Christian Bale’s Inspiration to Play Moses in ‘Exodus': Monty Python

“You can’t out-Heston Charlton Heston,” says the actor, who went in a different direction to play the Biblical hero

When Christian Bale first talked with director Ridley Scott about playing the role of Moses in Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” he went home and rented a movie to get him in the right mood.

It wasn’t “The 10 Commandments,” in which Charlton Heston played the part, or “Moses,” the 1995 TV movie starring Ben Kingsley in the title role.

Instead, it was “Life of Brian,” Monty Python’s seriously twisted take on Biblical movies through the story of a hapless would-be messiah and his misguided followers.

“It was the very first film I rented while still trying to get my head wrapped around this,” said Bale in a Q&A that followed a Tuesday evening screening of footage from “Exodus” on the Fox lot. “The point being, anything where you are approaching it from a very earnest point of view can unintentionally become ‘The Life of Brian.'”

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Bale said he also rented Mel Brooks‘ “History of the World: Part 1,” in which Brooks played Moses in a memorable scene in which he brings three tablets of commandments down from the mountain, then drops and breaks one: “I bring you these 15 command… [crash] These 10 commandments!”

“You have to have humor with something that is as earnest as this, and as heavyweight as this,” said Bale. “[And] you have to have an element of comedy in your everyday life during filming, otherwise it becomes too depressing.”

The “Life of Brian” song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Live” was constantly in his head while filming “Exodus,” he said with a grin — and unlike most of his films, he didn’t stay in character between scenes.

“I found that the character was so consuming and exhausting I was actually more myself [between scenes] than anything I’d ever done,” he said, “because I couldn’t sustain the intensity of that sort of character. It just was too much. I said, ‘I have to do a different thing on this one.'”

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Fox showed about half an hour of footage from Scott’s epic take on the story of how Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt and to the Holy Land.

Starring Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as the Egyptian pharaoh, Rhamses, Aaron Paul as Joshua and Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, the film has drawn criticism, sight unseen, for casting white actors in roles that should have gone to non-whites, and for using African-looking actors mostly as slaves and lower-class Egyptians.

But Tuesday was Fox’s opportunity not to address the controversy, but to change the subject and dazzle the press with footage from the film and a few words from its normally publicity-shy star.

In a presentation in the studio’s Darryl F. Zanuck Theatre, producer Jenno Topping introduced clips from a film she said was “kind of a nightmare” to make on a “ridiculously tight” 74-day production schedule.

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The clips began with scenes of Moses and Rhamses, raised as half-brothers by the pharaoh Seti (John Turturro in eye makeup that didn’t quite venture into Python territory), and went on to include big battle sequences, a quiet encounter in which Hebrew elder Nun tells Moses that he was born Hebrew, not Egyptian, four of the plagues sent down upon Egypt while Moses begged Rhamses to set his people free — and, in the end, the Hebrews’ flight across the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit.

No, viewers didn’t get to see the parting of the Red Sea, but they got a small glimpse of the return of the waters — the unparting of the Red Sea, if you will.

It all looked appropriately enormous and distinctly epic, even with the visual effects unfinished. Bale seems to play a very modern Moses — in the first scene he rolls his eyes and mocks the pharaoh’s superstitions, and throughout his voice sounds closer to Bale’s real voice than almost any of his other performances.

From the look of the footage, it was hard to tell if the casting complaints will get additional traction once the film is released: Most of the African-looking actors onscreen did seem to be either slaves or servants, but there wasn’t enough footage to draw any real conclusions.

In his brief post-screening Q&A with Fandango’s Dave Karger (with no audience questions allowed), Bale said he read extensively after landing the part, starting with the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but also encompassing the Koran and books like Jonathan Kirsch’s “Moses: A Life.”

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He said the big lesson he took from his reading, “other than realizing I had no idea about Moses at all, was how complex a character he was. He really was a very troubled and tumultuous man.”

Other surprises in his reading, he added, were the nature of God (“very mercurial”) and the absence of any talk about life after death.

“The really fascinating thing to me [was that] there was absolutely no mention of the afterlife at all,” he said. “And other than as a scapegoat, there’s no mention of the devil. God is described as a god of good and evil.”

Bale, by the way, also admitted that his viewing habits weren’t strictly limited to historical comedies and spoofs — though that’s not to say he drew much inspiration from the more conventional takes on the story.

“I did rewatch ‘The 10 Commandments,'” he said, “But you can’t out-Heston Charlton Heston. There’s no point in trying to do that.”