“MOSES, THE LAWGIVER”— Burt Lancaster Does Moses

“Moses, The Lawgiver”

Burt Lancaster Does Moses

Amos Lassen

The timing for the release of “Moses the Lawgiver” could not have been better. This week Jews around the world are celebrating Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus that was led by Moses. While this is not a perfect film about Moses, it is interesting  to see a different take on the man that Charlton Heston played in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”.

Either the Hebrew Bible tells us or we assume that Moses was a man of wisdom and strength who raised his staff and crushed an empire. This is his story which is the story of the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt to escape persecution and it is told from the  perspective that highlights Moses’ efforts to persuade the stubborn Pharaoh Merneptah, his adopted cousin, to release to release the Hebrew slaves he was using to build his empire. For a spectacular story, we need a spectacular cast and here it is— g Burt Lancaster as Moses, Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as Miriam , Irene Papas as Zipporah and narrated by Richard Johnson. This is the story of Moses, the Hebrew lawgiver, an extraordinary man who receives a holy calling, and we follow his life from birth, abandonment, slavery and trials in leading the Jews through the Holy Land after taking them out of Egypt.

We see the baby Moses put into the river and his adoption by a Hebrew princess. When Moses’ Hebrew origin is revealed, he’s cast out of Egypt and wanders across the desert. Returning to Egypt, Moses along with his brother Aaron, confront Pharaoh Mernefta, asking him to liberate the Jews but he refuses, causing God to inflict the 7 (sic) plagues on the Egyptians. Finally, Moses climbs Mount Sinai bringing down the holy tablets.

The film was shot on location in Israel and Morocco and the wonderful costumes and props are a visual feast. I am just sorry that the writers chose the reinterpret the story and filling it with unbelievable mistakes. The other problem that I had is despite a great performance by Burt Lancaster, this umpteenth telling of Moses’ story suffers from a lack of direction on the film makers’ part. The plagues and curses which could have been spectacular are done in a mediocre way by special effects guy Mario Bava but the film does wonderfully capture Moses leading his people out of Egypt and into the desert, where they complaining constantly. However, Moses’ faith is never shaken.

The film suffers from trying not to be better than other films on the subject and that is hard to do. There are scenes here that run twice as long as they should. The film is a six hours long, and in need of editing.  There are some very effective scenes, mostly dealing with the pharaoh’s wrath, but there is not enough emotion here to make them compelling viewing. I had a problem with the scene showing young boys and infants being thrown into the Nile and when Moses killed his camel and cooked its flesh. It was alarming to see him eating it.

Director Gianfranco De Bosio keeps God off screen. His words are mediated only through Moses. Even the viewer only hears him speak in Lancaster’s voice. His (miraculous) actions are shown through subjective point of view shots, or meet, shortly afterwards, with a rational explanation.  The closing scenes portray Moses dying twice. Initially Moses seems to have died in his tent in the same ordinary way that his siblings died before him. But then, Moses ascends the mountain overlooking the Promised Land and then lays down to die in the manner described at the end of Deuteronomy.

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