The Bible From God To Dreamworks

Film still for The Bible From God To Dreamworks

If The Prince of Egypt is "true to the essence" of Exodus, as DreamWorks claims, why is its Promised Land so Tinseltown, asks Simon Louvish

When God wrote the first draft treatment for the screenplay of The Prince of Egypt, He had a very specific purpose. The people of Israel, gathered into the Land of Canaan, which they had taken from the original inhabitants - the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Jebusites et al - had to be convinced that their conquest was part of a universal and divine plan. The myth of Moses, chosen from birth to lead his people from bondage under Pharaoh to freedom, was a central plank in this platform.

The original draft, contained in Exodus chapters 2-15, is a little sparse on detail. No wonder interpreters and artists from antiquity onwards have striven to fill in the gaps. The Hebrew tale, subsumed by Christianity and by Islam (Koran suras 20:1-98), became in our century as irresistible to the narrators of the motion picture as it was to the scribes of previous ages. That great ham Cecil B. DeMille filmed it as The Ten Commandments twice, in 1923 and 1956.

DeMille's first version deployed 2,500 actors and 4,500 animals, with three dozen cows to supply milk to the company, 200 camels and massive sets rearing 300 feet high. The story was divided into a modern and an ancient segment, with the tale of Moses counterpointed by a contemporary story of two brothers, one who believes in the biblical tale and one who doubts, as expressed in a memo dated 5 March 1923 to DeMille from his screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson: "As the sins of Pharaoh and his horde of horsemen are avenged by the down-crashing waves of the Red Sea, which parted to let the Children of Israel, with their clear faith, pass through, so does an emotional Red Sea engulf our modern Dan McTavish, who has attempted to raise his puny voice against immutable laws."

The unfortunate McTavish was not resurrected for the 1956 remake, in which Charlton Heston as Moses was pitted against Yul Brynner as Rameses, with his catchphrase: "So let it be written, so let it be done." Improving on 1923 with colour and VistaVision, and shooting in authentic Egyptian locations, DeMille directed his 12,000 actors and 15,000 animals from a giant crane high above the desert. The special effects, with darkling clouds overseeing the Red Sea segments, were state of the art, modelled after the glowering engravings of graphic artist Gustave Doré. DeMille was to make only one more film before he died in January 1959, having scribbled on his deathbed a note saying: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."

But cometh the hour, cometh the men, and the women, to rewrite the tale once again, for our times. The production notes for DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt tell us that, though the story has its roots in the biblical book of Exodus, "the inspiration to bring it to the screen... arose unexpectedly from a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen back in 1994." There's ancient history for you! To quote Katzenberg: "Steven asked what the criteria would be for a great animated film, and I launched into a 20-minute dissertation about what you look for: a powerful allegory that we can relate to in our time; extraordinary situations to motivate strong emotional journeys; something wonderful about the human spirit; good triumphing over evil... Steven leaned forward and said, 'You mean like "The Ten Commandments"?' and I said, 'Exactly.'"

This is what is known as high-concept. God's biblical plan has been properly surmounted in the age of marketing and sales. Cecil B. DeMille, 80 years ago, began shooting his silent biblical epics in a lascivious spirit: by portraying the wickedness of antiquity he could both preach the Gospel and show Claudette Colbert reclining in a bath of milk. But as sanctimonious and censorious Hollywood took shape, the wickedness had to give way to the good. Charlton Heston led the liberated hordes heroically towards a new frontier. Edward G. Robinson, as the sneering Dathan, mocked the people's simple and pure faith. Vincent Price delighted as a whip-wielding Egyptian. Hollywood lent its typecast paradigms to the ancient tale. You knew whom to cheer and whom to hiss.

Starting from scratch

Live action, and actors, will always provide a tangible, visual object for our emotions as an audience. Animation poses a whole new set of problems - how to create characters, and values, from scratch: literally from the initial strokes of a pen.

We have come a long way from the early sketching of Emile Cohl or Otto Messmer's 1900 Felix the Cat (though anyone watching Windsor McCay's staggering 1918 The Sinking of the Lusitania, with its 26,000 drawings made by six assistants, can only gasp at the detail of the tiny figures twisting in the black-and-white waves). It's now over 60 years since Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs amazed audiences as the first animated feature. The Disney studios, having diversified endlessly since those halcyon days, have had few rivals in the genre until recently, and DreamWorks has set up shop as the new contender. Two of the three animated features currently screening come from this new stable - The Prince of Egypt and the computer-generated Antz. The third current feature, Mulan, continues Disney's attempt to widen the scope of its material to take in stories from around the world. All three are aggressively marketed and targeted at the widest possible audience, hoping to include both young and old. Antz even bears a PG certificate, warning parents that certain scenes - presumably the wars of ants versus termites - might be too much for younger viewers.

Of these three Mulan is the most conventional and the most firmly targeted at the traditional 'family' audience. Continuing the Disney studios' exploration of the wider shores of political correctness, it features a female protagonist, young Mulan, who dresses up as a soldier to replace her ageing father in China's battle against invaders, and who ends up saving the empire. The film's artistic approach, according to the producers, was based on the Chinese style of "negative" empty spaces balanced by "positive" detail. This is not quite how it plays on screen, but the pictorial style is pleasingly different from the standard Lion King kitsch.

The Prince of Egypt adopts a similar approach in trying to incorporate ancient Egypt's distinct pictorial culture into the design of the film. This can, of course, go only so far, since the style of figures of the Pharaonic age was highly standardised and two dimensional. The best sequence is a dream in which young Moses, who has discovered his true identity as a Hebrew, sees himself chased around the walls and pillars of Pharaoh Seti's palace as the flat figures come alive. Unfortunately it lasts only a couple of minutes, and the rest of the film is dominated by standard 'three-dimensional' modelling and by the huge set-pieces of slave-labour construction of the grand Egyptian cities. Computer enhancement has now enabled animators to fill the screen with thousands of little figures, where Disney's Silly Symphony artists toiled for weeks with pen and ink to create the multitudes who climbed aboard in Father Noah's Ark (1933).

The production notes tell us that key members of the creative team undertook a two-week trek across Egypt before the filming, immersing themselves in the atmosphere of ancient grandeur. Their researches obviously failed to uncover the fact that Pharaonic Egypt's pictorial culture was as widespread among the ordinary people as among the upper echelons, and that ordinary houses were also vividly decorated. But this may have conveyed a living culture that is at odds with the original material's emphasis on brute tyranny against the oppressed bearers of the true faith.

God and His ghost writer

A title at the start of The Prince of Egypt tells us that, "while historical licence has been taken, the story is... true to the essence" of the biblical tale. The Prince of Egypt, the film-makers inform us, is, "the dramatic story of two men" - Rameses and Moses - "raised as brothers and united by friendship. A lie makes them brothers, but the truth will destroy their kingdom and forever divide them in both faith and destiny."

Never send your script to Hollywood if you want to preserve its essence! If I were God, I should sue. In the original draft baby Moses is set afloat and rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, who realising the babe is a Hebrew calls for a midwife - Moses' own mother - who thereafter nurtures him, so he is in fact never in ignorance of his roots. Both drafts share a conceptual problem in that the elder Pharaoh's death edict on Hebrew male children begs the question of why a slave owner should want to destroy new property.

But the Lord, or His ghost writer the anonymous Hebrew myth-maker, is primarily concerned with laying the basis for a moral lesson about the predestined fate of nations. In this original draft, God sent Moses back to Pharaoh to teach him a lesson, not only about enslaving His people but about the hazards of adhering to the wrong religion. Throughout the original tale, the narrative proclaims: "Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt." All things are determined not by environment or character but by the pre-ordained plan. The Moses of the Bible is a reluctant figure, flawed not only morally but physically, protesting: "But I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue." The great liberator of antiquity was a stutterer. All his powers are externally given. The narrative is not concerned with motivation; God's Moses is simply a tool. It does not matter whether Rameses is a childhood friend or a complete stranger, his only mission is as a messenger to command: "Let my people go!"

In the Passover Haggadah another anonymous scribe laid the basis for the Jewish ritual that celebrates the passage of Israel from bondage to freedom. "Cast thy wrath upon the nations who have not known thee," the celebrants implore God. Morality is, as usual, interlocked with politics - and God is not an equal-opportunities employer. When DreamWorks' Moses proclaims "No kingdom should be made on the backs of slaves!" he is voicing the ethos of Lincoln's America, not of the biblical world in which slavery was as endemic among the Israelites as among anyone else. For both the ancient Hebrews and Pharaonic Egypt man was not the measure of all things. Morality was something to be imposed, the finger of God writing the Ten Commandments in stone, while the powerless Moses - even as Charlton Heston - cowers, waiting for his next allotted task.

Barnyard cosmos

Of course from time immemorial art has refashioned old fables, retelling old tales with a new agenda. From their inception movies have mangled material from other art forms, and from The Beginning American animators have trawled the world. But in the age of the big-budget, commercial cartoon, what exactly is being sold?

Walt Disney's cartoons were never free of ideology and during the master's lifetime this was almost always filtered through Uncle Walt's own peculiar vision of the world. The barnyard cosmos remains one of the most powerful evocations in cinema of a revulsion and retreat from the city life and culture that dominated 20s America. A short movie like The Wise Little Hen (1934), a Silly Symphony that introduced Donald Duck, constitutes a dose of Protestant work ethic practically shot pure into the veins, as Donald continually refuses the pleas of the Wise Hen - "Will you help me plant my corn?" - with the excuse "I got a belly ache!" until he's left hungry outside while the good folk dine on the harvest. Pinocchio (1940) with its harsh vision of childhood, Bambi (1942) with its death of the mother, Dumbo (1941), the tale of a deformed child in a world devoid of fathers, with all the babies delivered to their mothers by the stork - all these form a consistent universe whose power remains undiminished.

Since Disney's death the feature cartoon has become an even more corporate process, with creative staff, directors and artists subservient to marketing's vision and a maverick project like Richard Williams' legendary Nasruddin, 25 years in the making, remaining unseen. And the global market renders the world's store of fables even more attractive to the power-lunch brokers. But there are new pitfalls in these foreign fields.

When the Disney studios released Aladdin (1992), based on the Arabian Nights, Arab-American groups protested at the opening song, which spoke of a land where, "They cut off your ear if they don't like your face; it's barbaric, but hey, it's home!" Facing accusations of racist stereotyping the text was changed, but Hollywood's take on what is known as orientalism has remained problematic.

Standard biblical imagery has always portrayed the ancient Israelites as westerners in Arab dress, just as present-day Israeli postcards use images of smiling Arabs or Islamic mosques to declare: 'This is Israel!' Modern political conflicts seethe behind a veil of misconception and denial. 'Jewish' Hollywood has always been accused of a Zionist agenda, and embarrassing evidence, from Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960) onwards, is gathered on the stacks.

But cartoon people have changed, and both Mulan and The Prince of Egypt display some sensitivity to the diversity of the audience. Mulan is, I think, the first animation feature to express 'third world' patriotism, while The Prince of Egypt's artists have depicted their protagonists as robustly brown-skinned. The eyes have a definitely eastern slant, and Rameses is resolutely African-American, modelled authentically on the images surviving at Pharaonic sites. DreamWorks' Moses, no longer the forbidding Italian patriarch seared into our consciousness by Michelangelo, resembles nothing so much as a bronzed deckchair attendant on a Tel Aviv beach. As a sop to feminist expectations, he no longer takes his brother Aaron to face down Pharaoh but is accompanied by his wife Tzipporah. Star voices - Val Kilmer as Moses, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Sandra Bullock as the feisty Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro - underscore the user-friendliness of this version to the American audience.

In keeping with standard stereotyping the Egyptians are voiced by British artists, Ralph Fiennes taking on the ambivalent Rameses and Patrick Stewart the stern old Seti. Steve Martin and Martin Short voice two comic Egyptian priests, Hotep and Huy, whose pictorial image as long-nosed charlatans has an unsettling resemblance to the traditional anti-semitic portrayal of Jews. This similarity is so striking I can only conclude it is the result of ignorance, and none of the desert-trekking film-makers has realised the treacherous sands they have trod.

The presentation of history and other cultures in an American mode of thought, simplified and reduced, remains the staple Hollywood fare. If Mulan represents an intriguing departure, The Prince of Egypt is a step into the past, not of the ancient Middle East, but into the safe hinterland of America's cultural hegemony. Critics have noted Steven Spielberg's presentation of the Second World War in Saving Private Ryan as a strictly American versus German affair. DreamWorks may claim a universality for its tale of the Children of Israel, but it is America not Palestine that is Tinseltown's Promised Land. Good triumphing over evil, as producer Katzenberg put it. The dangers of this schematic thinking are implicit whenever the United States girds itself up for war with some external - at present mainly Arab and Islamic - enemy, proclaiming its solidarity with all the oppressed while wielding its pillar of fire.

By presenting Rameses as a tortured figure forced by his heritage to oppose his childhood "brother" The Prince of Egypt makes an effort to be more complex. But by cutting the story short, a different problem emerges. In DreamWorks' version, the Children of Israel, having reached the other side of the Red Sea safely, are liberated there and then. No 40 years wandering in the desert eating unleavened bread - the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of Rakusen's Fine Matsohs has been obliterated! No doom-laden presentation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, with their immediate rejection by the ungrateful Children of Israel exemplifying their social degradation - the victims contaminated by their own oppression - so only a new generation, that never knew slavery, can be fit to enter the Promised Land. Instead we are left with a final upbeat image - the freed Israelites hugging each other in a touchie-feelie paradise. In modern American mythology, victims are always noble. The heart stays warm - the mind, frozen.

Creative mavericks

But hey, this is a cartoon, remember? Oh for Donald Duck to play the wily Dathan, and for Mickey himself to lead the barn animals out of the stockyards and towards green pastures... Where animation excels is in opening the frontiers of the imagination, stimulating our exploration of the fantastic, making the impossible live. This is why the short sequence of Moses' dream of the running hieroglyphs stands out, bringing to mind immortal cartoon riffs like Dumbo's dream of the Pink Elephants' Dance or the 'Dance of the Hours' in Fantasia (1940). Humans will always be second best to animals in the cartoon world, since we know the humans are flattened, while animals are never more real. Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck are as real, in the cinema, as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant and Bette Davis and Greta Garbo's characters. When Chuck Jones torments Daffy by redrawing him in different shapes in Duck Amuck (1951) the animator is truly like Moses' Creator, the bush that burns but is not consumed. The whole point of animation is expressed in the crazy characters who turn to the audience in Tex Avery's classics and chortle: "You can do anything in a cartoon."

Today we are approaching the point in effects technology where you can do almost anything in a live-action film too. We are heading into uncharted territory, where even the 995,000 on-screen units in Antz might be a transitory wonder. And yet we might look at the laborious inking of Disney's first colour classics and marvel at what could be done by the uncomputerised artist. Nothing in Antz, Mulan or The Prince of Egypt approaches the consummate artistry of Disney's Bill Tytla, creating by draughtsmanship the awesome devil in the ' Bald Mountain' episode of Fantasia.

Disney's resident geniuses, always embattled and practically enslaved by their own power-mad Pharaoh, eventually rebelled and left for their own modest pastures. Can today's world of corporate animation features sustain and nurture the creative maverick, the ant who dreams of making an individual mark? Might there be, somewhere among the in-betweeners, tomorrow's computer visionary, tomorrow's teller of impossible tales? Here's looking at you kid, if I can make you out, in the mass.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012