About a month ago, my twitter follower XUfan2012 requested I review a movie called Prince of Egypt. And like every other time someone says they actually enjoy my work, I immediately put off publishing it. It wasn’t right, this isn’t what he wants to read. Fortunately, he seems to know me pretty damn well, because he tweeted this at me.
So no more fiddling around with this, it’s time to publish.
Prince of Egypt tells the story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, an ancient tale that’s been retold countless times across various artistic mediums. Yet one of the most fascinating parts of this tale is always overlooked: the relationship between Moses and Ramses II. I’ve seen several movies about Moses, but the only one I really remember well is The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. In that movie, Ramses and Moses hate each other from the very beginning. Even worse is that Ramses is given little motivation for being such an evil prick other than the fact he’s royalty and believes the Egyptian gods are stronger than the Hebrew God. It’s still a great movie, but it always left me feeling unsatisfied when it came to the principal characters.
I wanted to know how Ramses and Moses came to hate each other? Why was Ramses so vindictive?
Prince of Egypt tells me that story. The story of two brothers forced into conflict by powers greater than either of them.
Prince of Egypt
A Storytelling Review
The story begins as it always does, with a baby being set adrift on the Nile in hopes of giving it a better life away from the slave driving Egyptian Empire. However, it’s immediately after this scene that the movie begins telling a much different story than its predecessors as we cut to Moses and Ramses, now young men, racing through the streets in chariots. I was immediately struck by how friendly the two were to each other, even in the midst of competition. Ramses, far from being a somber menace to society as depicted in every other movie, was a joyful young man enjoying sport with his only brother. I was immediately hooked, I wanted to know how these two happy brothers would come to be mortal enemies.
The answer that begins to become clear when Ramses and Moses accidentally destroy a monument that was under construction. At first I thought this was just a scene included to add some humor, after all this is a kid’s movie, however like all the best kid’s movies it includes symbolism that adults can recognize. The destruction of the monument is also representative of Ramses’ greatest fear: causing the collapse of his father’s empire. Ramses’ father Seti reprimands his son, focusing almost all is wrath upon Ramses and insinuating that Ramses is a weak link that could cause the collapse of his dynasty. The fear of failing his father, and causing the collapse of the Egyptian Empire, dominates Ramses and influences his every decision.
Yet Ramses, instead of taking the out Moses gives him and blaming his brother for the result, accepts responsibility for what he’s done. He doesn’t blame Moses for angering their father, showing Ramses to be a man of integrity but at the same time exposing him as someone who holds himself to impossible standards. All of this is great storytelling because it later forms the base of Ramses decision not to free the Hebrews when Moses asks. While Prince of Egypt could have taken the easy way out and just made Ramses an obstinate, mustache-twirling villain, but by giving Ramses an actual motivation the movie succeeds in making him far more sympathetic.
Ramses doesn’t release the slaves, not because he enjoys enslaving them, but because Ramses is terrified of doing the right thing. How will his Empire adapt with no more slaves to do manual labor? Would his father have approved of freeing the slaves? Will the gods of Egypt punish him for emancipating the hebrews?
It doesn’t make Ramses any less wrong of course, but the fact we can see his point of view and why it’s such a tortured decision for Ramses, is exactly why the drama between them succeeds in drawing you into the story. In many ways Ramses’ story reminds me of Loghain Mac Tir‘s story, an otherwise good man is driven to do evil because of an irrational fear that keeps him from seeing the big picture.
Then of course there’s Moses, star of the show, and he too is far deeper and more interesting than the Moses once depicted by Charlton Heston. Charlton Heston called down the plagues of Egypt with a casual indifference that kind of makes Moses look like a dick. Just as an aside, that doesn’t mean I don’t like The Ten Commandments, Moses essentially saying “hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you” and watching Egypt collapse is actually incredibly satisfying on a narrative level. I just wanted to highlight how Moses’ character changes depending on how the story is told.
Unlike Charlton Heston’s Moses, Prince of Egypt‘s Moses practically pleads with Ramses to let the Hebrews go free. Moses pleads as much for Ramses and the Egyptian’s lives as much as he pleads for his own people. Moses doesn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wants to free his people and find a new home. Yet Moses is also just a messenger, and ultimately it’s God that calls down retribution on Ramses.
This all culminates in what is probably the most emotional scene in the movie, when Ramses’ first born son is struck down. Moses weeps bitter tears, and I was almost right there with him, because he knows that not only is his relationship with his brother irrevocably destroyed, but because Moses knows he was complicit in the death of his own nephew. No other Exodus story I’ve seen ever focused on the relationship between Ramses and Moses, it never occurred to me how his nephew’s death would weigh on Moses. Yet here in this scene, as Moses weeps alone outside the royal palace where he once lived happily with his brother, the extent of his loss is made clear.
Moses, a legend from history and fable, is revealed to be just as human as the rest of us. His quiet stoicism vanishes as Moses weeps for all that he’s lost: his brother, his adoptive mother and father, his nephew, and even his identity as a prince of Egypt. He weeps for the pain he caused the one person he loved the most, the boy whom he had grown up with and called brother. He weeps for the cruel fate that dictated that he should have to fight his own brother to save his people.
This is the scene that sold me on this movie, that truly struck home the humanity of Ramses and Moses. This is what elevated this from just another retelling of the Exodus, to a unique story of brotherhood, friendship, and fate. Prince of Egypt told me the story of Moses and Ramses with such nuance and grace that it is now my favorite movie about the Exodus.
Compared to that scene of utter devastation and grief, the parting of the Red Sea is almost an afterthought. Yet Moses’s final whispered goodbye to his brother, filled with pain and remorse, again hit me right between the lungs.
Prince of Egypt depicts Moses and Ramses, not as legends, but as people and by doing so introduces a humanity that makes this probably the most faithful retelling of the story of the Exodus.