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Has the Historical Epic Lost Its Relevance?

The historical/biblical epic seems to be in something of a crisis.  Both Darren Aronovsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings took something of a drumming at the U.S. box office, and the latter was viciously excoriated by the critics.  One cannot help but remember another significant ancient world epic, directed by a very well-known and well-regarded director, that similarly failed to make a box office impression and was also dismissed by many critics.  Oliver Stone’s Alexander, anyone?  It seems reasonable to ask, then:  what went wrong?  How did we go from the likes of Ben-Hur and Gladiator to the relative domestic disappointments of Troy, Alexander and, more recently, Noah and Exodus?  None of these films managed to secure a place in the pantheon of unqualified successes, relegated to pet auteur projects that will always play second (or third) fiddle to their unequivocally successful predecessors.

Of course, it’s hard to say with any certainty what causes particular genres to gain or lose popularity in the popular (and, by extension, critical) consciousness.  I would propose, however, that part of it at least has to do with the vision of history and of historical change that these types of films typically evoke that may be at least partially to blame.  It may well be that the types of historical vision/consciousness these films seek to inspire in their viewers cannot gain, or at any rate is not guaranteed, the cultural and collective psychological purchase it could in those periods when then the genre was at its height (the 1950s and very early 1960s and, in Gladiator’s case, the turn of the millennium).

While the historical/biblical epic is typically seen as a celebration of nationhood, masculinity, and imperialism, these films (and their TV descendants/counterparts), also contain within them a darker note, a strain of what film scholar Robert Burgoyne has termed a counternarrative.  This counternarrative, I would suggest, has a great deal of the melancholy about; a profound sense of loss haunts the epic form.  This is not mere nostalgia, for while this affect does share some of the sadness and longing associated with nostalgia, this type of loss, I argue, does have the possibility of engendering a specific type of historical understanding in particular types of spectators.  The present, these films assert, is built upon the bones and the flesh of those who occupied the past, and while we might pride ourselves on the advent of modernity, these films force us to ask:  at what cost?  What has been lost in the process of historical change?  Why is loss necessary in order for time and humanity to move forward?  This experiencing of history is, itself, a form of loss, as the spectator is forced to confront the encounter a multitude of losses:  of life, of subjectivity, of the self.

While this sense of loss could perhaps be sublimated or recuperated in an era that prided itself (and constantly convinced itself) on its prosperity, both economic and cultural, such may not be the case in those eras when such myths cannot gain that same kind of purchase.  Thus, it would make sense that a film like Gladiator, one of the most melancholy and despondent films I have ever seen, might succeed at the beginning of the new millennium, when the U.S. was still flush with the prosperity of the Clinton Years and what some have labeled the “Pax Americana.”  However, could a film like Troy, or Alexander, succeed, since both are likewise haunted by that same sense of loss and dissolution?

The same might be said of Noah and, to a lesser extent, Exodus.  Noah ends, of course, on something of a high note, but any viewer who has even been halfway paying attention cannot help but be haunted by the tremendous loss of life that has been incurred.  The movement from the ancient world of violent patriarchs–exemplified, quite chillingly, by both Noah and Tubal-cain–has been swept away, the hordes of men, women, and children drowned in the deluge (in fact, the sight of the frail remains of humanity clinging to an outcropping of rock is one of the film’s most striking and memorable images).  While the world that emerges may be better than the one that preceded it, is such betterment worth the loss of human life required to bring it into being?

Exodus, likewise, ends on a somewhat sombre note, as again any viewer with a glimmer of knowledge of Biblical history knows that the Jews, newly freed from their bondage in Egypt, are doomed to wander the wilds for 40 years.  The scene in which Ramseses stands amongst the ruins of his splendid army is one of the most visually and emotionally arresting in an otherwise fairly lackluster film, again suggesting that the new nation led by Moses has been born out of the deaths of thousands of men, as well as the terrible sundering of the pseudo-familial bond between Ramseses and Moses.

Can an America still reeling from a tremendously devastating recession and two (at least) unsatisfactorily concluded wars, not to mention deep rumbles of civil unrest (which are themselves the outward manifestations of deep fissures in American culture that have been glossed over for far too long) still gain the sense of reassurance it had from the earlier cycles, especially ones that so explicitly foreground loss?  It seems to me that they cannot, and that at least in part accounts both for the films’ tremendous unpopularity with critics (Exodus has so far taken quite a drubbing with the American film critics, averaging a critical score in the 20s), as well as their lackluster performance at the domestic box office (neither Noah nor Exodus have done particularly well, relying on their international distribution to break even).

Of course, the epic does flourish in some forms.  Son of God, an extension of the extremely popular History Channel  series The Bible, was a moderate success, largely because it eschewed big-budget spectacle and had a built-in audience from those appreciative of the original series.  The Red Tent, the television adaptation of Anita Diamant’s bestselling historical novel, received at least a somewhat warm reception from critics.  And, perhaps most famously of all, Game of Thrones, with its patina of historicity and its evocation of generic codes of the historical epic, has proven the the genre can flourish, both in terms of viewership and critical approbation.  So, perhaps the epic can survive, but only in the medium of television.  It remains to be seen whether its loss will be mourned or celebrated.

Review: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Enjoyable epic fare, but not as compelling as it could have been.

This was supposed to be the year of the biblical epic, the triumphant box office return of a genre that has become quite unfashionable.*  First there was the much-hyped Noah, and now we have Ridley Scott’s latest epic adventure, a re-telling of the Moses story, this time with Christian Bale as the Old Testament patriarch and Joel Edgerton as the petulant and ultimately defeated Pharaoh Rameses.  If the lackluster domestic box office of Noah and of Exodus so far is any indication, it may just be the case that the epic is no longer the genre of choice for the conveying of Biblical themes and stories.

Some of this can be laid at the feet of the film itself.  While Exodus contains all of the pieces that typically make these types of epic films such fun to watch–including some truly cringe-worthy acting at points–somehow they didn’t quite gel for me as a viewer.  It’s not that I didn’t like this film; I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  It’s just that it didn’t quite hit all of the right notes that I had been expecting, and it distinctly lacked a strong emotional core that typically allows these films to transcend their tawdriness and evoke something deeper.  What makes Ben-Hur such a success, I would argue, is both the emotional and physical complexity invoked by the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur, as well as the anguish his mother and sister endure as a result of both their leprosy and their self-enforced exile.  Likewise, what makes Gladiator succeed as an epic is the emotions that it manages to wring from us; despite myself and my ever-critical eye, I always find myself tearing up at the end, when Maximus dies on the sands of the arena.  Those moments, problematic as they are, gesture toward the emotional truths that the film’s seek to convey, and while all epics try to do this, only the truly great ones succeed in all the right ways.

Alas, Exodus does not seem like it is going to be one of those.

Part of that, I suspect, has to do with the cloud of well-deserved controversy after it was revealed that none of the male leads (with the exception of Ben Kingsley) was going to be in any way a person of colour, a situation made infinitely worse by Scott’s tone-deaf response to accusations of whitewashing.  However, it also has to do with the actors he has chosen to cast, as well as his (mis)use and wasting of certain talents.  As numerous reviews have noted, Sigourney Weaver is utterly wasted as Tuya, and I am going to go on record as saying that Joel Edgerton is a rather pathetic and simpering representation of Rameses, arguably one of the most influential and politically and militarily successful pharaohs produced by Ancient Egypt.  Edgerton transforms him into something pathetic and ineffectual, and there is a bit near the beginning of the film where he handles albino snakes that is so obvious in its connotations as to be hardly worth mentioning (Scott is not always known for his subtlety).  I cannot help but compare him unfavourably to Yul Brynner, who was able to inject Rameses with the right amount of inflexibility and strength.

Bale, likewise, seems miscast as Moses, but this may be less a result of his acting than of the oddities of the script.  After my initial viewing, I’m still rather unclear about what exactly motivates Moses to go back to Egypt after his sojourn in the desert.  There is simply too little exposition (amazingly, considering the genre), and too little characterization of either Moses or God (who appears as a disturbingly precocious young boy), for the actions of the characters to make sense.  Bale doesn’t help matters; though he may have more emotional range than a Charlton Heston (who, in some ways, may have been better cast as one of the largest and most imposing of the Old Testament patriarchs), he still seems rather lost in the rather senseless plot.

In many ways, Exodus feels like a bit of a re-tread of Gladiator, except with soaring visuals of Egypt and desert landscapes rather than towering vistas of a digitally-rendered Colosseum.  The conflict between two “brothers” over the love of a woefully ineffectual father ultimately powerless to change the inheritance laws of his own country, the parricide of one brother (it is strongly hinted in Exodus that Rameses is responsible for his father’s death, given his propensity for milking venomous snakes for their poison), is a bit too trite and overdone.  Luckily, Scott doesn’t flail that dead horse too much, but then he largely eschews human magic in many of the relationships.  Even those that should be emotionally resonant, such as that between Zipporah and Moses, felt curiously empty, as if they were an afterthought.

There were some genuinely compelling and interesting moments in the film, such as when it becomes obvious that Rameses is fudging the historical record in order to render himself braver.  One might wonder why so many representations of this particular story seem intent on painting Rameses as either a coward or a military incompetent, largely as a means of building up Moses’ own abilities (this happens in The Ten Commandments as well).  More importantly, as I mentioned earlier, there are some truly brilliant shots of various landscapes, and that alone made it worth the ticket price, since you really do need to see those shots on the big screen to get the full effect of seeing the tininess of the human form set against the vastness of the natural world.

Likewise, the plagues were rendered with a visual flourish that show the capabilities of CGI and Scott’s use of it.  Indeed, they were in many ways the visual and narrative core of the film, and he way in which they were portrayed helped capture, for me at least, the experience of visceral terror that those who encountered them in the flesh must have experienced.  And, since they all (with the exception of the killing of the firstborn) afflict the Hebrews as much as the Egyptians, this sequence also draws attention to the essentially violent and vengeful nature of the God of the Old Testament, something that is often ignored or forgotten.

All in all, this was a compelling film.  However, I very much fear that, as was the case with Noah, the film doesn’t do anything well enough to charm any of its possible audiences.  It is not faithful or devout enough to appeal to Christians, nor is it coherent enough to really appeal to those who love the epic.  Perhaps more than anything else, however, its lack of success may be due to the fact that the historical epic as a genre may not have the explanatory power it once did.  Or maybe they just aren’t being made correctly.  Perhaps time will tell.