LOS ANGELES, March 26 (JTA) — The story of the Exodus makes for great cinema and stunning visual effects, as Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston proved half a century ago. Now “The Ten Commandments,” with its timeless themes of slavery and freedom, faith and doubt, adultery and fidelity, battles and miracles, has been shaped into a four-hour miniseries by ABC-TV. It will air in two two-hour segments April 10 and 11, and should draw good ratings in the Passover and Easter season. The 2006 “Ten Commandments” easily outscores the 1956 Heston epic. Without commercials, the miniseries is actually slightly shorter than the original three-and-a-quarter hour film, but is by far the more subtle, credible and engaging of the two. In addition, the fact that the TV show’s international ensemble lacks the film’s big-star cast proves to be an advantage rather than a drawback. The basic plot is familiar from the Bible. It starts with the rescue of baby Moses from slaughter to God’s choice of Moses as liberator, the 10 plagues, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 40 years of wandering in the desert and Moses’ death in sight of the Promised Land. Veteran producer Robert Halmi Sr. and director Robert Dornhelm have gone to considerable lengths to authenticate the biblical scholarship, dress style and physical setting of the drama, with Morocco substituting for the Sinai Peninsula. The casting draws heavily on the British Isles, with Scottish actor Dougray Scott as Moses, Linus Roache as his brother, Aaron, and Welshman Paul Rhys as Ramses, the stubborn pharaoh. Scott portrays a complex Moses, a man chosen against his will by God and tested almost beyond endurance, torn by the punishments he must inflict, badgered by his stiff-necked tribe, and yet rising to pre-destined greatness. Omar Sharif as Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, may be the most familiar face to mature viewers. Argentine’s Mia Maestro is an attractive Zipporah, Moses’ wife, though Dornhelm largely avoids DeMille’s penchant for making all Egyptian and Jewish maidens look like “America’s Next Top Model” hopefuls. Care has been taken to realistically depict the hovels and rags of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the expanses of the Sinai Desert. Scriptwriter Ron Hutchinson has introduced some telling analogies between the biblical story and the current human condition in Moses’ constant emphasis that “to be a free man, you must stop thinking like a slave and think like a free man.” The TV drama’s faults tend to be minor, though a bit much is made of the supposed sibling rivalry among Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Somewhat jarring is the characters’ occasional slipping into anachronistic colloquialisms. Pharaoh declares, “I will not be moved” and “I’m willing to bargain,” while Moses asks Ramses “Give us our freedom — is that too much to ask?” One embarrassing scene has Moses, like an ancient televangelist, exhorting his flock after the Golden Calf episode. “Will you renew your promise to God?” shouts Moses. “Yes,” roars the crowd. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” Fortunately for nostalgic DeMille fans, the miniseries does not stint on spectaculars. The parting of the Red Sea scenario is one even the old master would applaud and the fight against the Amalekites depicts masses of Israelite archers unerringly shooting arrows into the chests of onrushing enemy horsemen. However, the film’s bloodiest scene is reserved for the slaughter by Moses of the Golden Calf idolaters, their wives and children. As a bonus feature, ABC-TV will air the 1956 “Ten Commandments” with Heston on April 15.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.