London, January 28, 2015— There are many reasons not to go see “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the Moses movie that’s almost so bad it’s good, but not quite bad enough to be good.
I went to see it out of a desire to see how they portray ancient Egypt, having worked on and off in contemporary Egypt for a decade and visited many of the old sites. The depiction in many ways was hilarious: pyramids placed willy-nilly on both banks of the Nile, instead of the plateau on the west side above the valley; the image of the Sphinx taken from a print by 19th Century painter David Roberts that showed the monument’s nose missing (it was lopped off by Ottoman troops used it for target practice); famished crocodiles devouring fisherman; lots of very white people playing Egyptian nobility with darker types all in slave-like roles; plus God depicted as a kid with a British schoolboy accent.
That was all laughable. What actually bothered me about the film was Hollywood’s latest use of Ramses ll as a bumbling and arrogant foil to the noble Moses.
Ramses ll, the son of Seti l, was arguably Egypt’s greatest ruler. He reigned for 66 years. He fought off Mediterranean pirates, nasty invading Hittites from somewhere near Turkey, Nubians from the south, and Libyans in the west who coveted the fertile Nile Delta. The movie paints him as a coward.
Having secured Egypt’s borders, Ramses built cities and temples and monuments, many of which are still among the countries most prominent: the far south statues at Abu Simbel that marked Egypt’s southern border; a magnificent capital called Per Raamses; the tomb of his favorite consort, Nefertari, near Luxor; and a giant monument to himself called the Ramesseum. Although in the movie, these are provided as symptoms of megalomania, they are in fact signs of Egypt’s prosperity under his reign. He actually paid people to build them in the off-farming season, when the Nile flooded and peasants had a lot of time on their hands. Such was his exalted reputation that another nine pharaohs used the name Ramses after he died.
My objection does not merely lie in the personality that Hollywood keeps foisting on Ramses (in the 1956 version of the Ten Commandments, the one with Yul Brynner as the pharaoh, he is portrayed as a lascivious, if hen-pecked, husband whose queen had a crush on Moses). Rather I don’t like it that they pick on Ramses at all. He had nothing to do with Moses or the Exodus.
Don’t blame it on the Bible. In the biblical Exodus chapter, which chronicles the famous flight of the Hebrews from Egypt, Pharaoh is not given a name. That’s weird, since all sorts of other characters are named: Moses, of course, his relatives and peasants in the desert. But not the most famous guy in Egypt. I mean, Moses himself was adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter (she’s also unnamed), so he ought to have known.
Fans of Ramses-as-Exodus pharaoh point to a verse which said Hebrew slaves built a town called Pi-Ramesses. But that pharaoh dies in the middle of the biblical Exodus. And anyway, biblical scholars suggest various dates, none of which coincide with Ramses’ long rule in the 13th Century BC.
Therefore, a variety of other pharaohs are candidates, none of which are Ramses: Ahmose l, Thutmoses ll, and Amenhotep ll. Amenhotep was already used as the unfortunate high priest in the 1932 “Mummy” movie, starring Boris Karlof, so that eliminates him from Hollywood recycling. I think the pharaohs are turning over in their tombs.
Anyway, Hollywood probably picked on Ramses because, along with Tutankhamen, he is a pharaoh westerners might know by name. Unfortunately, they picked on arguably the greatest Egyptian of antiquity, if not all time. He certainly wasn’t a coward. Egypt thrived under him.
Egypt banned “Exodus: Gods and Kings” because it showed a prophet, Moses. They should have banned it for slandering Ramses ll.
So, please, Hollywood, leave him out of it. Do what the Bible did. Just call him Pharaoh.