Moses The Lawgiver Review

There may be no figure more important in the Bible than Moses. Obviously, Jesus Christ gave the world the principles of Christianity and the saints Peter and Paul expanded upon his teaching to found the Catholic Church but it is Moses who, in bringing down the Ten Commandments from the mountain, left a set of laws that form the basis of laws across the world. Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not covet thy neighbour's ass...well, perhaps not every commandment is particularly relevant within changing times. And in thou shall not commit adultery, Moses drifted out of the accepted laws of the state into personal morality, an action that set something of a trend for the churches for which he is counted as a prophet.

This is not reason alone for Moses being a popular figure in cinema and television. There are not, for instance, anywhere near the same number of films on the life of Noah, Abraham, Joseph or Joshua, with Christ being the only Biblical figure close to the tally enjoyed by the Moses of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Then again, as argued in the recent reviews of Jesus Of Nazareth and The Passion Of The Christ, Jesus' life begins and ends with two remarkable moments - his birth in the stable and his death on the cross - but much else in his life is the quiet telling of parables, a sermon on the mount and the fishing in the waters of Israel and, as he put it to Peter, the fishing of men in its villages. On the contrary, Moses' life is one of violence, of miracles, of a homecoming, of betrayal and of the near-destruction of one nation to build another. Christ had the feeding of the five thousand, the raising of Lazarus from the dead and, at his own time of dying, the destruction of the temple but Moses has the killing of an Egyptian slave master, the burning bush, nine plagues visited upon Egypt and on the night before the Exodus, the sending of the Angel Of Death from Heaven to kill the first born of every Egyptian family. And he does all of that before leaving Egypt, then guiding the people of Israel home with the parting of the waters of the Nile, the receiving of the Ten Commandments and the breaking of them on discovering the Hebrews worshipping a golden calf. Moses warred, invaded and defended his people violently through the forty years they were in exile, lived to be 120 and died before ever setting foot in Israel. Not for nothing have filmmakers returned to the story of Moses, from the telling of his story by Cecil B deMille in 1923 through Charlton Heston, Ben Kingsley and, in Moses The Lawgiver, Burt Lancaster.

This version of the Moses story was scripted by Anthony Burgess and directed for television in 1975 by Gianfranco De Bosio. It was one of three Biblical features written by Burgess over ten years, beginning with this and including the better known Jesus Of Nazareth (1977, novelised in Man Of Nazareth) and A.D. (1985, novelised in The Kingdom Of The Wicked). Burgess' touches are all over this feature. Regarding Jesus Of Nazareth, he would later say, in the second volume of his autobiography, that it was for, "...small Italians who had forgotten their catechism." Burgess' ambitions were, as is common in his work, greater than just a simple retelling of Biblical stories. In Jesus Of Nazareth, his scripts were rejected on account of his attempting to find reason within the life of Christ but his efforts were continually overruled by a Lord Lew Grade and a Franco Zeferelli with their eyes on an audience of Christians at Easter time.

On the other hand, Moses The Lawgiver sees Burgess working with little interference from either director or producer. And yet, in many respects, this is a straightforward dramatisation of the book of Exodus, with Moses killing a slave master, running off into the desert and returning, with the fervour of a convert, to the royal houses of Egypt to lead the Jews out of bondage and to the promised land of Israel. There is, as one might well expect, the baby Moses in a basket of reeds, the child Moses counting the Pharaoh as his friend and his sudden realisation of his origins. Later, there is all that one might expect of a story of Moses, being the burning bush, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea and the writing of the ten commandments. In fact, everything is there exactly at Burgess would later describe with some small feeling of horror when writing about Jesus Of Nazareth, even to including a wanton display of excess in the worshipping of the golden calf. But Burgess clearly had more sway with Moses The Lawgiver, not least as regards the voice of God.

At first, one suspects there's much ego behind the casting of Burt Lancaster not only as Moses but also as the voice of God. Of course, Heston also provided the voice of God but did so with his voice disguised. This God is Lancaster untouched. And then, unlike de Mille's The Ten Commandments, the miracles don't quite mount up. There's no sparkling light of the divine around the burning bush, there is the suggestion that fortune, good or ill, guided the plagues and it is the shallower waters of the Reed Sea that part, not those of the Red Sea. Moses even admits as much later, saying that, to feed the Jews, the meat that they catch comes from the natural migration of quail whilst the manna they eat the next morning is nothing more than the resin from the tamarisk tree. As Moses himself says, "Hardly a miracle!" Then one wonders about that voice again, with it looking less like Lancaster wanting to be both prophet and God and more like Burgess suggesting that God may never have partaken in the conversations that were reputed to have occurred between Moses and himself. Certainly not in the miracles that would later be credited to his work. Indeed, Burgess appears to say that the Exodus was less a product of God and more of fortune. It is Moses who, taking stone tablets in hand, ascends the mountain to carve the ten commandments, Moses who then descends alone to find the Jews worshipping the golden calf and Moses who decides the fate that awaits those who have sinned against God. God, in Burgess' telling of the story, is notable by his absence.

What Burgess appears to have suggested is that the exodus of the Jews from Egypt was due more to the character of Moses than to any miracles. Lancaster seems to suggest that the character of Moses came easily and pitches it somewhere between a gentle love of his people and an unmovable force, at once guiding the Jews through the desert whilst drawing down a wrath upon those accused of sinning against God. Lancaster's Moses is a leader of men, one whose knowledge extends not only to what might be the ways of God but also the way of man. The manner in which the plagues, the miracles of feeding the Jews in the desert and even the swallowing up of the miserable Dathan by the earth also suggest a Moses who made good his time in exile by being at one with the land. Even the writing of the ten commandments comes, as dramatised by Burgess, gradually with there being no hand of God coming from the fiery heavens, more that Moses comes to them after seeing the nature of his people. One leaves Moses The Lawgiver wondering what it was that Burgess intended by this work, other than it being a telling of the Exodus. The impression that was left with this viewer was of Burgess acknowledging that while Moses that may have had a divine mission to lead his people to Israel, Moses returned the compliment, writing the laws in the manner of a vengeful, unforgiving one that, to this day, we describe as being Old Testament, very much against the New Testament God of Christ.

Unfortunately, the actual production of Moses The Lawgiver rather lets this down somewhat. Lancaster certainly holds one's attention throughout the four-and-a-half hours but we are some way short of the epic scale of Jesus Of Nazareth. Where one longs for thousands of extras leaving Egypt on the orders of Moses, what we have are fifty or so actors bumbling around behind Burt Lancaster and Anthony Quayle, looking less like an exodus of the people and more a day outing. There is very little variation in the setting of the piece, which suggests that a patch of scrubland saw much service in the forty years that Moses wandered the desert while the very few members of the cast that make speaking parts do an awful lot to carry the film. In spite of that, Burgess' work remains in a way that it didn't in Jesus Of Nazareth. For this viewer that is quite enough, as it might well be for those inclined towards biblical epics like Jesus Of Nazareth, A.D. and The Ten Commandments. For others, who didn't have an upbringing that made the watching of such things a natural joining together with the post-Lent eating of chocolate at Easter, Moses The Lawgiver might be a much less appealing watch.


Network tend not to do a great deal of restoration work on their DVD releases and certainly don't bother with subtitles, leaving Moses The Lawgiver something of a mixed bag. Certainly, there's nothing here to suggest that very much has been done with this, with the colours looking washed out, the skies alive with noise and noticeable amounts of print damage. Until, that is, the sixth and last episode whereupon the colour becomes much richer at the expense of detail in the image. Rarely is Moses The Lawgiver an impressive watch and clearly the prints that were used were not treated with much care and attention over the last thirty-three years. As such, it's a very typical transfer from Network and very little different from that of the recent release of Jesus Of Nazareth from Optimum. The soundtrack isn't very much better but it is clear for the most part and the dialogue, though sometimes tending to get lost in the bluster of the desert winds, makes it out of the mix more often than not.


Interview With Burt Lancaster (14m22s): A bearded Lancaster was fresh from the set of Moses The Lawgiver when he stopped off in London for this interview. As such, he doesn't actually talk very much about Moses for the interview as he was then promoting the Kennedy conspiracy Executive Action but gets on to Moses The Lawgiver in the second half, talking a little about the filming, its writing of the hands-off role taken by Lew Grade.

Image Gallery (4m36s): Beginning with a spectacular-looking poster for the show, which suggests that there is much more action than is subsequently revealed in the actual feature and which clearly owes much to The Ten Commandments, this goes through various stills from the film. The quality of these images are much better than in the final film, which suggests that a stills photographer was on hand during the production.

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Last updated: 11/06/2018 18:40:36

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