Moses Can't Go Home Again; Exodus: Gods And Kings Banned in Egypt


Moses, who left Egypt under contentious circumstances some time ago, is finding he can't go home again. Ridley's Scott's biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, has been banned in Egypt (as well as in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates). The last time a major Moses movie tried to play the region, Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, it was also widely banned in the Middle East (and throughout the Soviet bloc and by Mao's China).

The DeMille film was banned in Egypt even though much of it had been shot there. According to a 1958 account in The Hollywood Reporter, DeMille's movie was banned because "in the great clashes between the Egyptians and the Jews, the Egyptians were always the villains and the Jews the victims."

Today's Egyptian censors have been quite creative in coming up with reasons why Scott's movie can't be shown. For one thing, it's "a Zionist movie." For another, it's inaccurate. The chairman of the country's censorship committee insisted that Moses split the Red Sea using his staff, rejecting the movie's invention of a fortuitous earthquake. (The Koran's Red Sea story parallels the Old Testament version).

Among the contemporary censors' many other problems: The Hebrews are shown, ahistorically, building the Pyramids; Moses should be treated as a prophet and not a military leader; Moses' face shouldn't be shown at all. (Noah, the Russell Crowe movie, was also charged by Egyptian authorities with personification of a prophet, but that movie was eventually cleared for exhibition.) Also, God is shown in corporeal form (a serious matter in the Islamic world), and, as in the 1950s, the ancient Egyptians are made to appear villainous.

If one wanted to argue the recurring villainy point, one might note that, after all, the ancient Egyptians play the villain's role even in the Koran's account of the Exodus, and that anything less from Hollywood would be a kind of blasphemy. In a dramatic moment in the Koran's seventh sura, Pharaoh is about to be inundated by the returning waters of the Red Sea, and he announces his conversion to a belief in the One God. Allah, however, rejects his conversion, and causes Pharaoh and his host to be drowned. If God regards Pharaoh as such an unredeemable villain, what do Egyptian censors expect from Cecil B. DeMille and Ridley Scott?

Anyway, Egypt's censors aren't always so forthcoming about the reasons behind their decisions. For example, book censors last summer barred several titles (Egyptian, Lebanese, and French) without citing any reason at all. One of the titles, An Introduction to Semiotics, by Egyptian author Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, seemed a particularly unlikely target. However, writers at the liberal English-language site Mada Masr in Egypt remembered that the author had been convicted of apostasy in the religious courts in the 1980s, and that his wife had essentially been ordered to divorce him. Like everything else in the region, censorship in Egypt can get complicated.

By the way, the misadventures of the DeMille film with censors seem to have involved an early appearance in Western popular journalism of a group that we are now accustomed to call Islamists.

In 1958, Pakistan barred The Ten Commandments, becoming, in the words of The Hollywood Reporter, "the first country in the Free world" to ban the film. Pakistani authorities had no public objection to the film itself, but were wary of inciting what the trade journal called, in terms notably lacking in multiculturalist empathy, "a small group of illiterate fanatics." Apparently, these "illiterate fanatics" had been sufficiently provoked the previous year by the showing of some other, unnamed biblical epic, one with a Christian theme. That might have been The Robe; there were many such pious epics in the era. Whatever it was, the "fanatics" burned down the theater, and Pakistan decided it had had enough biblical grandiosity for a while. 

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  1. Some of the censors’ objections – if we accept the premise of censorship in the first place, which I’m not saying I do – seem sound. I think the pyramids thing is ahistorical, and isn’t in the Bible. The staff-vs.-earthquake thing: In either case it’s supernatural in the sense that the timing is too convenient for the Israelites to me mere coincidence, so if you’re going supernatural, why not the staff. Gandalf had a staff, why not Moses?

    1. The movie is on its way to being a flop regardless. The target audience is the faithful, but the creators went out of their way to smear the movie with gobs of antireligious sentiment. Since their fellow athiests are not going to see a movie about moses and the faithful quite quickly realized the overt condescention, the audience of the film is rather meger, and it is on track to make a loss internationally (as in a rela loss where the studio actually did spend more than it made and not a hollywood loss where the net on paper is negative to screw over people who didn’t get gross points).

      1. This is an amazing thing. You, or Tyler Perry, could make a basic, big budget Bible epic every six months and be rolling in kugerands and monocles.

        But the smart folks running the big studios will make condesending crap like this and ‘Noah’ once a decade and say “Bible stories don’t sell.”

      2. I’m not religious, but it honestly didn’t look like a very good film from the trailer. The admittedly limited dialogue I saw from Christian Bale indicated that he was basically mailing in a performance.

        It also seemed to me like another Ridley Scott late-career snoozefest. Old story told many times before, nothing much to add to it except CGI…and I already saw how that worked out with his version of “Robin Hood”.

    2. The ambiguity is the point.

  2. Wow, Charles Paul Freund! What’s it been, ten years? Nice to see him here again.

    Maybe Michael Young will reappear next?

    “If God regards Pharaoh as such an unredeemable villain, what do Egyptian censors expect from Cecil B. DeMille and Ridley Scott?”

    I suppose those three have more in common than a lot of people realize. With the Islamic flavor of predestination, the Pharaoh didn’t have much more choice in that matter than the characters those directors wrote into their movies did. To audiences in the West, people like Pharaoh are evil because they chose to go against God. To Muslim audiences, people like Pharaoh chose to sin because they were already evil before they were born.

    The political implications for Egypt are much worse in the movie if it is clear that it was God that hardened Pharaoh’s heart(Exodus 9:12). Christian free will has to rationalize texts like that–my understanding is that the Qur’an just writes some of these events differently; e.g., it was Ishmael, not Issac, that got the birthright, etc.

    If modern Muslims shot a movie of the story of Abraham and Ishmael from the Qur’an’s perspective, somehow not showing any of the prophets’ faces, I wonder if there would be calls to suppress the film in Israel, what with all the political implications.

    1. I would guess that the Israelis confine their censorship to histories of the intelligence services, advocacy of killing Jews, and the like, but I’m not sure.

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  4. Among the contemporary censors’ many other problems: The Hebrews are shown, ahistorically…

    Well if we’re going that route, we’re going to have to talk about the historicity of Moses and the entire Exodus story itself…there’s a lot of back and forth about that, general consensus is that it’s based on actual events but changed so much by oral storytelling and ancient propaganda that it’s completely unreliable. Some theorize its a heavily edited version of Akhenaten’s reign, for example.

    1. Yeah, if the American Revolution had happened in a pre-literate society, I suspect we’d believe that George Washington was so strong, he could skip a silver dollar all the way across the Potomac, parted the Delaware River to defeat the Hessians, etc.

      I find the Amarna Revolution explanation questionable. It seems to rest on connections with monotheism, the influences for which I see as more likely coming from the Persians. The Old Testament was edited and codified during the Persian exile period.

      The Zoroastrian Persians, in addition to being monotheists, abhorred idol worship, had many of the same dietary restrictions, and generally had a profound influence on the people who edited what because the Old Testament. (Up to and including the creation myth–the seven aspects of Ahura Mazda mimic the seven days of creation and what those seven aspects were responsible for).

      Anyway, I’m a big believer in scientific Fallibilism, especially the tenet that the things that survive the most scrutiny are the things that are mostly likely to be true. We should apply that to mythology, too. It’s impossible for Washington to have parted the Delaware or skip a silver dollar all the way across the Delaware River, so we know that isn’t true.

      1. But Washington did win the Battle of Trenton. There never were any cyclops, gods, goddesses, giants, or titans, but who’s to say there was no siege of Troy, or that there wasn’t a hero there named Ulysses? Water doesn’t turn to blood, and maybe there is no Angel of Death, but who’s to say there was no Moses (or Musa) and that he didn’t lead his people to modern Israel?

        1. My point is more that complaining about the lack of historicity in largely mythologized stories is really pointless because their inherent nature is to be ahistorical. If we’re complaining about Hebrews building the pyramids we might as well start complaining about the modern dentistry in characters’ teeth and the racial demographics, it’s irrelevant to the actual material of the story.

          1. but if the story has been a certain way for 3 or 4 thousand years, why should this movie think they could change it and not be criticized? True or not, we all know the story.

            1. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing something for story and narrative reasons, my point is in regards to claims that things are ‘ahistorical’. The entire story is ahistorical, so a criticism that something is ‘wrong’ because it’s ahistorical is meaningless. Complaints about how certain things change the narrative or plot are completely different (as someone mentioned above, the sea parting by earthquake rather than Moses’ staff is a good example. It’s deliberately re-contextualizing a scene for alternative purposes, which is a better criticism).

        2. There was no Moses. There may have been a Mosheh.

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  6. Just think of all that lost revenue!

    1. Yeah, everyone in Cairo would’ve been lining up to watch. Ha ha HA!

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  8. Looking at a list of those we call allies is always amusing.

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  10. Mien Kampf is still a best seller in the region. So there is that.

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  14. Current Egyptians’ being insulted by this is like current Americans’ being insulted by a derogatory portrayal of Native Americans 3000 years ago.

    It’s odd to be offended by someone insulting a group to which you have no ties except you happen to live in roughly the same geographical area, millennia after numerous conquests made respective hashes of the ethnic composition, to say nothing of the religious composition.

  15. So, we should take a stand for freedom by watching this movie?? Chances are, it’s a better movie than “The Interview”.

  16. A movie version of Lot and his daughters would be a smash hit.

  17. It’s a Movie, not a Documentary, it doesn’t have to be historically accurate in the least, but then, neither is the bibilical account an historically accurate account, it’s a story.

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