Ridley Scott has been lambasted for giving all of the main roles in his biblical epic to white actors. An expert on ancient Egypt explains that that's the least of the film's problems.
Stephen A. Russell

11 Dec 2014 - 7:14 PM  UPDATED 29 Dec 2014 - 11:37 AM

Seasoned director Ridley Scott found himself in deep camel doo doo shortly after announcing the major players in his latest swords and sandals epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a re-telling of the biblical Moses tale memorably brought to cinematic life, twice, by Cecil B. DeMille.

Almost instantaneous howls of derision greeted Scott’s largely Anglo casting, with former Batman and Brit Christian Bale taking on the role of the unexpected Israelite Moses and Aussie Joel Edgerton as the tyrannical Pharaoh Ramses II.

Now that Australians have had time to see Scott’s epic, we did a bit of archaeological digging to find out if the dodgy mixture of accents is the only historical wobble on show in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Colin Hope, director of the Centre For Ancient Cultures at Melbourne’s Monash University, says they’re the least of the film’s crimes against accurate cultural representation. “If I were to be quite blunt,  I’d say they did it very badly,” he says. “They always exaggerate certain characteristics.”

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest blunders:


Ramses did not rock that much bling

Ramses II lived to an unusually ripe old age, ruling over Egypt for 67 years, and as such left an enduring mark on those leaders who followed in his sandalled footsteps. He also left behind a vast amount of archaeological evidence in the form of documents, reliefs, palaces and tombs, so we know a fair bit about him.

While Hope says it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what Ramses would have worn on a day-to-day basis, it’s unlikely he would rock the sheer amount of gaudy bling on show in Scott’s epic. “Those would probably have been worn only on occasions of state,” he says.


He wasn’t exactly a man of the people

Hope doubts that Ramses’ followers would have such ready access to their king. “It’s unlikely he would have just wandered around like one of the blokes. He would have been kept apart and there would have been a great deal of deference shown, as they do to any complete tyrant.

“You’ve got to remember he was completely in control of all aspects of the administration and bureaucracy and was regarded as a semi-divine being who was all-powerful. People wouldn’t have been saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t take notice of what I just said.’”

Speaking of those followers, the make-up of Ramses’ hangers on is a bit dubious too. For one thing, Hope points out that his on-hand High Priestess would most certainly have been male.

The costuming was off too,” he adds. “The Egyptians would normally have just have worn white linen. It’s a very hot environment, up to 40 degrees in the summer and even in winter it could be up to 25 degrees.”

While the women would have shown some embroidery, the OTT outfits in Ramses courts are way off the mark. “You would always have been able to distinguish the royal family by the quality of their costume jewellery, but the King and the Queen are the only ones who would likely have worn headgear. So all of these people wearing very elaborate helmets and crowns isn’t correct.”


Enough with the pyramids

One of the biggest (quite literally) historical inaccuracies on Show in Exodus: Gods and Kings is the proliferation of pyramids, which had ceased to be de rigeur by Ramses time. “Of course, everybody associates pyramids with Egypt, but when Ramses was alive they were no longer building them.”

And that’s not all, we’re so used to all these grand stone palaces replete with vast statues, but the reality is Ramses far more modest abode would have been made from mud brick. “He was building in stone on a colossal scale, but that was for the temples, not the palaces.”


They got a couple of things right – sort of

If you find yourself questioning the veracity of Ramses heading to war, as shown in the opening scenes ofExodus: Gods and Kings, settle down. This one’s factually correct. “We know Ramses led the army and went into battle for the first 20 years of his reign,” Hope says.  

That’s not to say the dates aren’t a bit iffy, particularly the initial skirmish that sees Ramses surrounded by his enemies and saved by Moses. “That battle took place in year five of Ramses II rein, not that of his father, as they imply here,” Hope corrects. “For a short period of time, the Egyptians were actually losing the day, so that’s represented fairly.”

And what about those mighty chariots? “They used two-man chariots drawn by two horses, so that looks ok too, but they were flimsy things that could only go over fairly flat terrain,” Hope says. So no mountain-pass pursuit of the Israelites then? “Impossible and completely ridiculous.”


That casting

How dubious is that Anglo casting? “The Egyptians were a mixture between Semitic and Hamitic peoples, with dark brown skin, hair and eyes. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton? Not really. And Sigourney Weaver as Ramses mother? No.”


The maths is a bit off

It should be pointed out that there is, in fact, zero archaeological evidence for Egypt’s apparent enslaving of the Israelites or Moses subsequent break for freedom with his newfound people, beyond the biblical accounts recorded almost 700 years later.

Glossing over this small quibble, Hope points out that there’s a dubious numbers game at play here. “The movie says there are 400,000 Israelites leaving, but at the time, there might only have been about two million people in Egypt, so that would be almost quarter of the population, which is ludicrous. The figures have been blown up.”

Also, Moses’ route down the west coast of the Sinai and over the mountains would have likely placed them somewhere in Saudi Arabia…


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