The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Æneas MacKenzie and Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank
Stars: Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), Debra Paget (Lilia), John Derek (Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), Vincent Price (Baka), John Carradine (Aaron)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1956
Country: U.S.
The Ten Commandments

The Ten CommandmentsCecil B. DeMille’s opulent Technicolor remake of The Ten Commandments, which he had originally directed in 1923, is the cinematic equivalent of really bad religious art: Those who love it and find it spiritually moving truly, deeply love it, while everyone else would think it just plain vulgar if it weren’t so delightfully kitschy.

DeMille, never one for subtlety, or good taste for that matter, paints his epic portrait of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt with the brash masterstrokes of a true Victorian impresario—no vista is too grand, no line of dialogue too portentous, no moral too obvious. Yet, despite all this flamboyant grandiosity, the film has a strangely stagebound quality, the result of DeMille’s visual skills never having moved much beyond his beginning career as a theater director and his decision to stage the whole film like a pageant. In the silent era, DeMille was a virtuoso pioneer of lighting (see 1915’s chiaroscuro-lit The Cheat) and spectacle (too many films to list), but while other cinematic visionaries forged ahead by exploring new possibilities for the medium, DeMille remained largely mired in a static aesthetic. Granted, he constantly fills the frame with awe-inspiring imagery, but you can always sense the frame itself. (The movie’s simultaneous grandeur and restrictedness is probably why it has played so well on television for so many years.)

The 1950s was the era of big-budget sword-and-sandal movies and Biblical epics, and with The Ten Commandments, DeMille wanted to make the biggest of them all. Budgeted at $13 million, it was half a decade in production, with massive sets, a cast of thousands, and location photography in Egypt where Moses himself had walked 3,000 years earlier (although so much of the movie was shot on sets with blue screens that the impact of the location photography is thoroughly overshadowed by the movie’s overall staginess). It was to be the last movie DeMille would make, and also his most successful. In fact, The Ten Commandments was the box office leader of the entire decade, unsurpassed until 1965’s The Sound of Music, and one of the prototypes of the modern blockbuster.

Charlton Heston, in the role that would come to define his career both cinematically and politically, stars as Moses from the time he is a young man until the day of his death just outside the promised land 40 years after liberating the Hebrews. Heston, who had already achieved leading-man status by that time and had also starred in DeMille’s 1950 Best Picture-winner The Greatest Show on Earth. With his chiseled features, upright demeanor, and commanding voice, he was the perfect choice (albeit not DeMille’s first) for the movie’s picture-postcard vision of Moses.

In fact, the less Heston is buried under make-up, the more effective he is as an actor. When playing the young Moses, then a Prince of Egypt whose Hebrew ancestry is hidden by his adoptive mother, he is strong and virile—a true screen presence. De Mille is clearly intrigued by Heston/Moses’ hypersexualized masculinity at this point in his character arc, or else he wouldn’t have lavished so much time on the Egyptian princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) trying to seduce him or a shepherd’s seven giggly Southern-fried daughters oohing and ahhing over him as if they had never seen a man before.

However, in the movie’s second half, when Heston becomes “Moses” the iconic figure with the flowing white beard, he devolves into a near parody of stern moralism. Gone is the virility, replaced instead with dull stoicism and righteousness. In fact, you can witness the very moment when it all changes, which is also the movie’s most inadvertently hilarious scene: After coming down the mountain where he heard God in the burning bush, Heston’s close-cropped beard and short brown hair have been replaced with a longer, grayish beard and an absurd gray pompadour that would look at home on a cut-rate televangelist. It’s as if, rather than returning from a face-to-face encounter with God, he’s wandering in from a bad—and I mean really bad—day at the parlor.

Unfortunately, that is the direction the movie heads as a whole, right into the realm of ham and cheese. Neatly divided into two halves—the first following Moses as a young man who gradually learns of his true heritage and is eventually expelled from Egypt and the second following his return to Egypt under God’s command to free the Hebrews from slavery—The Ten Commandments runs for a ponderous three hours and thirty-nine minutes. In the process, it brings down with it a cast of notable actors, although a few manage to stand tall even with their portentous King James-inspired dialogue. These include Edward G. Robinson, saved by DeMille from the ravages of the blacklist, as the Hebrew turncoat Dathan and Yul Brynner as the pharaoh Rameses, Moses’ hardened nemesis.

Of course, what audiences really wanted in The Ten Commandments, aside from feel-good Biblical piety, was spectacle, and DeMille delivered all his budget would allow. Back in the silent era, DeMille had perfected the art of delivering sex and nudity within the narrative framework of moralistic Bible stories, a spectacle much different than what the more conservative 1950s would allow. When the Hebrews defy God and conduct an orgiastic paean to a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments, you can almost feel DeMille going back to his roots, wishing he could include a few naked breasts or a suggestion of lesbianism in there just like the good ol’ days. But, alas, the orgy has to be restricted to lots of drinking, wild carousing, and women riding on men’s backs, but nothing more.

Instead, DeMille fills the spectacle quota with scenes on a grandiose scale, such as the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, which reportedly used some 20,000 extras, and big-budget special effects. So, as the movie’s true climax, we get the glorious parting of the Red Sea, which at the time was considered the greatest image ever seen on-screen. DeMille was intent on using every facet of the cinematic medium at his disposal for the glory of mythmaking; it’s as if his goal was simply to overwhelm his audience, which is perhaps why the movie gives you so little to think about when it’s over.

Today, the special effects in The Ten Commandments have a quaint, old-fashioned charm that belies the spiritual quality some people apparently saw in them. Perhaps audiences were deeply moved by the sight of Heston/Moses parting a sea or God as a cartoonish pillar of fire writing the Ten Commandments one by one on the side of the mountain with bolts of lightning, but it’s hard to feel much gravity in a movie that is so consistently and unapologetically hammy. Despite DeMille’s proclamations of serious intent, The Ten Commandments, for all its fire and brimstone, may be one of the cinema’s greatest accidental comedies.

Ten Commandments Special Collector’s Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
English Dolby 2.0 Surround
French Dolby 2.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by author/historian Katherine Orrison
Six-part making-of documentary
Newsreel of the New York premiere
Three theatrical trailers
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateMarch 9, 2004

The Ten Commandments was shot in VistaVision, a process whereby film is exposed in the camera horizontally, rather than vertically, which allows for a flexible aspect ratio anywhere from 1.66:1 to 2.20:1 when printed down to standard 35mm. The transfer on this disc, which appears to be the same anamorphic transfer used on the 1999 issue, is nicely framed at 1.78:1, which is a good compromise for widescreen television since The Ten Commandments is one of those films that doesn’t have a “true” aspect ratio (on the negative itself, the aspect ratio is 1.66:1, but it was presented in various ratios throughout its theatrical exhibition). The gaudy Technicolor image looks good on this disc, with bright, vivid colors and only a modicum of bleeding. The version of The Ten Commandments included here is also the complete road-show version, with an overture, entr’acte, and exit music, as well as a two-minute introduction by DeMille that is routinely omitted when the film is televised.

The Ten Commandments was originally recorded in stereo and then remixed into six-track surround for its 1989 theatrical re-release. Presented on this disc is the same Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround soundtrack included on the 1999 disc. The soundtrack is quite impressive, with good separation among the speakers. This is particularly effective in the supernatural scenes, such as when God speaks from the burning bush or when the Angel of Death, envisioned as gray smoke, moves throughout Egypt. Elmer Bernstein’s orchestral score sounds rich and full, and dialogue is always clear.

The main difference between this “Special Collector’s Edition” and the 1999 disc is the inclusion of more supplements. Again, we get three theatrical trailers, a 10-minute trailer from 1956 featuring DeMille waxing poetic about the movie, a 1966 re-release trailer (although the inclusion of an MPAA-sanctioned G-rating at the end suggests that it actually comes from a later re-release), and a 1989 re-release trailer. The new supplements begin with an in-depth, if overly worshipful, screen-specific audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments. Her thorough research of the film’s production and DeMille’s career really shows in her commentary, which is packed with all kinds of intriguing insider information, albeit with a few too many exclamations about how “wonderful” the movie is. There is also a good six-part retrospective documentary—divided into “Moses,” “The Chosen People,” “Land of the Pharaohs,” “The Paramount Lot,” “The Score,” and “Mr. DeMille”—featuring interviews with a few surviving contributors to the film, including Charlton Heston and composer Elmer Bernstein. Each segment of the documentary is fairly short, and all together they run about 37 minutes. Also included is a three-minute black-and-white newsreel of the film’s New York City premiere.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images Copyright © Paramount Pictures

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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