Ten Commandments

So why do a review of a movie that turns 50 this year? Because every so often there is a movie so great that it transcends time; a classic. None the less, due to the shear volume of material put out by Hollywood, great films can be forgotten just because they didn’t come out in the last year or two, or because audiences get comfortable with different styles. To put it simply, greatness should not be allowed to die.

The Ten Commandments was directed by savy Hollywood operator and professing Christian Cecil B. Demille. The fact that some of Demille’s movies were based on parts of the Bible automatically drew some criticism. One contemporary accused Demille of making “small-minded movies on a huge scale.” The “huge scale” part definitely applies to The Ten Commandments. Demille had to employ a cast of thousands of extras to recreate Pharo’s army and the mass Exodus of Hebrew slaves. The story spans 85 years and takes 3:39 to unfold, and every scene – nay, every line of dialogue – drives the story. And of course, then-revolutionary techniques were used to make the Red Sea sit up and beg, making movie history.

One of the temptations that Moses brushes off like dandruf. Heston must have taken a lot of cold showers.

But small minded? No one can take an honest look at this film and seriously hold that belief. This is one of the most compelling and thoughtful pictures ever made. The early story happens during a politically volatile period in the (speculative) history of ancient Egypt. Pharo Sethi I is nearing the end of his life and his throne must naturally pass to his biological heir, the ambitious Rameses II. Yul Brynner is absolutely brilliant in this role. You don’t like him and yet you’re compelled to respect him. Driven by his desire for the crown and for the beautiful Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), he puts force that few actors can into every scene he appears in. Sethi has nearly equal force, however, and superior power. Like most old men who’ve spent their lives being waited on, he has begun to worry about his legacy. He prefers his sister’s adopted son, Moses, who never stops building tributes to him, as a successor. Rameses begins hatching plots to undo this adopted brother.

Nefretiri, a hormonal adolescent girl with the power of a princess, plays her own game. Madly in love with Moses, she can’t bear the thought of being wed to Rameses. She constantly praises Moses and sweet talks Sethi. One scene between her and Rameses is one of Hollywood’s more memorable scenes. It’s a reminder that movies were much more powerful when the sexual tension was kept below the surface. Nefretiri is not passive, however, her passion drives her to extreme lengths, including murder. There are an assortment of other wily characters with their own motivations to add interest.

All of this is superbly done, and plenty for four stars. But so far, all this political maneuvering and forbidden romance could be in The Godfather, The Good Shepherd, or any number of intrigue movies. What makes The Ten Commandments different? The protagonist. Moses never criticizes the other characters; he simply passes through the politics and back-stabbing as if he doesn’t notice it.

Prophet, priests, and king.

Differences between Moses and the others begin to show right after Nefretiri has killed her hand maiden. Moses is knocking at her door. After a minute of romance, Moses learns that she has killed Memnet. He insists on knowing why, and drags it out of her that Memnet told her about his Hebrew heritage (unknown to him). She spouts typical Hollywood rhetoric, e.g., “I love you, that’s the only truth I know.” His reply is “love cannot drown truth.” Moses is favored above everyone else in Egypt, and its throne has now been promised to him. He has every comfort he could want and a beautiful woman madly in love with him. However, the revelation drives him to uncover his past, and he actually leaves the palace to work in the brick pits. His mother and Nefretiri urge him to stay, telling him that justice and truth are better served from a throne. This is just one age-old struggle the movie addresses; shouldn’t righteous men seek out power for the benefit of all? – and yet power so often rules the one who has it and makes him more wicked than any tyrant he replaced.

After Moses is arrested, Sethi asks him “Why are you forcing me to destroy you?” Moses replies “The evil that men should turn their brothers into beasts of burden … if there is a god, he did not mean this to be so.” Moses bears the fall from next pharo to condemned prisoner with remarkable grace, out of nothing more than an un-named conviction of what is right. How many of us have that kind of strength?

We are, of course, eventually directed to the “Power that has shaped Moses’ way,” as he puts it. The Ten Commandments does a number of things that contemporary audiences will be uncomfortable with, including overt references to Yaweh, the God of Abraham, as opposed to vague references to “God.” It’s unlikely DeMille would have taken the same criticism if the film wasn’t such an uncompromising statement of Biblical truth.

Still looks real.

If you haven’t seen The Ten Commandments for a few years, you owe it to yourself to at least rent a copy. If you’ve only watched it on TV, there is a part that is usually cut. No matter how many times I watch The Ten Commandments (don’t worry, I try to stay busy while I watch it), I can never bring myself to skip past it. In an unusual (possibly unique) move, DeMille addresses the audience face to face before the film starts. DeMille’s passion is infectious, and he brings the whole purpose of the movie into focus. The theme of The Ten Commandments, DeMille emphatically states, is “whether men are to be ruled by God’s Law, or by the whim of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.” How true. We need only look at the history of the United States to see that, as our government and culture have progressively rejected the Law of God, we have seen not freedom, but an explosion of government invasion of everyone’s lives.

Everyone remembers the Red Sea scene from this film, but few remember the true climax of the story, after Moses has received the Commandments from Yahweh. He goes back down the mountain to find the people worshiping the Calf and reveling in depravity. Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), a rabble-rouser, declares “We’re gathered against you Moses. We’re free!” Moses shouts “There is no freedom without the law!” What more is there to say? I guess there’s still the Gospel. But DeMille tried to force that into the 1920s version of The Ten Commandments, and it ruined it. One movie can only do so much. But this one does all that one can – and then some. The Book isn’t bad either.

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Kingdom of Heaven

KofH posterWith America’s eyes turning toward the battle for Rifqa Bary in Florida, it seemed fitting to pull this one out of the vault. Americans are famously clueless about history, but especially so when it comes to the history of Islam and Christianity. When I was in Bar Exam preparation, the lecturer, who was your typical American WASP, aparently felt the need to vent concerning the Crusades. He said the kings and knights went off to “teach Christianity to the heathens” in the Middle East, and how they completely destroyed the “Islamic Culture” there “that had existed for thousands of years.” He then went back to legal matters, but many listening had no doubt been entrenched more deeply in very popular and very dangerous misconceptions. Circumstances prevented me from addressing him directly, but I would have liked to point out that, at the time of the Crusades, “Islamic culture” had existed for about 400 years (Christianity, for the record, had been around for about 1000), that the Crusades had nothing to do with converting anyone or teaching anyone anything, but were about reclaiming territory and securing safe pilgrimages for the already faithful, and that they had hardly been unprovoked.

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) is one of many films about the Crusades. It does succumb to many of the same misconceptions of past films, but  represents an improvement. One review commented that the Muslims in the film were put in a surprisingly positive light. The surprise for me was that the Christians were not portrayed as completely barbaric, as tends to be the habit of Hollywood. For instance, the Kevin Coster version of Robin Hood (1992) introduced a new character in Hazeem, a Muslim who follows Robin to England from Jerusalem (Morgan Freeman). Through Hazeem, Muslims get undeserved credit for all kinds of advances in science, including gunpowder, which came from ancient China, telescopes, which were invented in Denmark in the 17th Century, and Cesarean section. Hazeem tends to be juxtaposed against Friar Tuck, a drunken, bumbling (albeit lovable) figure of Christianity. Worst of all, at one point, Robin Makes a speech, during which he declares “One man, fighting for his home, is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers!” He then looks over at Hazeem and says “The Crusades taught me that.”

And so it goes. Throughout history, from the class room to the silver screen, Christianity is portrayed as having spread out violently from Europe, destroying the peaceful, environmentally sound cultures in its path. Will the real story ever be told?

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement. Most of the characters we get to know are on the Christian side. Most of them are admirable. The biggest surprise was that the movie portrayed Muslims, Christians and Jews as living peacefully side by side for much of the story. One knight tells the lead, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) that his father, Grodfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) kept Jerusalem as a place of prayer for all faiths, just as the Muslims did before them. (At least now both sides are equally misrepresented.) The villains of the story are Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), two French knights who want to provoke a war with Syria. (Those who care to check out the DVD extras will notice the real Guy, at least, wasn’t so bad) They succeed about two thirds of the way through, which leads up to the climactic battle (which, I might add, is a great piece of film-making). We don’t see enough scenes on the Muslim side to really like or dislike them. We do see a brief shot of Saladin crying over the bodies of men slain in battle. We see a lot of shots of both sides shouting “God wills it!” as they move into battle.

In the book “Unveiling Islam,” Ergun Caner, a former Muslim,  comments that this cry (Dues Volt! in Latin) was only adopted in Europe after centuries of raids and colonization by the Arabs.  Other features of Islam seem to have rubbed off on Christians about this time. For instance, the teaching in Islam that one who dies in jihad automatically goes to paradise (Hadith 4:73, 9:93:555) seems to have been adopted by Pope Leo IV, when he promised forgiveness of sins to any who fought the Muslims.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

The heroes of Kingdom tend to be those who acknowledge God’s authority but insist on using cool-headed reason to end conflicts. There is a priest in Christian Jerusalem who comments “thanks to religion, I’ve seen the lunacy of madmen in every denomination be called the will of God. The kingdom God desires is here (pokes Balian in the head) and here (pokes him in the heart).” This evenhanded film is probably characteristic of the post 9/11 era where Americans want to believe all religions are the same. Today, the media can’t seem to fathom that Muslim parents, who’ve cared for their daughter for 17 years, might kill her for apostacy. As she repeatedly told an interviewer, “you guys don’t understand!”

There are a number of battles in history that I have often wished someone would make a movie out of – battles that represent some of Christian Europe’s victories over the Jihad. For instance, the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732), where the French stopped a Muslim army that had pillaged its way across northern Africa and Spain, thus saving western civilization. Or the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) that broke the Turks’ stranglehold on the Mediterranean and liberated thousands of slaves. Or the valiant defense of Constantinople, which resisted the Ottoman empire (which terrorized the world for about 500 years) for centuries. And then, of course, there were a series of battles late in WWI that marked the final destruction of the Ottomans and the liberation of the Serbs (who are now vilified as oppressors of Muslims). Today, we’re watching the story of a young potential martyr unfold from our livingrooms.

On one hand it seems like a pipe dream to hope that these stories will ever get the remembrance and celebration they deserve in the present climate. Americans can’t seem to fathom a time when western culture was in danger of being overrun.  Still, Kingdom of Heaven might be a step in the right direction. Maybe the next Ridley Scott will read this column. Time will tell.

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Fireproof

Firep posterLet’s face it, movies are a waste of time and money, especially considering that the average film has a budget of over $200 million. Every once in a while, however, a true gem comes along that almost vindicates the flood of resources that fuels Hollywood debauchery. The other day I purchased a humble project titled Fireproof. My wife and I watched it together and had one of the best discussions we have had in our marriage.

The production is a bit rough; the acting seems rehearsed at times and the camera work is simple. Not all the actors have the sculpted bodies we’re used to, either. But it’s good enough that I never would have guessed what I learned in one of the extras on the DVD: this film was made entirely by volunteers. Members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA pooled their resources and their talents, according to their trade, in construction, cinematography, theatre or computer graphics, and on one occasion, a stranger whose house they filmed an action scene next to volunteered his services with a forklift. The result is a film that looks almost as slick as, and is more engaging than, many big-budget Hollywood pictures.

But the most important thing about Fireproof is that it is one of very – very few films in history that have the potential to profoundly impact the lives of those who see them. The beginning gets our attention instantly because it realistically portrays something most people care about and are fearful for – their marriages. A couple of heated exchanges between the primal couple, firefighter Caleb (Kirk Cameron, the only professional actor in the cast) and Catherine (Erin Bethea) Holt, are almost painful to sit through, not because they’re bad but because they’re such a frank portrayal of a marriage falling apart. Catherine eventually tells Caleb she wants out.

In the next several scenes, we see both of them talking to their friends

Caleb Holt at work.

Caleb Holt at work.

about it. I couldn’t help but laugh as Caleb tells Michael, his lieutenant, (Ken Bevel) “I bet she’s whining to all her friends about me right now … and they’re having this big old group hug …” while we see Catherine doing just that. It’s interesting that Michael pushes Caleb to reexamine himself and take responsibility for his part of the problem, while Catherine’s friends instantly agree with her and join her in disparaging Caleb. On the other hand, my wife says I side too much with Caleb.

Caleb’s parents urge him not to get divorced. His father asks him to wait forty days, and sends him a notebook with a hand-written forty-day program called “The Love Dare.” Each entry directs Caleb to do something to show love to his wife, beginning with not saying anything negative to her and increasing from there. Grudgingly, he forces himself through the motions of the first few days. We alternate between chuckling and wincing as Catherine scoffs at and spurns his half-hearted attempts. At one point he tells his father “I feel nothing.” His father reminds him that “you can’t listen to the way you feel at the moment.” This is a welcome change from the brainless follow-your-feelings messages movies spit out.

Calling this program a “dare” is no idle boast. In fact, it’s an understatement. In the United States, it takes two to get married, but only one to get divorced. The only way to stop it is to change your spouse’s mind. This makes it extremely risky for one partner to resist a divorce, because it’s almost impossible, and resisting the divorce when you could be fighting for your rights in the divorce leaves you much more likely to get burned. Fireproof is a story of extreme courage, and going out on a limb for somebody in a way that doesn’t require any special effects, but is no less nail-biting for it.

Caleb Holt at home.

Caleb Holt at home.

Bethea gives a tour-de-force portrayal of a wife’s pain in a marriage going nowhere. One scene where she pours out her heart about how humiliated she feels when Caleb looks at pornography is impossible to forget, and her sadness is infectious as she eats meals and does chores alone.

Cameron plays his role well as a real, relatable American guy, and screen writers Alex and Stephen Kendrick were careful to include a few intense fire rescue scenes to give the movie an ample dose of testosterone. Male audience members will connect easily with Caleb and his longing for respect, need to blow off steam, and yearning for the next big thing.

All of which is the perfect preparation for the pivotal moment in Fireproof, about half-way through. Upon the instructions of day 18, Caleb prepares a candlelit dinner for Catherine, sparing no expense. When she comes home and sees it, she simply looks at him and declares “I do not love you,” and walks out. The next day, Caleb is walking through a wood with his dad, and the rejection is beyond what he can bare. In a cathartic moment, he blurts out

“She’s ungrateful. You’d think after I’ve washed the car, done the dishes, cleaned the house, that she would try to show me a little gratitude. But when I come home, she makes me feel like I’m an enemy. … For the last three weeks I have bent over backwards for her. I have tried to demonstrate that I still care about this relationship. I bought her flowers – which she threw away! I have taken her insults and her sarcasm, but last night was it. I made dinner for her, I did everything I could think of to show her that I care about her, to show value for her. And she spat in my face! She does not deserve this, Dad. How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?”

I grimaced as Caleb got on his knees, but my wife loved it.

I grimaced as Caleb got on his knees, but my wife loved it.

All of what he’s saying is true, and what turns things around is not that Caleb and Catherine realize how wonderful the other really is. In the following minutes, Caleb realizes that he has never truly loved his wife, and in fact he cannot do so, because, as his dad points out, “you can’t give her what you don’t have.” Everything that Caleb has just accused Catherine of, he has been doing to someone else throughout his life. The movie expresses a profound truth about love: it has to start somewhere. And it can’t start with flawed human beings, but only with the Love for that which is unlovable.

There aren’t many movies everyone should see, but this is one. Fireproof will challenge and inspire audiences to do the hardest, most frightening thing they’ve ever done – to truly love someone, as well as point them to the only way it can happen.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula

BSD posterIn one of the most important chapters in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” Lucy Westenre tells the story of how she received three marriage proposals in one day. We gain a chuckle by reading it, but we also learn how good Lucy’s heart is and how kind and humble she is, as well as see the character of her suitors.

But there is a fourth man in Lucy’s life, a certain Count we all know. He visits her at night, and she begins to be found in the morning at the brink of death, almost totally drained of blood. Her three suitors rally around her and, with the help of Dr. Van Helsing’s transfusion equipment, literally pour their life into her. So it goes for many pages; the Count steals her life away by night; the men who love her exhaust themselves by day in a desperate battle to save her life. Van Helsing trims her room with garlic. The Texan suitor, Quincy Morris, patrols the grounds around her home all night. But the Count’s craft is too great and Lucy finally succumbs. By this point the characters are sufficiently developed that the reader feels their loss almost as acutely as they do.

But of course, Lucy becomes a vampire. She preys on local children for awhile until once again confronted by her suitors and Van Helsing. Dr. Seward, narrating this part of the story, describes “the thing in the coffin” as a “mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity.” They put a stake through her heart, and watch her turn back to the woman they once knew.  There follows a beautiful paragraph about redemption, eternal life and contrasting inner beauty with the perverse eternal youth of a vampiress.

Would that I had sufficient space to fully describe the literary riches in Stoker’s masterpiece, but that will have to do. Imagine then, my disappointment at Francis Ford Coppula’s attempt to film “Dracula.” To do justice to the book would have required a long movie; probably around three hours. Coppula seems determined to cut it off at two, so that the movie, even in its best moments, is nothing more than a watered-down version of the book. To make matters worse, Coppula crams in a sub plot in which Mina Murray dates Dracula while her fiancé struggles across Europe. Taking a page from “The Mummy” Coppula seems to imply that Mina is a sort of reincarnation of a bride of the historical Dracula. The movie never explains this, however. In fact, the editing of this film is downright schizophrenic. The story I told above takes all of 10 minutes to fly by in the film, and begins with a shot of Lucy lying on a park bench, apparently being raped by a werewolf (I can only assume this is Dracula in some other form, but this too is never explained). Far from being Stoker’s figure of “sweet purity,” Coppula’s Lucy is essentially a 19th century valley girl. Seward and Quincy are barely given any screen time, and with no back-story, Arthur’s lines about how he would give the last drop of his blood to save Lucy are as flat and unbelievable as anything in Hollywood. Even her two death scenes seem insignificant.

drac, mina

Gary Oldman sucks in "Dracula."

To be sure, a proper film version of “Dracula” would get slow at times, bogged down in dialogue and character development, but it was precisely these things that made the book great. It takes the reader through the loss, the grief, the struggle and the eventual triumph of the seven main characters. If we didn’t feel their bravery, their love for each other, and their iron faith, reading the accompanying horror story would have been a waste of time. Perversely, the only genuine affection in Coppula’s film seems to be between Mina and Dracula.

In typical Hollywood fashion, Coppula tries to compensate for this lack of substance with spectacle. Disembodied shadows creep across walls, water flows uphill and blood flows out of inanimate objects for no reason. This entertains for a few minutes, but it’s a poor substitute for a story. It might even be scary, if any of it looked real, or if there was any reason to care.

Coppula’s film is to Stoker’s novel what a vampire is to the person he or she was in life: the same thing, except stripped of its soul, its passion, its humanity, and marked by lurid signs of cruelty and bloodlust.

The book

The movie

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