Blurrier and blurrier grow the lines that used to separate genres, formats and territories in television. ABC's dreadful, doleful remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 classic "The Ten Commandments" (DeMille's own remake of a version he made in 1923) looks like the kind of cheapie that used to be produced for small-time cable TV, not for a big-time commercial broadcast network.
ABC originally had its two-part film scheduled for the February sweeps but, perhaps suffering a sudden attack of embarrassment, moved it to a theoretically quiet night in April. Most of the time, networks hope viewers will be drawn eagerly to special events, but in the case of "The Ten Commandments," ABC executives must be hoping no one will notice — and that future airings will be confined to the basic cable networks where this clunker belongs.
The producers — Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr., who ransacked Greek and Roman mythology for previous films — could maintain that their version of "The Ten Commandments" is not a remake of DeMille's film but is an original work that just happens to have been inspired (ha!) by the same biblical history. But DeMille's movie is an adored classic that ABC used to air annually near Easter and or Passover, still getting healthy ratings after three decades on the air. Some people love it for its classically campy mock-eloquence ("His God — is God"), others may find it genuinely inspiring, and some may giggle throughout yet still feel, when it's all over, that they've had as close to a spiritual experience as Hollywood could muster.
When, in DeMille's version, Pharaoh and his chariots race madly out of Egypt in pursuit of the Israelites, the troops roared between two long rows of gigantic Sphinx-like statues. In the new scaled-down version, they roar — tippy-toe, really — past what look like shrunken kiddie-toy versions of those same icons. Similarly, the Israelites appear to have decreased in number from the hundreds of thousands in DeMille's film to hundreds of hundreds in the Halmis'. When the Red Sea parts, it looks as though surfer footage of big waves has been spliced in, and it's disappointing to find the sea bed obscured by weird, gnarled, gnarly vegetation.
The thunderous scoring by Elmer Bernstein that made the amazing sights all the more miraculous in the 1956 version has been replaced with ricky-ticky percussive fluff that is presumably meant to sound authentically regional. You might think that, considering the technical progress made in the past five decades, at least the special effects in the new version would be good. Oh you would be so wrong.
Dougray Scott, who plays Moses, is determined to find the psychological complexities within the man, and so we get not a towering hero but a sullen mope. When he faces the specter of the Burning Bush and hears no less than the voice of God calling him to liberate his people, this new angsty Moses complains, "I can't do this! I can't do this!" Out on the trail in Part 2, Moses suffers what amounts to one long breakdown, growling, "I don't want to be the chosen one!" Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.
Moses at times comes across as a mean-spirited ethnic stereotype. For that reason, and because the second half of the film makes such a big deal about the Israelites committing adultery while Moses goes up the mountain, and bickering ceaselessly about the smallest hardship, the film seems not just joyless but offensive. Maybe the Halmis couldn't peddle it successfully in international markets if the Jews were depicted in too positive a light. Meanwhile the Pharaoh is less a vindictive tyrant than a man tortured with doubt — in a sense, Moses' equal.
Come, now. If this is not a story of good (slaves who endured 400 years in bondage) vs. evil (the slave-owning oppressors), what is it? And what's the point of telling it again? As a film, the Halmi version shows less cinematic finesse than the JibJab productions that play on the Web (and at least are fun). Director Robert Dornhelm has some of his players going wildly over the top, including a soothsayer who can't say a single sooth without twirling himself into a tantrum and having to be carted off by guards. But others mutter and whisper so softly that viewers will be reaching for the remote control so they can boost the volume.
It's quite incredible, really, that Moses can address a vast crowd and be clearly heard by all of them even while speaking no more loudly than someone asking to pass the syrup at the breakfast table.
The meetings between Moses and Pharaoh are not exactly rhetorical spectaculars, either. "I am Pharaoh," says Pharaoh. "I am Moses," says Moses. Later Pharaoh spears an adviser merely for suggesting that the Israelites be freed. "I am a god," Pharaoh explains. "I stand firm. I will not be moved." Yeah, but he sings another tune when he wakes up one morning to find his bedroom filled with frogs, hippity-hopping all over the bed and floor (one of the plagues that DeMille, perhaps wisely, omitted, since it's darn difficult to make frogs horrifying, except maybe in biology class).
This "Ten Commandments" is so drearily devoid of ideas that the mind is bound to wander — even early on, when Moses unconvincingly says he was tortured by a nightmare and you want him to sing, "I had a dream, a dream about you, baby!" — like Ethel Merman in "Gypsy." When he's addressing throngs in his barely audible mutter, you may long for one of the extras to shout, "Speak up, willya? We can't hear a word you're saying!"
And when the Lord begins a chat with Moses by saying "Moses? You know my voice?" those of us old enough to remember will probably recall Bill Cosby's classic routine as Noah having a very unexpected chat with the Supreme Being: "Who is this really?"
Wherever your mind wanders, it's likely to end up at a better place than this summer-stock, dinner-theater production of "The Ten Commandments" would try to take it. A bit of sound advice: Don't go there.
The Ten Commandments (two hours each night) airs tonight and tomorrow.