Prophet mo­tive

Christian Bale courts con­tro­versy with his ‘bar­baric’ Moses

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THE door opens and Christian Bale stoops as he pushes a ho­tel din­ing trol­ley from his room. It’s not how you imag­ine meet­ing the man be­hind the in­tim­i­dat­ing “Dark Knight”, Bat­man, and who will next be seen on screen as Moses, although I’m en­thused to see a half bot­tle of red wine sit­ting on the ta­ble, empty.

Bale’s rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing tem­pes­tu­ous and in­tense pre­cedes him. Now, he’s ei­ther go­ing to be those things, or be fun.

As it hap­pens, he’s ex­pan­sive, thought­ful and provoca­tive, an English-via-Wales ver­sion of Rus­sell Crowe. Like Crowe, Bale is a fine, Academy Award-win­ning ac­tor, and like Crowe in

Gla­di­a­tor, he is about to an­chor a his­tor­i­cal epic made by the avun­cu­lar Brit Ri­d­ley Scott.

And Bale, like Crowe, is an ac­tor who doesn’t take on char­ac­ters lightly. He no­to­ri­ously shed 28kg to play the skele­tal lead in The Ma­chin­ist, and more re­cently cap­ti­vated in the open­ing mo­ments of Amer­i­can Hus­tle with his me­thod­i­cal sculpt­ing of a 70s comb over. He cares deeply about his char­ac­ters, re­searches them, muses on them and de­vel­ops a world that goes far beyond the con­fines of the par­tic­u­lar film.

In his most fa­mous per­for­mances, as Bruce Wayne in Christo­pher Nolan’s Dark Knight se­ries, Bale’s broader world brought a heft to Bat­man that added some­thing more to Nolan’s al­ready dense take on the com­plex su­per­hero.

In Ex­o­dus: Gods and Kings, Bale leads an ex­pe­di­tion into the tale of Moses: the prophet’s re­bel­lion against the Egyp­tian Pharoah Ram­ses and sub­se­quent quest to lead his peo­ple to the Promised Land. This is a story with lay­ers and in­trigues that Bale was will­ing to ex­plore and more than ca­pa­ble of ex­pound­ing on and, if need be, de­fend.

Scott’s film is not a ha­giog­ra­phy of Moses. Nor does it ap­proach the Charl­ton He­ston-like hero­ism of pre­vi­ous ren­der­ings. And par­tic­u­larly not He­ston’s tan. Bale laugh­ingly dis­misses crit­i­cism that a Brit is play­ing the Egyp­tian prophet: “Of course I wouldn’t last 40 min­utes in the Si­nai [desert]! I’d be one big f..king blis­ter. I was born in Wales, I’m not used to the sun.”

Although one should take with a grain of Red Sea salt Bale’s ad­mis­sion he be­gan his re­search into the role by watch­ing Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Mel Brooks’s His­tory of the World, Part 1.

That he did, but it doesn’t in­cul­cate the film. This is a big, messy sand and swords epic full of con­flict, vengeance, vi­o­lence and in­tense per­for­mances from Bale and Aus­tralia’s Joel Edger­ton as Ram­ses (although another Aus­tralian, Ben Men­del­sohn, in­jects some Frank Thring­like camp as the viceroy Hegep).

Los An­ge­les-based Bale (his fam­ily moved from Wales to Eng­land when he was young be­fore he moved to LA with his fa­ther when he was 17) and Scott both have a provoca­tive take on the Egyp­tian prince and prophet.

“Is it go­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial?” Bale asks, hav­ing al­ready caused con­tro­versy by de­scrib­ing Moses as “bar­baric”. “It’s not go­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial to peo­ple who don’t give a shit,” he says. “To me there’s two au­di­ences here. There’s the au­di­ence who just go, why? That’s not go­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial. It’s go­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial to peo­ple who are akin to Shake- speare lovers who sit in the first few rows and go: ‘Ooh, why didn’t they in­clude that?’ ’’

But Ex­o­dus is a 2 ½ -hour film, he notes, when it would have to be a 10-hour one if it wanted to cover the rol­lick­ing tale of Moses lead­ing the Is­raelites from slav­ery, and all its tan­gents, or ex­plore the ve­rac­ity of the “ex­o­dus” legend.

Scott wanted to ex­plore a more hu­man­is­tic an­gle fo­cus­ing on the two ‘‘brothers’’ Moses and Ram­ses (the di­rec­tor prefers to call their re­la­tion­ship as be­ing more like cousins).

“We al­ways talked about how we would view Moses if he turned up to­day,” Bale re­calls.

And this is where it be­comes in­ter­est­ing. Bale, 40, read deeply on the sub­ject, read­ing the To­rah, the Ko­ran and Jonathan Kirsch’s Moses: A Life, among other works. He has firm views, or ques­tions, about his character, with­out be­ing dis­re­spect­ful. After all, dis­miss­ing the Moses legend has its con­se­quences.

So much hangs on the ve­rac­ity of the story, Bale says, “par­tic­u­larly the Jewish re­li­gion but all the Abra­hamistic re­li­gions, Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity as well, who treat Moses as one of the most im­por­tant prophets”.

“So what hap­pens when peo­ple say it didn’t hap­pen, which is the pretty dom­i­nant belief?” he asks rhetor­i­cally.

Cer­tainly the Ex­o­dus tale is hotly con­tested by schol­ars, par­tic­u­larly among arche­ol­o­gists who know the Egyp­tians were phe­nom­e­nal his­to­ri­ans yet have no record of the plagues or ex­o­dus. Has it been con­fused with the Baby­lo­nian ex­o­dus?

“What does that mean? Does that make it de­funct?” Bale ques­tions. “Ir­rel­e­vant? Surely not among the peo­ple who be­lieve, who are re­li­gious. To me, if you base too much em­pha­sis on any­thing but the sym­bolic, you risk threat-


en­ing the ma­jor re­li­gions of the world. So the sym­bol­ism, surely, that must be what’s the im­por­tant thing. And sym­bol­i­cally, holy crap! Yeah, he’s an in­trigu­ing hu­man fig­ure with just mul­ti­ple con­tra­dic­tions.”

Bale de­scribes Moses as hav­ing pas­sions that are un­der­stand­able in some cases but adds he also acted in rep­re­hen­si­ble, even “bar­baric” ways. “Now we don’t get to all that in the film but to me, when I look at a character I don’t think I’m just do­ing what’s in the film. I go what’s beyond the film, be­cause that’s what gives a life out­side of it.”

The “bar­baric” term has al­ready caused Bale some grief but that’s the least of it. He de­scribes Moses’s slaugh­ter of 3000 of his own peo­ple, some by pour­ing down their throats the melted gold from the golden calf, as “sadis­tic in the ex­treme”. Then he killed pris­on­ers of war but kept vir­gin girls so they could be used by his sol­diers, Bale con­tin­ues.

“Right, I’m putting him in the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court straight away, right?” he notes. “If he hasn’t been taken out by drone strikes im­me­di­ately.”

Bale is on a roll. His character’s back­story still pin­balling around in his head. He asks how would we re­act if Moses came into our ho­tel suite, sat down op­po­site and said he’d just spo­ken to God.

“He says ‘Yeah, I hear him all the time. And I see him ac­tu­ally. I’m the only per­son ever. Only per­son, ever, who’s seen him.’ What are you go­ing to think?” Another rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.

Bale doesn’t come to the show nec­es­sar­ily as an an­tag­o­nist, let alone ag­nos­tic. He re­calls some early faith when knock­ing on doors as a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness as a child.

“One of them helped my fa­ther when he was ill, so we said we owe him a debt, there­fore we owe him to be­lieve enough to say we will as­sist him,” Bale re­calls.

‘‘But ul­ti­mately, no, I don’t be­lieve in it. And I left it but I find it eter­nally fas­ci­nat­ing.”

Scott says he had no in­ter­est in his ren­der­ing of the con­tretemps be­tween pharaohs to have any mod­ern par­al­lels with any­thing, par­tic­u­larly the Mid­dle East, other than point­ing out “we re­peat the same things over and over”.

But one of Bale’s ways into the character was by mus­ing about his own his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels. He found em­pa­thy for Moses’s free­ing of the He­brews from the slav­ery of Egypt. And the Egyp­tian use of slave labour it­self, Bale adds, was a means of “geno­cide, not un­like the Nazis”.

Bale could go on. And he does. He’s clearly bashed this think­ing around for some time, if only to rec­on­cile the big per­for­mance with his own re­li­gious in­quiry.

He set­tles. “That hav­ing been said, I’m talk­ing about this” — he ex­tends his arms — “and the film cov­ers this,” he says as he pinches his fin­gers.

“Be­cause what we all suc­cumb to at that point is we’re mak­ing a stu­dio film where they’ve spent an aw­ful lot of money and when I de­scribed this to the var­i­ous stu­dio bosses they went white and hoped we’d never get to the places I was talk­ing about,” he smiles.

I can imag­ine. Only an hour ago, Scott told me Moses was “a dy­namo, a gen­er­a­tor, fun­da­men­tally of free­dom. He felt it had to change. In essence, he was a fun­da­men­tal­ist”.

“In to­day’s world, he’d be pur­sued by mis­siles and jets and creamed. Or not. He was very clever, a very good leader.”

There was not a chance Scott and Bale’s Moses would join the cyn­i­cal films now plot­ting ways to cap­ture a po­tent re­li­gious au­di­ence. Since Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion of the Christ, less volatile Christian films have hit mid­dle Amer­ica with some suc­cess but the re­cent big bet, Noah, with Crowe in the ti­tle role, didn’t — if only be­cause it was a Dar­ren Aronof­sky film.

Scott or Bale are not the types to pan­der to

com­mer­cial de­mands. Scott craves authenticity and Bale must be­lieve in his story and sur­round­ings to per­form.

So much so, he was grate­ful for the guid­ance of co-star Edger­ton. Bale ad­mits he doesn’t work well in stu­dios, and Ex­o­dus be­gan its in­sanely short — for this type of movie — 77-day shoot at Eng­land’s Pinewood Stu­dios.

Bale hates stu­dio shoots be­cause they make him feel like he’s mak­ing a film. “And for me, if I’m mak­ing a film, I don’t want to feel like I’m mak­ing a film. I want to have all of the hard­ships of be­ing in a real lo­ca­tion.” He did feel that later as the grand ex­ter­nal scenes were shot in the sands of Spain.

“It just feels more nat­u­ral,” Bale says. “In a stu­dio, ev­ery­thing’s per­fect, the sound’s great ev­ery time, the vi­su­als are great ev­ery time and I go, this is not like life, this is not like it at all.”

He saw Edger­ton embrace the film in the early scenes as he him­self re­mained “ret­i­cent, still stand­ing there go­ing ‘Hmm, I’m not be­liev­ing this yet.’ ”

The ad­mis­sion of a fear of stu­dios is a bold one from an ac­tor who has be­come so part of stu­dio film­mak­ing, pri­mar­ily through his decade-long era as Bat­man in the Dark Knight se­ries.

How­ever Bale says it is no great ad­mis­sion be­cause he ques­tions his abil­ity be­fore ev­ery film. He’s not alone among ac­tors who wig out in doubt in the days be­fore be­gin­ning a shoot, I note.

“I don’t talk to other ac­tors about it but it’s cer­tainly true for me. I don’t know if it comes more from ac­tors who have not been trained, be­cause I have not been trained,” he adds.

In this writer’s ex­pe­ri­ence, yes, the ac­tors who have ad­mit­ted their pre-shoot doubts tend to be not for­mally trained.

“So you sort of go, all right I’ve got to break this down and build it back up again, and how do I do that. And es­pe­cially with such a part that I know means so much to so many peo­ple.”

Bale says he gave his di­rec­tor “the fa­nat­i­cal and ... the more hu­mane and we’ll see what he chooses.”

Scott, for his part, is rapt with his Moses and Ram­ses.

“Christian is a bit of a force of na­ture in the sense he has the phys­i­cal­ity and he’s re­ally come into his own in the last five years just as a very fine ac­tor,” the di­rec­tor says, high­light­ing his re­cent per­for­mance in Amer­i­can Hus­tle. And Scott teases Edger­ton that he has a lit­tle Richard Bur­ton about him when he says g’day.

“Then he’ll say ‘F..k off’, and I say ‘ Oh, no, Al­bert Fin­ney that time!” he grins. “But there is a lit­tle bit of Bur­ton in there.”

Ex­o­dus: Gods and Kings is un­likely to be Scott’s Cleopa­tra though. Al­ready it ap­pears the film will be mar­keted like the Gla­di­a­tor se­quel that didn’t hap­pen in the hope a cin­ema au­di­ence that has been largely starved of in­ter­est­ing ki­netic block­busters this year will lap it up. And beyond his sci-fi clas­sics Alien and Blade Run­ner, Scott has made his name in vis­ually splen­did and per­for­mance-driven his­tor­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions from The Du­el­lists to Gla­di­a­tor, Black Hawk Down, Amer­i­can Gang­ster and Robin Hood. “If I see one more dragon I’m go­ing to shoot my­self, f..k me!” he screams of to­day’s propen­sity for fan­tasy. “Stop the dragons.”

“I’m almost al­ways real and I up­hold that,” he con­tin­ues. “I think that’s the essence of do­ing any­thing pe­riod.”

Scott en­joys his his­tory, en­thus­ing about the ab­sence of a great film about Napoleon Bon­a­parte.

“I love cre­at­ing the uni­verse of the story,” he says, be­fore ad­mit­ting to some lib­er­ties with Moses. “You have to. But did Moses ex­ist? Of course he must have. He’s too pow­er­ful in con­text of what was passed down and passed down ver­bally and fi­nally writ­ten down.”

But, as Bale notes, it is a story passed down through eons un­til it be­comes a pure act­ing job: a non-re­li­gious ac­tor play­ing a re­li­gious bea­con.

“Well, ex­cept if I had been re­li­gious I would be putting a slant on it in­stead of just see­ing it at face value,” he says.

When you read the Ko­ran or the To­rah, you’re read­ing an in­ter­pre­ta­tion, Bale adds. And after all his mus­ing and provo­ca­tion about Moses, the ac­tor dis­tils and soft­ens.

“It’s a trans­la­tion and if you’re trans­lat­ing, you in­ter­pret,” he says. “So I can do no bet­ter than that. I can’t.”

Ex­o­dus: Gods and Kings opens on De­cem­ber 4.

Christian Bale,

above, metic­u­lously re­searched his role

as Moses, left

Bale as Moses with Joel Edger­ton as Ram­ses in Ex­o­dus, above; for his role in

The Ma­chin­ist, left, Bale, ever the per­fec­tion­ist, shed 28kg to por­tray the skele­tal lead

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