How can you ruin such a great story? Answer: A. Insipid direction.
B. World's worst imagery and animation.
The story flounders as it focuses on the relationship of Moses to the Pharoah ("Ramses".) Were they at one point buddies? Did something sour Ramses and turn him into a grumpalumpagus? Who knows or cares? But hold on, the worst is yet to come: the nutso physiques of the characters. The leading men (Moses, Ramses, Aaron) seem to all sport chest implants that would shame the late Anna Nicole Smith. OK, so Moses and Ramses were raised in wealth, how did Aaron manage to acquire such gargantuan pecs while some of his compadres appear as emaciated as a displaced person.
Legs and torsos seem to have only the most casual acquaintance with one another. Eyes are over-sized in the manner of the Keane kids of the 60s.
Larding out the cast (pardon the pun)are anonymous Hebrew supernumeraries who are impossibly wide and fat. While that might be very progressive in giving work to morbidly obese cartoon characters, it's very jarring to the viewer. Kids (baby Moses, young Miriam, the Pharoah's first-born) manage to be repugnant rather than endearing.
Oh, and the color palette. WAY over the top.
The only positives: Eliot Gould and Ben Kingsley.
I saw this shortly after it opened in town. It was playing only in an obscure theater located in a low-end mall. I'd say there were under 40 other customers.
Watching it recently crystallized my dislike of the Altman oeuvre. High-falutin', cutesy-wootsey, mumbling dialogue throughout with a storyline insufficient for a straight narrative.
Three elements stand out as outright garbage: having the Marlowe character smoking a cigarette every single second he's on screen, the endless repetition by various performers of the theme song, and the half-naked girls-next-door.
While Altman toned down some of his self-referential affectedness a bit in his later movies, they were always there and they always drove home his utter inability to tell a compelling story (yes, even the earlier "M*A*S*H" included.)
When I tuned in, I had misgivings. On the one hand I love the two earlier Harry Palmer movies...on the other hand I couldn't imagine that if this were in their league how I could've missed it this long.
First, Ken Russell. I don't care for his artsy-fartsy stuff, but that didn't prepare me for the technical ineptitude he displays here. The cataclysmic finale is set up horribly and put together in a way that leaches whatever punch an ice battle might've had. There are plenty of other scenes in which his direction and editing work directly against the narrative flow. Two of the general's minions shot at a train station: clumsier than what you would've seen in a TV western from the same period. To me it was outright embarrassing.
Speaking of embarrassing, the casting of Ed Begley and Karl Malden was appalling, compounded by the over-the-top direction given them. Now I am aware Begley's character is supposed to be a kook, but that would've come out even with a nuanced performance had the director had any faith in the narrative.
Last but certainly not least, Richard Rodney Bennet's score is positively jarring and one of the least sympathetic to the action it accompanies of any movie I can remember. (If you can top it, please e-mail your selection.) Oh, an afterthought: let me add that the ONLY redeeming quality of this movie is the opportunity it provides to bask one's eyes on the lovely Françoise Dorleac. It was her last role. She died in '67 in a car crash...and she happened to be Catherine Deneuve's sister. How gorgeous she was!