Boy, Sunday school was never like this.
ABC's epic miniseries The Ten Commandments, which will be shown from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, presents the familiar story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt. But the four-hour movie is darker, sadder, more violent, and a lot more human than any previous film depiction of the timeless biblical story.
The basics of the tale are familiar to most people. Based on a dire prophecy, a pharaoh in 13th century B.C. Egypt orders the slaughter of all newborn males in his kingdom. But Moses, the son of a slave couple, is saved and reared by an Egyptian princess.
Later he learns from God that he's to be the liberator of the Israelites, leading them out of slavery in Egypt to a life of freedom in the Promised Land. After calling down a series of plagues on Egypt, Moses and his followers are finally allowed to leave and follow their destiny.
Of course, this new version of the story from producer Robert Halmi, Sr. (The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Legend of Earthsea) bears more than a passing resemblance to Cecile B. DeMille's classic 1956 thunder-and-lightning epic starring Charlton Heston. But with Dougray Scott (a slick thief on NBC's Heist) in the lead role this time around, Moses is quite unlike the larger-than-life superhero depicted by Heston five decades ago.
Scott's Moses is a brooding, conflicted, bewildered, short-tempered, and resentful man, struggling with what he's been called upon by God to do. Sometimes he even argues with the deity - who refers to himself as "I am who I am" - but guess who wins those debates?
At one point - talk about your miracles - Moses even shows a sense of humor. After he strikes a stone in the desert with his staff and unleashes a torrent of water, one of his astonished followers approaches him.
"Maybe they will believe in you now!" the man says.
"I'm not so sure," Moses replies, his lips curling into a crooked smile. "In a few days they'll be complaining that they have to bend to pick it up." Then he bursts into laughter.
Scott's co-stars include Naveen Andrews (who plays Sayid on the ABC series Lost), Linus Roache (The Chronicles of Riddick), and the veteran film star Omar Sharif, as well as, literally, a cast of thousands - some 20,000 extras, to be more precise - plus more than 300 stunt men.
But this being the era of movie special effects, no epic story like this one could be told without a heaping measure of those, and there are some 450 of them over the miniseries' four hours, according to ABC.
Some appear surprisingly low-budget. The famous burning bush, for example, looks like it could be duplicated in your backyard with any old shrub and a can of charcoal lighter fluid.
Other effects, however, are pretty cool, such as the plague of locusts, the transformation of the Nile into a river of blood, and the laser-like etching of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai.
But the biggie, of course, is the parting of the Red Sea, which comes right at the end of the first night's episode. In the scene, which lasts for several minutes, the waters really do seem to in the mud along the way.
Then, as Pharaoh's army is about to catch up with them, the two sides of the sea suddenly come back together, crashing down like massive, endless waterfalls. The trapped men and horses meet their watery doom.
This is no sanitized version of the Old Testament story, and parents should think twice about letting younger children watch it.
The Israelites whom Moses leads out of slavery are a bunch of grumbling, whining, and fearful people, continually challenging his leadership and wondering what he's gotten them into. En route to the Promised Land, there are murders, infidelity, stonings, bloody battles, and deadly punishments for those who don't follow God's law as set down by Moses.
In one especially disturbing scene, Moses gives the go-ahead to slaughter hundreds in his own tribe - men, women, and children alike - who are deemed to be less than true believers. "Kill them all, it's God's will," he instructs his followers.
If you'd be more comfortable with the classic, broad-brush telling of The Ten Commandments, you're in luck. You can wait until 8 p.m. April 15, when ABC will present its traditional spring airing of the 1956 movie with Heston, Yul Brynner, and Anne Baxter.
But if you think you can handle a more powerful, down-and-dirty version of the story, thou shalt not miss this one.