Moses is with us once again on celluloid.
He was played staunchly by Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" and stolidly by Burt Lancaster in "Moses -- The Lawgiver." Now in "Moses," a two-part movie which begins tonight on TNT, the Old Testament hero gets an intense workout from the always meticulous Ben Kingsley.
Part of an international television series on Bible stories, which so far has succeeded quite admirably with "Abraham," "Jacob" and "Joseph," this "Moses" (filmed, like the first three, in Morocco) strives for painstaking authenticity, looks splendid and is flabbergastingly dull.
Viewers may well ask, How long, O Lord, how long? About four hours with commercials.
Adhering to the Bible, the story begins with the infant Moses being hidden in the bulrushes by his mother to save him from the edict of Pharaoh Ramses (Christopher Lee) that all newborn sons of the Hebrew slaves be killed. Found by Ptira (Anna Galiena), the child is reared in the Egyptian court.
Though the Bible doesn't touch on this phase of his life, the movie speculates that as an outsider, Moses was given a hard time, evident in a stutter and a long-lasting clumsiness with words.
Moses, now a very young man (played by the 52-year-old Kingsley in a wig that gives him a startling Ringo Starr look), is drawn to his own people and the possibility of their freedom.
He goes into the desert where he meets and rescues a woman from bullies; her father, Jethro (Philip Stone), observes, with a pointed contemporary spin, that "We live in a time of rough men with little respect for women." Soon Moses comes upon the burning bush, which announces, "I am the God of your fathers." In keeping with the naturalistic methods of this Bible project, he wonders if "Maybe I was dreaming or I was mad from the sun."
In any event, Moses heads back to Egypt as God's messenger, "chosen to lead his people out of bondage." But a new pharaoh, Mernefta (Frank Langella), refuses to give up Egypt's cheap work force, arguing that, besides, "Your people cannot survive in freedom."
Moses unleashes God's punishments of pestilence and the sword, telling the Hebrews on the final night to smear lamb's blood on their doors and the Lord will pass over them. The next day, a defeated Mernefta lets Moses' people go. The Exodus begins. The music rises majestically.
The end of Part 1? Not quite.
"Moses" is partial to false climaxes. Apparently looking for an enticement to bring viewers back Monday for the second half, the producers bring the film right up to the momentous parting of the Red Sea and then bow out with a "to be continued" notice.
Actually, Part 2 can use all the help it can get, as the followers keep kvetching about everything from food to the heat, and Moses keeps climbing mountains to commune with his Lord, at one point even complaining himself: "I wish he had given me a better pair of sandals first." Even his supportive sister, Miriam (Geraldine McEwan), gets a bit testy: "All this wandering! It's endless."
Kingsley does build a richly textured performance on this irritatingly tedious script, taking Moses from confused boy to reluctant leader to powerful hero, charging his people "to build a new Israel on the love of the law, not blind obedience to it." (Jerusalem itself can be visited in fine historical detail this Sunday at 8 p.m., on a three-hour History Channel tour conducted by Martin Gilbert.)
Even Kingsley's voice changes from one stage to another. As demonstrated in films like "Betrayal," "Gandhi" and "Schindler's List," he is an astonishingly versatile and spellbinding actor. But he alone cannot salvage this lumbering costume drama. Next in the series: "Samson and Delilah."
When: 8 p.m. tonight and Monday
Who: Ben Kingsley, Frank Langella
Pub Date: 4/07/96