The Ten Commandments (1956)

Moses (Charlton Heston) demonstrates for the Jewish people just how much God loves them. This much. "The Ten Commandments."

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Screenplay by Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Frederic M. Frank; with material taken from “Prince of Egypt” by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, “Pillar of Fire” by J.H. Ingraham, and “On Eagle’s Wing” by A.E. Southon. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Photographed by Loyal Griggs. Edited by Anne Bauchens. Starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne DeCarlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine.

There are some out there who would criticize Cecil B. DeMille’s legendary 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments for being…get this: campy. Oh my! For evidence, these people would point to the bloated running time and lack of restraint. Or gesture towards the flashy costumes and overindulgent set pieces…the lush visuals and soap-opera grade plotting. They laugh at the uneven acting, which taxes the audience’s tolerance for posturing. They sneer at the way it corrupts the sacred texts of the Bible into a pretentious action-adventure cheesefest. Yes. It’s dumb. It is overindulgent. It is a terrible film. They’re right. It’s true.

It’s also their loss. For many of us, The Ten Commandments remains an indelible and indispensible Holiday classic. The kind of movie where you’re giggling at its deficiencies one moment, and kinda suckered into its broad storytelling the next. It’s the type of po-faced multi-million dollar morality play that not only do they not make anymore, they didn’t make them anymore even back then.

Cecil B. DeMille’s stylistic choices ran knowingly against the Hollywood current. DeMille made his career in the midst of the silent era, and as films shifted to sound, he rejected the lessons of film noir and refused to kowtow to the pressures of subtlety or sophistication. DeMille liked it big and bold, and when he won a Best Picture Oscar for The Greatest Show On Earth (1952–what was that all about, by the way?), he seized upon The Ten Commandments as his next project. He had told this story before in 1923, and he relished the chance to return to his forte: big, expressive characters in a huge, visuals-driven story. His technique may have been a little rusty, but just the same he made a four-color classic out of The Ten Commandments. Some movies foster love due to their timelessness, but The Ten Commandments is clearly a product of its time, yet we treasure it just the same.

Yes, it’s easy to poke fun at The Ten Commandments, because it is oh so very self-important. DeMille, the James Cameron of his time, was known to belittle his actors and micro-manage every detail (he forbade the camera to see one actress’ feet in this film, for example, because he didn’t like how modern they looked). The film credits its screenplay to the “Holy Scriptures,” which must have annoyed the four actual screenwriters at least a little. Unlike most epics attempting to cast a fragile spell, The Ten Commandments opens with a monologue from DeMille himself, ruminating about the utmost seriousness of this work. DeMille then stays on as a (mostly unneeded) narrator, dropping in with descriptive passages that are supported quite fine by the images themselves, thank you very much. DeMille mentions early on that this story of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land is “the birth of freedom,” and there is a knowing twinkle in his eye. Perhaps the story was less about freedom for the natives that were enslaved by the Chosen People when they arrived, but…hey, that’s life.

The Ten Commandments is more than a display of great showmanship, however—its an illustration of great craft, and equally impressive milestones. It used every special effects trick in the book and then wrote another book, since DeMille was not only telling an effects-driven story but he did it in with new and expensive VistaVision cameras, which offered vibrant color but limited field depth that had to be compensated for. And it used resplendent sets and costumes and thousands of extras and actors, many barely paid, since at the time to work in a DeMille film was deemed to be worth the salary cut. Indeed, many got their first big break in The Ten Commandments, since DeMille was loathe to share any of the workforce with the rival big-budget film The Egyptian, preferring to find his talent from scratch. It solidified icon status for actors like Yul Brenner (fresh off The King and I), and lent a hand to the fading career of blacklisted Edward G. Robinson. And of course, it set actor Charlton Heston on a new course as the actor for splashy epics, which was cemented a few years later in Ben-Hur, then referenced again in El Cid, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and even Planet of the Apes. Even the musical score, by the late Elmer Bernstein, was a game-changer, positioning him for the likes of The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. In short, the film is kinda important.

The movie takes its cues from the book of Exodus, but spends much of the early going filling in the blanks, beginning with a lament for the enslaved Jews, suggesting the enormity of an Egyptian purge with that old silent trick of a violent act happening juuust offscreen in shadow. One child escapes the slaughter: Moses, of course, placed in a basket and transported by river to the home of Bithiah (Nina Foch), sister of Pharoah Seti I (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Bithiah claims the child as her own and convinces everyone of the lie, which must have been quite a trick. Then Moses grows into a strapping young man (Charlton Heston), who earns the admiration of the people, the envy of Prince Rameses II (Yul Brenner) and the lust of Nefertiri (Anne Baxter). Rameses fears that the popular Moses makes himself a god, but Nefertiri “prefers him as a man,” in a tone that makes it clear which particular quality of a man she is considering.

Moses is a politican of the people without even being one of them; he leads armies, oversees great projects, widens the Egyptian empire and dodges the jealous, treasonous accusations of Rameses. He even earns appreciation from the Hebrews when he wisely suggests to their supervisors that maybe the slaves should…like, you know, get fed and stuff. He has waves of support and promises greatness—he’s like a B.C. Barrack Obama, except in this case there really is a problem with his birth certificate. Then the old crone Memnet (Dame Judith Anderson) spoils everyone’s fun by revealing the truth about his parentage, and although she is dispatched, the truth nevertheless comes out. Moses is devastated and jumps into the slave pits to get to know his people, removing his shirt, because Heston was always drawn to stories where that happened.

It is here that the film ramps up its character invention: not content with simply one teeth-gnashing villain, The Ten Commandments gives us three: the darkly commanding Rameses, the weaselly Hebrew collaborator/informant Dathan (Robinson) and then Nefertiri, who loves Moses but hitches her wagon to Rameses, walking around as if paid by the strut. The spotlight-stealer is Ramses, who utters every line with a sardonic, misogynistic growl, and almost seems to twist himself into enjoying the misery he puts the Hebrews through. Rameses a villain in the classic Hollywood tradition: one that is a pleasure to loathe.

However, Nefertiri arguably makes the biggest impression. It’s a tricky role, since Nefertiri (whose name was changed from Nefirtiti to avoid boob jokes) is such a potentially one-dimensional camp vamp. But Baxter’s performance finds room for a hint of tragedy: her ambition to be Queen of Egypt feeds into her love and lust, and then twists her into a hateful shrew. She also has no shame, never made more clear than when she forces slave Moses onto her barge for what she obviously hopes will be some kinky foreplay. And note the languid pauses in her speeches as she mocks the men in her life and turns them against each other. Even when Rameses threatens to kill his wife when he returns from battle, she still somehow finds reason to bathe in the eroticism of the moment. DeMille’s original choice for the role, Audrey Hepburn, would have been all wrong: too composed and proper. For this role, you need a woman whose bosom seems permanently caught in mid-heave.

Moses is soon accused of murdering the Egyptian overseer Bacca (Vincent Price), but Rameses would just as soon not give Moses a martyr’s death, instead banishing him to the desert. Moses finds an oasis guarded by Jethro (Edward Franz) and his seven daughters, who offer their hospitality and their hands in marriage. Moses brilliantly decides to marry the only one who is not a shallow ditz, Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo). They have a son and live happily in the desert until Moses’ encounters with a burning bush and the Voice of God (Heston again) compel him to return to Egypt and lead his people out of bondage. This plan (spoiler!) succeeds, but only after ten plagues ravage Egypt. Meanwhile, Rameses (now Pharoah) grows angrier, Nefertiri (now resentful) scehemes, and Moses (now touched by God) grows a fake beard that buries his face and makes him, it must be said, a heck of a lot less interesting.

All of this is from the broadest of outlines of the Bible, though the film sidesteps Moses’ speech impediment and ramps up the raw sexuality. You could imagine a less vulgar and more economical version of this story, and very well could even be imagining the 1998 Dreamworks animation film The Prince of Egypt (which is really quite well done). What DeMille is making, however, is not a religious experience, but a pop soap opera with a little sprinkling of scripture. Wuthering Pyramids, in a sense. We realize that even before we arrive at the subplot of the stonecutter Joshua (John Derek) and his girlfriend Lilia (Debra Paget), who finds herself enslaved by the evil (and horny) Dathan. The implications are not made explicit but are still toyed with. Dathan is, arguably, more attracted to the power involved in making a beautiful girl beg on her knees than anything else, but it’s clear they do the other stuff, too, when we’re not looking. This material—and many of the Nefertiri scenes—are played in a style of elevated trashiness, which may belie the theological content or may not. And it’s very very squicky trash. But it’s also, yes, entertaining trash.

I had notions, once, that The Ten Commandments was a sexist film, but now I may think otherwise. Certainly many of its characters have a low opinion of women…like Dathan, who is basically a rapist. And Rameses, strategizing his ascent to Pharoah, pegs his plan to marry Nefertiri thusly: “You will come to me whenever I call you. I will enjoy that very much. Whether you enjoy it or not is your own affair. But I think you will.” That line, which was cut from the film at first release, is perhaps too obvious in how it paints Nefertiri as a fickle, amoral bitch—it implies an agenda where none exists. Despite her cartoonish villany, the movie does huddle up and throw her some sympathy when she believes she has saved Moses’ son, and he chillingly tells her that he cannot save hers.

And there are positive females in the film, even though sometimes it doesn’t quite know what to do with them—certainly more drama could have been mined out of Sephora’s stated sense of rejection when Moses embraces his calling, but it just gets a line, and then it’s gone. As for Lilia, she escapes Dathan’s clutches, but she especially wins out in being a much more interesting character than Joshua, who is a wooden bore. Much like DeMille’s heir, James Cameron, the dialogue is frequently economical and typically just on this side of vapid.

If one can find severe fault with The Ten Commandments (besides quibbles over its length), the most persuasive example would probably be that it is two movies in one, and when it switches gears between tawdry theatrics and ponderousness, you feel the bumpy transition. The plagues are impressive, and the climactic parting of the Red Sea is still a boffo set piece, but these don’t entirely square with the fun DeMille’s camera has within the debauchery of Egypt. Nor is it any less jarring when DeMille intercuts between the iconic forging of the Ten Commandments with a clumsily-orchestrated orgy at the foot of Mount Sinai, while DeMille narrates like a droning preacher who keeps getting distracted by dirty pictures. I think it’s a fool’s errand, however, to suggest deep theological content from a big Hollywood movieeven more reverent epics like Ben-Hur and The Robe resort to violence and heroics to keep the agnostics entertained. If you want a honest, thoughtful, biblical epic, I’d advise looking towards Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. That’s not what DeMille’s trying to do.

The film flatters the eyes of all who appreciate an artistic sensibility—not just the costumes and stages; that’s easy. Loyal Griggs’ cinematography celebrates an expressive, heightened style that recalls the saturated focus of Maxfield Parrish paintings. Few frames could better suggest the Hebrew enslavement than an early shot of hundreds of men pulling a statue, their figures bathed in a crimson that suggests an Earthbound hell. Later, we get a sense of the heat and humidity; it adds something to the romantic scenes to have the camera noting their sweat. An early throne room scene takes pleasure in stacking the dais so that the characters all seem close to each other like hieroglyphs. And the film adopts a simple, elegant leitmotiv—not just in the music, but in the way different characters speak his name: “Moses, Moses,” as a decree, as chiding, as a command from on High, as a plea. Brenner, as Rameses, gets his own throughline in finding different occasions to shout “So let it be written; so let it be done,” an obvious attempt to refer back to The King and I’s usage of “et cetera, et cetera.” But why criticize it? This one’s better.

There are many vivid moments in The Ten Commandments­. Matte paintings evoke the enormity of Egypt, and even when scenes take place in front of obvious rear projection, they help DeMille plant stunning shots done on location in the Valley of the Kings—such as when Moses first walks into the desert. There is the delightfully-written scene in which the entire future of the Egyptian Empire hinges on how much the information that Dathan possesses (the true identity of Moses) is worth to the cool-as-ice Rameses. There is the great exile sequence and then Moses’ return to the throne room, where Pharoah is unimpressed by his ability to turn his staff into a snake (I dunno; I thought it was pretty good). The nasty scenes where Nefertiri hardens Pharoah’s heart (and other things, certainly). And although the sequence detailing the tenth Plague of Egypt is obviously studio fog, it is sold by the creepy FX shot that shows the fingers of God stretching through the sky in anticipation.

The film’s human story is essentially a two-hander between Heston and Brenner, with each actor playing honestly to their skills: Brenner is stoic, but his dark eyes betray a violent mind that finally snaps as the film draws to a conclusion. As for Heston, what can be said about the legendary man is that sometimes he picked the right roles and sometimes the wrong ones, but here he is practically perfect in this signature role, his body language a perfect conveyance for coiled, tightly controlled pantomime. Few actors today could suggest the innate dignity in a character even when he is half-naked and brought before Pharoah on a yoke. Heston completely understands this material and knows that subtlety is not the point. Instead, he embraces pageantry, so that every frame feels like a tableau with Heston the rock at the center.

The Ten Commandments ends a little abruptly, with an explosion and time jump that is jarring, as if DeMille simply decided that he’d done enough. But the finale, where Moses delivers the Hebrews to the Promised Land and then slinks into the desert is poignant, since there is a faint autobiographical element to it. DeMille, who began his Hollywood career in 1914, was perhaps the most ambitious director of his time, known to take out enormous gambles–and usually win.  If there was a thematic thread to his career, it was his notion that films didn’t have to be big–they could be bigger. That very lesson paved the way for decades of special effects pictures–if Star Wars is the father of the modern epic, then The Ten Commandments is a grandfather with a long beard.

The Ten Commandments was Cecil B. DeMille’s final film. He was 75 when he made it, and he, perhaps unconsciously, fashioned the film into a culmination of everything he had learned in his career and everything he had wished to do when starting out. It was his ultimate stamp on the film genre that he helped create, and his way to usher in a new techniques to do them. It is, in many respects, his masterpiece–when ABC neglected their yearly tradition to air it in 2006, the outcry was enormous, which says it all right there, doesn’t it?

DeMille left us in 1959, a permanent Hollywood legend. But I prefer to think that instead of dying, DeMille simply walked into the desert. His covenant was fulfilled.

NOTES: Oh, allright. My favorite camp moment in the entire film is when Sephora tells Moses about a man she’s found at the foot of Mount Sinai; Moses jumps forward, but she lingers behind and does a take to the camera, as if curious whether or not the viewers are enjoying the show. That’s DeMille for you.

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