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Moses, Spielberg & DeMille: Why Spielberg should do the next Moses movie

A Moses story is the sort of project that could possibly inspire and challenge Spielberg to strive for a crowning achievement comparable to The Ten Commandments in DeMille's career.

09/29/2011 Comments (20)

Who better to direct a new Hollywood epic on the life on Moses than Steven Spielberg?

Deadline.com reports that Spielberg has read the script for Gods and Kings, written by Michael Green and Stuart Hazeldine—and that Warner Bros wants him for the job.

There’s something instantly appealing about the thought of Spielberg directing Hollywood’s first major live-action take on Moses’ story since Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 crowning achievement, The Ten Commandments.

Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker owes a great deal to DeMille. In fact, the first film Spielberg ever saw, at the age of seven, was Cecil B. DeMille’s penultimate picture, and the movie that made Charlton Heston a star, the Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth.

It was a portentous convergence in many ways. DeMille’s long career of popular success had been a Barnumesque pursuit of showmanship and spectacle on a grand scale, and the DeMille film set Spielberg on a similar course of Hollywood showmanship. Spielberg wasn’t just bitten by the movie bug. He was inspired to make grand spectacles and popular entertainments, openly playing to audience emotions in a way that courted the same critical charges of sentimentalism leveled against DeMille.

Like DeMille, Spielberg has enjoyed extraordinary popular success over multiple decades working in a variety of genres. Although DeMille was never a devout Episcopalian, he valued his religious heritage, and had an ecumenical belief in religion as such that comes through in his films. Spielberg likewise has never been a very observant Jew, but has come to identify with his Jewish roots (most notably in Schindler’s List and the Shoah Foundation project), and a certain ecumenical openness crops up here and there in his work (most notably the use of the Gospel story in Amistad).

Spielberg’s films include a number of homages to DeMille and signs of specific influences:

  • DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is seen on TV in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • The Greatest Show on Earth includes a spectacular circus train wreck that young Steven Spielberg emulated in his earliest home movies shooting model train wrecks with his father’s 8mm camera. Young Indiana Jones encounters a circus train in the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This summer’s Super 8, produced by Spielberg, includes an over-the-top train wreck set piece (as well as boys filming model train accidents with a father’s camera).
  • In The Ten Commandments, DeMille uses billowing clouds over the Red Sea and Mount Horeb to evoke the presence of God. Spielberg uses similar billowing cloud effects over the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark and over the climactic opening of the ark. Similar billowing clouds appear over the mountain in Close Encounters where men encounter visitors from heaven, though not divine ones.
  • In a related but distinct image, in The Ten Commandments DeMille depicts the heavenly Passover destroyer as an eerie mist creeping along the ground. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg portrays the destroying powers issuing from the ark of the covenant with wispy, vaporous effects. DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt synthesizes the two, using vaporous manifestations issuing from heaven to depict the Passover destroyer.
  • DeMille’s pillar of fire in The Ten Commandments is also echoed in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Prince of Egypt.

Spielberg has already broached the Moses story once or twice, most notably in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which refers to the Moses story as the basis for the supernatural artifact that drives the action, and also in The Prince of Egypt, which he did not produce but was still involved in. DreamWorks’ strategy of soliciting input from religious leaders of various religions—Christian, Jewish and Muslim—parallels DeMille’s strategy in developing various religious epics, including The Ten Commandments.

A Moses story is the sort of project that could possibly inspire and challenge Spielberg to strive for a crowning achievement comparable to The Ten Commandments in DeMille’s career.

Certainly he would want to bring an authentically Jewish sensibility to the story—in contrast DeMille’s opus, which, while respectful of Judaism, has been called “the most goyishe Jewish film ever created.”

At the same time, Spielberg would probably wish, as with The Prince of Egypt, to respect Christian as well as Muslim attachments to the story. It would probably stick closer to the biblical narrative than DeMille’s film, though like any film it would also be a product of its own time and place.

A successful Spielberg-directed Moses story could be a cultural landmark of immense significance. It could have an impact on a scale similar to The Passion of the Christ, but without the polarizing controversy. It could give a fundamental biblical story new currency for generations to come. Like DeMille’s film, it might even help renew awareness of the Ten Commandments and the foundational role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in Western civilization.

Of course there’s no guarantee that it would do any of these things. Depending on the screenplay (I have no idea what it looks like) and how Spielberg handles it, it could be terrible. Even on a best case scenario, it seems likely that there would be at least some drawbacks, and that caveats of some sort or other will be necessary.

Still, the prospect of Spielberg directing a Moses story is one of the most immediately inspiring proposals I’ve heard in some time.

Mr. Spielberg, please sign. So let it be written, so let it be done!

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P.S. What do you think of this idea? What are your favorite DeMille or Spielberg films? What is your favorite cinematic take on the Moses story so far?

Filed under cecil b. demille, moses, movies, religious movies, steven spielberg

About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.