In his head and heart, he's in the wilderness. He wants to focus his life on something he believes in, and yet he's not sure he's the right person. He has to lead his people to the Promised Land and figure out what God sees as worthy in him."
Externalizing his character's inner struggles may have proved a major challenge, but Scott didn't strain to portray the physical hardships endured by Moses during his arduous years of desert wandering. The second half of the film, shot largely in the Moroccan desert, exposed its cast to temperatures that regularly soared above 43 degrees centigrade (110 degrees Fahrenheit), with occasional sandstorms adding further authenticity to the shoot. Special efforts were made to create a wardrobe equivalent to the one that would have been worn by the real Israelite slaves, which in turn may have had a positive impact on the actors' performances. "People were suffering and sweating and enduring the same hardships as 5,000 years ago," Halmi said.
Computer-generated special effects supply many of the miniseries' most memorable images, but Halmi said one of the story's ten plagues could have been captured without anything more sophisticated than a camera - had the crew received advance warning like the enslaved subjects of their film. A freak storm during the shoot showered hail pellets the size of "golf balls" onto the region of Morocco where filming was taking place, Halmi said, sending those caught outside to the hospital and destroying the outdoor set of the pharaoh's palace. The storm, which spared the "Hebrew settlement" set, sent production costs higher but convinced the crew that "we were doing the right thing," Halmi recalled.
Audience reactions to the new film are likely to be split, with loyalists already condemning any post-DeMille exodus film and others expressing readiness to embrace a miniseries that avoids the kitschy sets and campy acting of its blockbuster predecessor. Whether there will be room on the ABC schedule for both films in future years remains to be seen. Sunday, typically one of the most challenging nights for American television programmers, has become a lynchpin of the ABC schedule in the last two years, and the network opted not to bump either Grey's Anatomy or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition this year in favor of the new Ten Commandments film. The DeMille film, frequently a Sunday night ratings winner for the channel, has also been bumped this year, airing next Saturday instead.
Scott doesn't expect his film to replace its popular predecessor, but he hopes TV viewers will be won over by its depiction of the exodus in the same way he was. "I think it's a fascinating story, and people can get a more realistic view of what happened and the genesis of the birth of a nation. I just feel very attached to it," he said, pausing momentarily. "It's a human story about people striving to make sense of who they are and what they mean."