Saturday, October 14, 2006

One Matinee with the King

"If it please the king, & if I have favor in his sight, & the thing seem right before the king, ... let it be written."--Esther 8:5

This week Todd Bolen's "BiblePlaces Newsletter" (Vol 5, #4 - October 10, 2006) includes an informative overview of the annual Jewish holiday called Sukkoth. During prayer times throughout Sukkot (a weeklong festival), Jewish men hold "beautiful" fruit & tree branches in their hands as they proclaim: "Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe..."

It's a time of joy & celebration; likewise, I've been very excited this past week since learning that a movie about the Biblical book of Esther was being released.

"One Night with the King" is the first movie I've seen in a theater since December 17th, 2000 (the devilishly-delicious Elizabeth Hurley in "Bedazzled"; a very cute film), & it's the very first movie for which I've ever bought a ticket several days in advance:

I took an early, extended lunch break from work yesterday to catch this matinee, not knowing how crowded the theatre would be. It's a group of 20 auditoriums, each small but comfy with large, wide, soft, reclining chairs. To my surprise, I walked into #15 like it says on my ticket at 10:25, & was completely alone. After a couple of minutes of curiosity--Could I really be the only person interested in this film?--I walked back out, found an usher, & asked if the ticket really meant auditorium #15. He said it did, so I went back in. It's ironic that this would disturb me, since I much prefer the thought of having the huge screen all to myself with no one around to irritate me (cell phones, screaming brats, rude people whispering, etc.). But at 10:32 when the theatre was still empty--including the projection booth--I walked back out to the main entrance & asked if maybe it had been relocated since I had bought my ticket in advance. It had. Auditorium #1. The opposite hall!

I scurried on over & could hear the audio as I approached. This one had patrons, though not too crowded (less than half full--still surprising). Fortunately the actual film had not begun; the sound I heard was for another Biblical epic I had never heard of that's scheduled for a December release: "The Nativity Story". The trailer looks/sounds terrific! The casting for Mary is excellent! If the birth of Christ is of any importance to you, this 2 1/2-minute trailer (viewable online) will send chills down your spine!

"One Night" begins in dramatic, Biblical-Epic-Genre fashion with a somewhat graphic scene of bloody bodies lying lifeless per 1Samuel 15:3. This provides the backdrop for Haman's hatred of Jews: He was an Agagite (Esther 3:1), a descendant of the Amalekite king spared by King Saul (1Samuel 15:9). This really ticked God off (1Samuel 15:11), & Samuel the prophet as well (15:19; portrayed quite well by Peter O'Toole). I would've loved for this section of the movie to last a little longer (in contrast to Mark Moring's opinion in Christianity Today), & to hear Samuel say, "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice," & to see him act out 15:33 to the fullest. But alas, the producers sacrificed harsh reality for a PG rating.

I don't fault them for this decision. I understand the importance of entertaining a large audience, & the traditional Christian desire to be "nice/sweet/gentle" now during the "acceptable Year of the Lord" (Isaiah 61:2). Certain Biblical truths don't sell well to a Born-Again Christian audience (the filmmakers' primary target), especially the killing of women, children, & babies by people following God's orders. They also sacrificed Biblical accuracy & Ancient Near East history in minor ways throughout the film. It's not the way I would've done it had I been entrusted with a $20-million-dollar budget, but then again, my choice of Biblical topics would've been the confrontation between King Hezekiah & Sennacherib, something no filmmaker has yet attempted. But I digress...

As Samuel kills Agag in a politically-correct manner off-screen, we learn from John Rhys-Davies, narrating the film in the role of Mordecai, that Agag's pregnant queen escaped; hence "500 years later" we meet the band of Agagites dressed from head to toe in obviously-evil black, bearing insignias resembling a cross between a stylized swastika & the medical symbol of a snake entwined around a pole. Haman, a perfect casting played by James Callis, is their leader. This guy is the current president of Iran (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) without the dumb-ass smile.

Haman fumes when he suspects someone of even thinking that any Jew could be a human of equal status with an Agagite! After being covertly paid for espionage that will help him advance his cause of revenge for what Samuel did centuries earlier, Haman takes the payola & dumps it into the moat surrounding the palace of Xerxes!

The filmmakers contrast Haman's hatred brilliantly by presenting Esther's dream of departing Susa & joining a caravan to Jerusalem, such is her fondness for the city she has heard so much about in the scrolls she reads. But in the shadows of Xerxes' staggering royal palace, she also dreams--as any girl--of being a queen to free her fellow Jews.

The computer-animated flyover shots of the palace & surrounding empire are superb & breathtaking to behold on the big-screen--especially the waterfalls pouring from the upper floors down to the moat. (Don't ask how the ancient Persians managed to pump it all up to that height--sorry for the reality check--I'm an engineer.) I could not find a daytime photo in their press kit online, so here's a snag from the trailer (the bottom of the waterfalls are the large white columns; they actually start much higher up) & one from the press kit at night (giving a better perspective of the palace's height):

Departing blatantly from the Biblical story, Esther flirts back & forth with a Jewish servant named Jesse, played by a Brad Pitt / Robert Redford type of actor named Jonah Lotan. He's truly the bottom of the barrel in this film, & were I involved with the project, his scenes would never have been included. Yes, I'm jealous of his good looks, but his claim to infamy is that he participates in every bad scene in this movie. Thankfully, the good scenes far outnumber them.

Prior to seeing the movie, my favorite scene provided online is a behind-the-scenes take of Tommy "Tiny" Lister announcing the entrance of King Xerxes, surrounded by members of his elite personal bodyguard, The Immortal Ten Thousand:

"I appear to you by the gracious command, of the great KING OF KINGS! The emperor of the world! Xerxes! Son of Darius!"

Actually a different take made the final cut rather than the one shown in the 3-minute promo, but it was still delivered well. Lister, perfect for the role of Hegai, adds great presence to each scene he's in: very tall, very scarred, very strong, very black, with a deep, booming voice. When I hear him cry out what I just quoted, I can easily imagine him adding to it, "Bow, motherfv(<#rs!!!" One minor anomaly keen film critics will notice is that although Hegai mentions the loss of his "eye & manhood" in the film, & despite the fact that a large knife-wound is visible across the right side of his face, both of his eyes appear to work just fine throughout the film, differing dramatically with the scarred eye tissue shown in the promo clip. Compare:

So begins the famous scene that costs Queen Vashti her kingdom, a feast that Esther & Jesse manage to sneak into. (Don't ask how; it's not shown; maybe they bribed The Immortal 10k!) When Xerxes, played by Luke Goss, begins his quest for a new queen, Esther, along with many other young Jewish ladies, is forcefully taken from her "uncle" (actually cousin-cum-godfather) Mordecai, in the middle of the night. So too is Jesse rounded up to become a eunuch for the king, transitioning into the Biblical role of Hatach in chapter 4 of Esther (though never named as such in the film). The scene of them meeting up to sneak into the palace was terrible; but even worse was their reunion in the palace when Jesse cries, "They cut me!" instead of saying, "They castrated me!" What a contrast to Hegai's cry!

Anyway, Hegai takes charge of the fresh Jewish concubine, & immediately becomes impressed with her ability to read the epic of Gilgamesh in its native Babylonian script, though you wouldn't know it in this film because she reads it in English just as all other dialogue therein. It's too bad that she didn't read it at least in some sort of Arabic dialect, rather than her native California-girl accent. Tiffany Dupont, your basic generically-pretty, Born-Again-Christian poster-girl plays the starring role:

I expect her at any minute to say, "I'm all, it's like, whatever!" I don't fault the casting director's choice since I don't know who their choices were. I just know she doesn't match the Esther my imagination conjures up upon hearing, "the maid was fair & beautiful" (Esther 2:7) & "obtained favor in the sight of all them that looked upon her" (2:15). I would show some pictures here of the type I'm thinkin' of, but I'm sure my readers can imagine their own choice.

But when you see the other maidens, you too will easily agree that Esther is worthy of the crown. The film shows two vignettes of other candidates: one has serious trouble mounting a horse, but no problem falling promptly off of it, while the second one timidly enters the king's bedroom, & promptly pukes her guts out. (Okay, they don't actually show this, but she covers her mouth just in time as her eyes are popping out!)

One of my favorite scenes comes when Esther is chosen to simply read the daily cuneiform news for the king one night, which was penned in ink on vellum parchment, believe it or not (& large ink letters at that, reminding me of foundation-brick script). He's molding clay figurines--yes, who would've guessed Xerxes had a hobby--when she begins to ad-lib the document & transition into the story of Jacob serving for Rachel (Genesis 29). An interesting idea, but not if you stop to consider the context of her changing her name from Hadassah to Esther to hide her Jewish background! Will they ever make a movie without plot contradictions?!! And people complain that the Bible's 66 books contain contradictions!

Speaking of books, another crime of historical accuracy is the royal library, which apparently contains only vellum scrolls--no clay cuneiform tablets!

Some days later when Esther gets her real "one night with the king", I excuse the filmmakers for all earlier grievances! It's fantastic! I too became emotional & tears filled my eyes. It was that powerful. Perfectly scripted, & flawlessly executed. Maybe what really got me was the truly beautiful way they wove Proverbs 25:2 into the dialogue of this scene:

"It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings is to search out a matter."

It's actually quoted ***3*** times in the film, much to my delight! You see, this is how I ended the first Biblical archeology article I wrote for Bible & Spade magazine (vol. 18 #1, Winter 2005). I began it by quoting verse 1, which mentions that the men of King Hezekiah copied these proverbs of Solomon (a connection first made in the context of LMLK seals by Michael Welch).

Well, surprise, surprise--Xerxes chooses Esther to be queen, & like all good Born-Again Christian kings ruling ancient Mesopotamia, they remain chaste until after their big wedding, which becomes another very colorful, extravagant scene:

But Xerxes is soon off on a business trip, during which time Mordecai & Esther foil a plot to poison him. This segment of the movie contains some interesting references to Greece, & their dangerous new "democracy". The scriptwriters even managed to weave in the statement, "all men are created equal"!!!

Xerxes returns home surprisingly early just in time to see Esther concluding a secret reunion with Mordecai, & rather than confronting them & killing them on the spot, he does what any good soap-opera actor would do: he becomes jealous, keeps his feelings hidden, & merely avoids romance with her, which naturally causes her to wonder why.

As Hegai leads her to his bedroom on a subsequent evening, they pause before entering upon hearing laughter from within--a young lady's voice, obviously frolicking with the king in an adult manner, which tears Esther apart inside, & she runs away. Since this is a Born-Again Christian movie, we are immediately shown the other side of the bedroom door, & to our great surprise, the great Persian king is merely giggling over the male & female servants who are making his bed for him. This was the standard, ever-repeating gag that made the late-70s sitcom, "Three's Company", such a hit for Suzanne Sommers, Joyce DeWitt, & the late John Ritter.

Xerxes now concentrates on a military campaign against Greece. His discussion of how to finance the venture takes place in a room where the entire floor is a map of the then-known world (interesting from a historian's perspective), & Haman utters his well-delivered line about slaughtering the Jews, "every last one of them", & confiscating their property.

Next, Mordecai rents his garment (not dramatic enough in my opinion), prays to God (addressed in good Born-Again Christian fashion as "Father" rather than Adonai or Jehovah), then refuses to bow to Haman. This portion of the movie follows the OT story fairly well, but one extremely noticeable wrinkle is in the delivering of the famous line, "you've come to the kingdom (LMLKym) for this..." (Esther 4:14). Believe it or not, the scriptwriters actually substituted "palace"! I cringed! My eyes popped out, I covered my mouth, & nearly puked my guts out! Personal note to the scriptwriters: A palace is a building, you fools! A kingdom can be an allegory for our life on Earth! How could you ruin such a classic piece of KJV prose! Were you afraid of violating someone's copyright on the text?!!

That literary fiasco notwithstanding, & the subsequent prayer of Esther (again, addressed to "Father"--I almost expected her to quote John 3:16 at some point), the pivotal scene of Esther entering the royal court unannounced was extremely well done--another emotional moment for me (in a good way); albeit the filmmakers' decision to have her run through the pouring rain, completely undone dresswise, was utterly nonsensical since all she did was invite the king & Haman to a private banquet:

She looks fantastic soaking wet, but this completely contradicts the scenario of Esther 5:1; still the presentation worked extremely well in the movie: again it nearly made me cry as it was supposed to. Again I excused them for botching the I've-come-to-the-kingdom line so badly.

I'll conclude my review at this point because the banquet scene includes an extremely clever twist that I don't want to spoil for moviegoers. One of the reasons I don't pay to see movies in theaters is that I get real ticked off over endings that suck, & "One Night with the King" has an excellent ending without compromising the Biblical version.

My only disappointments with the remainder of the film are that Esther's head is cut off ... no, not by an axe, but by the cameraman who didn't adjust to her standing up at the banquet (I can't believe the editors didn't catch/fix this), & we don't get to see Haman hanged. Such a pity. Couldn't they at least have shown his feet going limp & his pleading cut off?

"One Night with the King" doesn't make it to my Top 11 List of all-time favorite films (its "PG" rating means "pretty good", whereas an R rating might have turned out "really" good), but it was overall enjoyable to see on a big screen, & was quite engaging--for better or for worse--throughout its entire 122 minutes; they flew past way too fast for me.

Most viewers may not catch the final, & possibly deepest, contrast: King Saul's disobedience to God at the beginning of the film that resulted in a bad thing, vs. Queen Esther's disobedience to Persian protocol that resulted in a good thing. The film mistakenly emphasizes the kingdom of Persia being rent from Xerxes as the kingdom of Israel was from Saul centuries earlier.

Nor will most viewers realize the esoteric Christian contrast between the unapproachable Persian king, & the easily-approachable, true King of Kings:

"Come unto me, all ... for of such is the kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 11:28 & 19:14)

Song of the week: "Queens" by Cirque Du Soleil (click the song title to visit Amazon; click here for a 30-second sample; 360kb), though Handel's "Xerxes (Largo)" makes a good alternate. Enya's awesome "Book of Days" with horrendous, alternate English lyrics plays within the 6-minute behind-the-scenes promo, but don't worry; it was mercifully cut from the film.
G.M. Grena

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