An aura of King-Jamesesque authority and grandeur hangs over Cecil B. DeMille’s last and arguably greatest film, the 1956 The Ten Commandments.
Suffused with all of DeMille’s considerable talent for archaic staginess, melodramatic pageantry, and opulent spectacle, The Ten Commandments is like an artifact of an earlier era, with something of the world of silent film about it. Charlton Heston’s statuesque presence and rumbling line readings in perhaps his best role complete the effect; he’s like Michelangelo’s Moses come to life.
The story, adapted with generous license from the book of Exodus, has been recast in a decidedly Christian and American light. The film heightens the resonances between Moses’ infancy and St. Matthew’s infancy narrative by turning Moses into an awaited messianic figure, complete with a star heralding his birth and Egyptian astrologers alerting Pharaoh to the birth of the chosen one. Pharaoh’s slaughter of the innocents is thus given the same motive as Herod’s, in contrast to the Exodus story in which the concern was simply to thin the ranks of the Hebrews and avoid rebellion.
Similar evangelical conceits include echoes of Mary’s Magnificat in the mouth of Moses’ mother (“Blessed am I among all women in the land”) and of the messianic vigil of Simeon, who held the infant Christ in his arms before he died, in the prayer of the old man whom Moses holds dying (“that before death closed my eyes, I might behold the deliverer”). Most overtly, returning from the burning bush, the newly illuminated Moses alludes directly to John 1:1‑9 (“And the Word was God… and I know that his light dwells in every man”).
At the same time, Moses’ ultimatum to Pharaoh to “Let my people go” is couched not so much in terms of God’s divine authority, or the elect status of the Hebrew people, as in rhetoric about freedom, rule of law, and the injustice of tyranny and slavery — language that has less to do with the exodus from Egypt than with the seminal events of American history, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Heston’s Moses isn’t just the Prophet, he’s the Great Emancipator and the Father of his Country, all but draped in red, white and blue. The Ten Commandments is nothing less than a ringing invocation of the full weight of divine authority on behalf of the American way of life from an era when Christian America stood opposed to atheistic Communism and the 1960s were just around the corner.
Heston’s Moses embodies the ideals of his era, virile and self-assured, with none of the self-doubting or indecision characteristic of movie heroes today, from the more sensitive, introspective Moses of DreamWorks’ animated The Prince of Egypt to the Aragorn of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the Peter Pevensie of Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
There’s no room here for Moses’ excuse-making at the burning bush about his slowness of tongue, or his suggestion that God send Aaron instead. If Aaron works Moses’ wonders for him, it is not because Moses bade God to choose Aaron, but because Moses himself chooses to delegate the signs to Aaron. And of course it’s not enough that Moses shatter the resistance of Rameses (Yul Brynner) with the ten plagues — he must also prove himself the better man by winning the love of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), who marries Rameses when he becomes Pharaoh but always carries a torch for Moses.
As in DeMille’s silent The King of Kings and Heston’s Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments’ interests are divided between reverent piety on the one hand and sexed-up spectacle and costume melodrama on the other. Besides the Moses–Nefretiri–Rameses triangle, DeMille also finds time for another triangle involving Joshua (John Derrick), a Hebrew woman named Lilia (Debra Paget), and a Hebrew collaborator with the Egyptians named Dathan (Edward G. Robinson). There’s plenty of pageantry and dancing girls, and much vamping of the impassive Moses by Nefretiri.
It’s a 1950s American Christian vision; it is also Protestant. When the fiery hand of God blazons the ten commandments on the tablets of stone, it is the Protestant enumeration rather than the Jewish or Catholic that is followed. “No other gods” and “graven images” are counted as two commandments rather than one, and coveting one’s neighbor’s wife is elided beyond a single general proscription against coveting, yielding four commandments on the first tablet and six on the second, rather than three and seven.
The movie’s various preoccupations leave room for only three onscreen plagues, and the passover is given short shrift, lacking the explanations that would have made it more meaningful. Still, there are nice touches: A boy asks Moses “Why is this night different from all others?” while Joshua meditatively chants Psalm 91 (“You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day”), effectively contributing to the sense of apprehension. The destroying angel is a misty, creeping vision, much like in The Prince of Egypt (and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Did this depiction originate here, or is there some earlier source?
Beyond question, the high point is the parting of the Red Sea, a moment that transcends all of DeMille’s camp and kitch and realizes all the grandeur the director strove for throughout his career. True, The Prince of Egypt did it better, and with more sense of spirituality, but there’s no taking away from DeMille’s achievement.
Indeed, while it is possible to note the shortcomings and limitations of the film as a whole, to criticize them would somehow be beside the point. The Ten Commandments is what it is. For good and for ill, it’s as much a testament and a fixture of traditional American ideals and affections as a courthouse display of the stone tablets, and as weighty and solid.
The 55th anniversary of the The Ten Commandments is the occasion for multiple new editions, including a DVD edition, a 2-disc Blu-ray edition and a 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD Gift Set.
The best new bonus feature is a 75-minute making-of documentary “The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles” that’s on the DVD set and the 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD Gift Set, but not the 2-disc Blu-ray edition. The best previously available extra is DeMille’s 1923 silent The Ten Commandments.
Technically, it would be a mistake to call this earlier film the “original,” or to call the 1956 film a “remake,” since unlike the silent Ben-Hur (or DeMille’s own silent The King of Kings) the silent Ten Commandments is not what you expect based on the later talkie.
The Exodus story is covered in spectacular but highly abbreviated form, with magnificent sets built in the Nevada desert and an eye-popping parting of the Red Sea accomplished with Jell-O. The film allots only 45 minutes to the Moses story, eschewing story of Moses’s birth and famous Nile river journey in the basket, the burning bush and even the first nine plagues and the Passover. The story runs from the last plague to the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the commandments and the golden calf.
After that, borrowing a page from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, DeMille turns to the present for a morality tale meant to depict the precepts of the Ten Commandments in contemporary life. Would you be amazed to learn that there is a love triangle involving two brothers who love the same woman?
As with Intolerance’s “modern” storyline, the “modern” segment of the silent Ten Commandments dates poorly compared with the ancient, timeless storyline of the prologue. Still, for fans of silent film the spectacle of the brief Moses story remains a must-see.
Although less speculative and less freely adapted than the earlier film, The Ten Commandments shamelessly rips off interpretive conceits and even specific dramatic beats from The Prince of Egypt, from the menacing of Moses’ basket by a passing croc to the foundering of Ramses’ chariot on the shores of the Red Sea, allowing him to live to see the destruction of his army and the escape of the Israelites.
Witness the astonishing animation of scale at work in capturing the towering monuments of Egypt, or the host of departing Hebrews: few if any traditional animated films have ever captured the sheer sense of size in this film. Watch the subtle storytelling in an early scene as the infant Moses, caught up in the Queen’s arms, eclipses the toddler Ramses in her line of vision, leaving him standing there with outstretched arms; foreshadowing the rivalry and ultimately the enmity between the heir to the throne and his Hebrew foster brother. Notice the small details in those quiet numinous moments: the pebbles rolling back at Moses’ feet at the burning bush; the halo of clear water around his ankles as the Nile turns to blood; the horror of an Egyptian servant as the surface of the water bubbles and the first frogs begin to flop out of the river onto the palace stairs; an extinguished candle flame or an offscreen sound of a jar crashing as the destroying angel swirls in and out among the Egyptians.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.