CINEMA CLASSICS: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Oscar gets biblical with a Charlton Heston epic. 

Who made it?: Cecil B. DeMille (Director/Producer), Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Frederic M. Frank (Writers), Motion Picture Associates.

Who’s in it?: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo.

Tagline: “The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History.”

IMDb rating: 7.9/10.

Despite not fully knowing what to expect, The Ten Commandments was a suitably epic experience from start to finish, and made me want to believe that the golden years of Hollywood could come again. As someone who has a strong admiration, nostalgia and affection for the animated epic The Prince of Egypt, I do feel somewhat foolish for putting off seeing the second and better-known of Cecil B. DeMille’s adaptations of the book of Exodus. Nevertheless, I will only refer to that film on occasion to bring up how The Ten Commandments adapts the story of Exodus in its own way.

Pharaoh Rameses I of Egypt has ordered the death of all firstborn Hebrew males, but one mother, Yochebel (Martha Scott), saves her infant son by setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah (Nina Foch), finds the basket and decides to adopt the boy, naming him Moses. However, her servant Memnet recognises the baby’s Hebrew heritage and retains the Levite cloth he was wrapped in.

Prince Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up to become a successful general, and falls in love with Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), but she must marry the next Pharaoh. While working on the building of a city for the jubilee of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), Moses meets the stonecutter Joshua (John Derek), and saves an elderly woman, revealed to be Yochebel, from being crushed, scolding the cruel master builder, Baka (Vincent Price). Moses reforms the treatment of slaves on the construction, but Prince Rameses (Yul Brynner) charges him with planning an insurrection. Nefretiri learns of Moses’ true parentage when Memnet shows the piece of Levite cloth. A shocked Moses follows Bithiah to Yochebel’s house, where he meets his birth mother and family. Moses saves Joshua from death by strangling Baka, in vengeance for the Egyptian making advances on Joshua’s love, Lilia (Debra Paget). Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), the overseer, spies on this and rats Moses out to Rameses. Moses is banished to the desert and Rameses becomes the next Pharaoh. He joins a Bedouin tribe who worship the God of Abraham, and marries Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), daughter of Jethro (Eduard Franz). After several years of peace, Moses sees the burning bush on the summit of Mount Sinai and hears the voice of God and vows to return to Egypt to free the Hebrews.

The cast is phenomenal, with a fair bit of theatricality and scenery-chewing that comes with the territory. Heston’s Moses has a commanding presence, confidence and charisma both as Prince of Egypt and as Deliverer; you believe that he has the wisdom and strength of spirit to inspire thousands to follow him, and it helps that he matches the classical look of Moses to a tee. Heston also provides the deep, booming voice of God as one would imagine Him in the Old Testament. Brynner portrays Rameses as a cold, vain and conniving man both as a prince and as a Pharaoh, without a shred of regret in his manner and barely concealing a quietly simmering rage for any moment of defiance. Both he and Heston are ideal foils for each other, both as confident in themselves as they are in their beliefs. The beautiful Baxter is given a great many scenes to shine, possessing multi-layered chemistry with Heston and Brynner; you see past the beauty and royal charm to see the cold, vindictive woman beneath that.

De Carlo brings out Sephora’s strength and wisdom, and is an ideal opposite to Baxter’s Nefretiri. Heston and De Carlo act very well opposite each other and you do get a sense that Sephora really is the woman that Moses should be with, but I don’t think there’s much chemistry between them. Derek is a likable ally to Moses, channelling a bit of Errol Flynn in his youthful appearance and heroic stunts early on. Robinson has a great turn as the slimy and manipulative Dathan, and Price is very easy to detest as the cruel and lustful Baka. Hardwicke makes the most out of Pharaoh Sethi, having a particularly strong, emotional scene with Heston when he is forced to banish his adopted son. Foch and Scott work wonderfully in the two mother figures to Moses. In other smaller but crucial and well-acted roles, Paget is sweet and emotionally on-point as Lilia, Franz is jocular and kind as Jethro, and Judith Anderson as Memnet, and John Carradine and Olive Deering as Aaron and Miriam, all put in good turns. 

As a feast for the senses, The Ten Commandments is a mesmerising achievement. With legions of extras and animals filling a multitude of sets, the vast scale of the film is astonishing. While not as detailed as more recent recreations of Ancient Egypt in other portrayals of the period, the colourful Old Hollywood look of the sets do have a certain charm to them. This isn’t so much a “real-life” recreation, but it feels dreamlike in a way that percolates through the whole film. The variety and colour of the costumes bring vibrancy to the big screen, looking faithful to the period for the most part, but sometimes they stickout like sore thumbs, such as the horned-helmeted guards in the Egyptian palace.

The cinematography by Loyal Griggs captures the vast, beautiful landscapes and intricate kingdom, allowing the audience to appreciate the scale of the production. The use of colour, such as deep red skies to indicate tyranny and oppression, and lighter tones to indicate hope, enhance the impact of the imagery. We see the Egyptian palace become gradually drained of warmth throughout the film, as though the realm itself had been bled by Rameses’ tyranny, and as a reflection of Moses’ rejection of his former home.

John P. Fulton used a variety of practical and photographic effects to realise Ancient Egypt for a captivated audience. Fulton’s effects included the building of Sethi’s Jubilee treasure city, the Burning Bush, the fiery hail from a cloudless sky, the Angel of Death, the composites of the Exodus, the Pillar of Fire, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the parting of the Red Sea as the final tour de force. But the most visually effective of the plagues is the long-hanging black mist that symbolises the tenth plague’s visitation upon Egypt; the slow way it glides across the streets has an unnerving effect. The gathering of clouds and the parting of the Red Sea are equally ambitious and incredible to behold. Other effects such as the subtle morphing effects on the snakes still intrigue me to this day. The visual portrayal of God and how he reveals himself to Moses is very faithful to traditional portrayals in classical artwork, and the burning bush has a golden glow about it that entrances. But I have to admit, the pillar of fire reminds me of something out of Disney’s Fantasia. It’s artistically pleasing to be sure, but doesn’t quite feel “real.”

Considering these are special effects from the 1950s, one can’t help but marvel at their ambition and attention to detail. The burning bush and fiery columns of fire are depicted through animation, and while both are highly-detailed and have a certain romantic quality to them, a lot of the visual effects, while impressive for the time, are somewhat dated. The optical effects splicing close-up sets with actors with the wide vistas are a mixed bag – many of them work well enough, but some could have used a bit more polish and suffer from prominent black outlines. Regardless, of these noticeable technical hiccups, they don’t detract from the experience in any way at all.

The score by Elmer Bernstein is as inspiring as it is powerful, with soaring, Wagnerian horns, trumpets and drums that conjure themes of freedom and righteous rebellion; the chief among these serves as the recurring heroic motif of the film. The gentler string melodies are well tailored to the intimate and emotional scenes and invoke something of a spiritual sense to them.

The dialogue often lifts from the Book of Exodus and has a timeless appeal, but can sometimes dip into melodrama. The main source of humour come from the dry interplay and banter between the royalty of Egypt, as well as some lighter moments provided by Sephora’s sisters or Dathan being rightfully put in his place. The flowery, poetic speeches from Moses and Rameses, while dated to many ears, work in my eyes to convey gravitas and the antiquity of the setting.

The notion of family division is more emphasised rather than brotherly division. Moses and Rameses never act like brothers in any scene, and that makes their enmity more black and white, making Rameses a more despicable character throughout. This works for the type of film it is with clearer-cut heroes and villains. Moses and his adopted Egyptian family are shown to be flourishing while he’s ignorant of his Hebrew heritage, and when he is compelled to do right by his true people, it puts a wedge between him and Sethi. The impact of that rift is felt through the performances and the heartbreak of Sethi and Bithiah. While it plays out well among the Egyptian royal family, it isn’t as keenly felt for Moses’ new family. Even when Moses and Sephora have their son together he spends much of the third act separate from his family, undercutting the parallels between his newfound kin and his old Egyptian one. The depiction of both mothers as equally sympathetic and invested in Moses wellbeing does offer a kinder light to the Egyptian side of the conflict.

Moses’ own arc, amidst the physical transformations he undergoes, from prince to wanderer and saviour, is the search for and discovery of a belief in something greater than himself. That, for all the worldly power he could have used as prince and king, he was ultimately far more powerful because he had found faith. You get the sense that he is disappointed in God for not directly helping his people, but you believe that the passage of time makes him a kinder man. The nature versus nurture theme does lean heavily towards nature here, as it seems as though Moses’ heritage afforded him greater compassion, while the true-born Egyptian Ramses and Nefretiri are presented with all the ambition and duplicity of their position. His natural compassion allows for better treatment of the slaves without injuring the kingdom the way Rameses does as Pharaoh. You get an idea of the kind of stable but still fairer Egypt that Moses could have created were he Pharaoh. You do get the feeling that Rameses’ jealousy of Moses and barely subdued feelings of inadequacy are the driving factors for his anger and ambition. In allowing his vanity and contempt to rule him, Rameses is often the prognosticator of his own downfall.

As one of the quintessential message movies, the aspect of faith is at the forefront of The Ten Commandments. The advanced yet savage character of Ancient Egypt, where great monuments and cities are raised but death and cruelty are commonplace, makes the need for a unifying presence of decency and justice more compelling. It is, in DeMille’s own words, a story of the birth of freedom; that most basic human desire to live on one’s own terms, and is applied to all races, rather than forcibly submit to the whims of a tyrant. As the story about how the Egyptians enslaved the Jews, race is a fundamental theme within this story. As someone who lacks a strong connection to faith and to God, I found that the messages were not particularly subtle (at least when compared to The Prince of Egypt), but it’s theatrical in a way that still relies on a lot of showing rather than telling. The applicability and truthfulness of the message itself still transcends how it’s delivered.

For all the strengths I have highlighted earlier, I do have to select a few flaws. The narration by DeMille himself helps to convey the immensity of the setting and allow us to truly feel as though we’re walking beside the characters of the piece. However, it can get somewhat self-important and the striking imagery is often enough to convey the themes of the story. At over three-and-a-half hours long and filled with scenes of excellent cinematography but little going on, it’s a film that requires patience to experience it. While the Egyptian and Hebrew cast is primarily made of Caucasian actors, the passion on display and richness of the script and story makes it easy to invest in. Even if you had this same high-calibre script and directorial vision, you could not pull such casting off again. The relegation of the other plagues to simple mentions was a bit disappointing, not to say that the other visualisations underwhelmed, but the sense of desperation and urgency in the totality of the plagues’ affect on the kingdom is somewhat stifled.

While The Prince of Egypt emphasises the strife between brothers while keeping the message of faith intact, the element of faith is more pronounced here, and the belief in the rebuttal of tyranny and the value of all mankind, regardless of race or creed. Despite what few quibbles I have, The Ten Commandments remains ambitious, inspiring and epic in every sense of the word. The messages and themes can and still do transcend barriers of belief and more than lives up to its ancient source material.

Best Scene

The word “epic” was made for sh*t like this.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • At least 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals were used in the film.
  • Producer/director Cecil B. DeMille had his 75th birthday during the production of this film, making him the oldest working Hollywood director at the time. He later suffered a heart attack on the set, returning only two days later. He planned on making another epic production after this film was completed, but he died in 1959, before he could direct or produce another, making this his final film.
  • According to Hollywood lore, while filming the orgy sequence that precedes Moses’ descent from Mount Horeb with the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are engraved, DeMille was perched on top of a ladder delivering his customarily long-winded directions through a megaphone to the hundreds of extras involved in the scene. After droning on to the extras for several minutes, DeMille was distracted by one young woman who was talking to another woman standing next to her. DeMille stopped his speech and directed everyone’s attention to the young woman. “Here,” DeMille said, “we have a young woman whose conversation with her friend is apparently more important than listening to her instructions from her director while we are all engaged in making motion picture history. Perhaps the young woman would care to enlighten us all, and tell us what the devil is so important that it cannot wait until after we make this shot.” After an embarrassed pause, the young woman spoke up and boldly confessed, “I was just saying to my friend here, ‘I wonder when that bald-headed old fart is gonna call ‘Lunch!'” Nonplussed, DeMille stared at the woman for a moment, paused, then lifted his megaphone and shouted, “Lunch!”

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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