Sorry, kids, but this is how my mind works: I was listening to a BBC History Extra podcast about ancient Egypt with Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, and then I watched her documentary series “Immortal Egypt” (which, if anyone else has watched it, I’d really like to discuss her hair and dramatic gestures with you) and then I wanted to watch something set in ancient Egypt, but the pickings are slim, so despite bad reviews, I watched Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Then I STILL wanted more ancient Egypt, tried to watch Nefertiti Queen of the Nile (1961) only to discover it’s TERRIBLE and pouted a bit. Then I was posting costume images to social media, and it was Brad Pitt’s birthday, and I posted some hilarious pics of his abs from Troy (2004), so decided to rewatch it! Then I watched Bettany Hughes’s documentary on Helen of Troy, then listened to an In Our Time podcast about the Trojan War, then saw they’d just posted an episode about Tutankhamun, and now I want to watch the 2016 miniseries about Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb (The Mummy of Tutankhamun) so get ready for a forthcoming review.
[Edited to add: these two films are grouped together because both are set in the ancient world. I ran out of Egyptian films to watch!]
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Directed and produced by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), this is his version of the biblical Moses story, which he sets during the reign of Ramesses II. When the film came out, there was a lot of flack given to the casting of white actors in Middle Eastern roles, and the fact that Scott describes himself as an atheist. I’m an atheist too, so that second part didn’t bug me so much, although then I wonder why Scott was interested in the first place and didn’t just tell a historical story? Because, as the fabulous An Historian Goes to the Movies explains, there’s no historical basis for the Moses story.
Is the movie any good? It’s fine? I liked the first half much better, in which Moses (Christan Bale) is part of the Egyptian court, because there was a lot more to look at — sets, costumes, etc. Nearly all of the women were wasted: Sigourney Weaver (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Snow White: A Tale of Terror) plays Tuya, wife of pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro), and she only gets to glower about Moses potentially being Hebrew.
Tara Fitzgerald plays Miriam, Moses and Ramesses’ childhood nanny — or is she? She gets to deny she’s anything more, and later give Moses a hug. Woot.
Indira Varma (Rome, Carnival Row) plays the high priestess, and she gets to be snarky about how prayers aren’t IMMEDIATELY answered, and that’s it.
Golshifteh Farahani plays Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari, and she’s basically there to give him a son.
The only woman to get any real screen time is Moses’s wife, Zipporah, played by the stunningly beautiful Spanish actress María Valverde (The Limehouse Golem). She’s basically the perfect wife, but it didn’t bug me because she was so riveting to look at, both in her beauty and her facial tattoos and strongly colored costumes.
The second half of the movie is all about Bale wandering in Canaan, finding god, returning to Egypt, and liberating the Hebrew slaves. It’s very, very un-shiny. I thought Joel Edgerton did a good job at playing Ramesses — I got the cockiness of a new, young ruler trying to make a name for himself. Bale was good, but not good enough to counteract about an hour of bleakness.
Exodus’s costumes were designed by Janty Yates (Jude, Plunkett & Macleane, Charlotte Gray, De-Lovely, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood). Yates did a lot of press about the film, and I found these two videos about the film’s costumes interesting:
She did a lot of research at the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Here’s a few of her thoughts on costuming the film:
“All the Egyptians [in the film] wear lamellar armor, which has this petal-shaped metal that’s even more elaborate than chain mail. And because Moses was a top general, his is a little more ornate because he had the wherewithal to have the court craftsmen craft this beautiful cuirass, which is the breastplate, and do some wonderful engraving on it” (For ‘Exodus,’ Janty Yates dresses Moses and Ramses).
On Ramesses’ gold armor:
“That was taken from research. It was drawn in hieroglyphs. There were two or three Ramses’ helmets, one of them looked something like a bees’ nest in blue, and you’d have to have a specific face to pull it off, so we went with the gilded helmet because it just looked terrific. I did absolutely go over the top with the gold because Ramses was appallingly over the top. He must have built something like 80 to 100 statues of himself. He was exceptionally vain but rather wonderful. To exacerbate his gold self was rather joyous” (Costume designer Janty Yates knew ‘Exodus’ posed ‘enormous’ challenge).
“The Egyptians, we wanted a custom look, even for the slaves, the courtiers. We basically had to start from scratch. We had to build everything, from the palace guards all the way through the principles” (Costume designer Janty Yates knew ‘Exodus’ posed ‘enormous’ challenge).
“Ridley didn’t want [Moses] to be anywhere near Ramses [in color tones]; he wanted him to be completely opposite, i.e. military and impeccable but, of course, he had to be wearing a dress. So we had to butch it up a bit. The jewelry, belts, everything was made by hand” (Costume designer Janty Yates knew ‘Exodus’ posed ‘enormous’ challenge).
“The jewelry on ‘Exodus’ was a big deal. Everyone wore about 15 pieces: headresses, pectorals, bracelets, upper arms, multiple rings, the belts — what we call the aprons” (Costume Designer Janty Yates on Epic Job of Dressing ‘Exodus: Gods and Men’).
I saw Troy back when it came out, and I weirdly enjoyed it in exactly the sort of sword & sandals way it’s supposed to be appreciated. Rewatching it was the same experience: it’s a lovely bit of fluff filled with gleaming pectoral muscles, boys thwapping each other with swords and arrows, and pretty women being brave. Brad Pitt’s (Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, Allied) attempt at a slightly less American accent comes and goes hilariously, Orlando Bloom (various Pirates of the Caribbean films, Kingdom of Heaven, The Three Musketeers, Carnival Row) is a pretty block of wood, Eric Bana is noble and chiseled, Sean Bean is underutilized, Diane Kruger (Farewell, My Queen) is beautiful but underdeveloped, Rose Byrne (I Capture the Castle, Casanova, Marie Antoinette) is the most interesting character (Briseis and Achilles’ love story is ludicrous yet highly entertaining), Saffron Burrows’ (Circle of Friends, Miss Julie, Enigma, Frida) cheekbones could cut glass, and Peter O’Toole clearly just had an eye job.
Troy‘s costumes were designed by Bob Ringwood (Empire of the Sun, Excalibur). According to the LA Times,
“Ringwood was disappointed that there was so little surviving reference material describing or picturing garments worn during the Trojan War era. Homer’s poetic version of the famous battle, for instance, describes clothing and armor of his own time, not those worn three or four hundred years earlier in the actual war. Ringwood made the most of existing resources, beginning with catalogs from museums around the world. He also spent several days in the British Museum studying thousands of tiny figures in bas-relief sculptures. ‘I kept setting off the alarms in the museum by getting too close, but if you make the effort to study them, they’re actually quite accurate depictions.’ The costumes for the royal court in Troy, which he feels are the most historically accurate in the film, are based on these sculptures” (Holly Poe Durbin, “The Art of Costume Design: Annual Motion Picture Exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising” TD & T – Theatre Design & Technology, Spring, 2005, 64-69).
I wish I knew more about ancient costume, so if you do, please weigh in on the historical accuracy of the costumes in Exodus and Troy!