The best things to be said for ABC’s new two-part “The Ten Commandments” are that it isn’t a musical, Val Kilmer doesn’t sing, and Moses doesn’t drop a tablet a la Mel Brooks’ “History of the World.” Fans of Cecil B. DeMille’s hammy 1956 classic will doubtless derive some minor pleasure from charting the differences here and comparing the special effects (advantage, C.B.), but otherwise Robert Halmi Sr.’s latest epic is a rather grimy slog through the desert, especially on the second night. As for overacting, Anne Baxter, all is forgiven.
For those, er, not especially well-schooled in the book (which I hear is almost as popular as “The Da Vinci Code”), the latest “Commandments” also offers Sunday School narration while expediting the origins of Moses (Dougray Scott). Within the first hour, in fact, the baby Moses has been tossed into the Nile, raised as an Egyptian prince, discovered his Hebrew roots, killed a man, been banished into the desert, confronted the pharaoh Ramses (Paul Rhys) and led his people out of bondage.
Still, this Moses spends a lot of time complaining that he’s not worthy of the job, reminiscent of Scrooge urging the ghost of Christmas Present to find a more suitable candidate. Fortunately, he has God behind him, bedeviling the Egyptians with a lot of plagues that resemble old Irwin Allen disaster pix.
A large cast surrounds Scott as Moses, including ABC regulars Naveen Andrews (“Lost”) and Mia Maestro (“Alias”) in very limited cameos. Under the direction of Robert Dornhelm — whose epic remakes include the USA net’s “Spartacus” — the acting generally ranges from over the top to flat-out bad, which is exacerbated by some of the production trappings, including music that sounds plucked from a Sergio Leone western.
Night one concludes with the parting of the Red Sea, which employs some of the same camera angles that DeMille did and, like most of the effects, comes across as cheesy, as what looks to be a computer-enhanced cast of hundreds (lensing was done in Quarzazate, Morocco) flees between the towering columns of water.
By racing through the first half, part II can plow some new ground (cinematically, anyway), focusing on the Hebrews wandering through the desert, violating all the laws God has yet to give them and battling the Amalakites. In the process, as they continue to doubt Moses more than he doubts himself, this ancient tribe again proves the most fickle and faithless ever. Seriously, how many miracles do they need to see before the poor guy develops some sand cred?
In a touch of irony, the second night is also filled with so many bloody battles that family values groups would likely urge children not be allowed to watch were the production dealing with any topic other than the Bible. As is, both kids and adults should spend a fair amount of time giggling in the wrong places, which hardly justifies relocating ABC’s annual telecast of the DeMille version (which gets its latest encore on Saturday) with this modern mess.
Halmi has amassed quite a library of historical and mythical epics, but his past few major broadcast efforts (NBC’s “Hercules” comes to mind) have been at best substandard. Were there an eleventh commandment saying thou shalt not lamely remake such material, I’d feel morally obliged to cast the first stone.