The 10 Commandments (1956)

You may not know this about me, but even as a child, I would avoid watching things on TV so that I would see them for the first time on the big screen. And so it came to pass that when TCM Presents featured The 10 Commandments, I told my children that I was going to see this for the first time, and they were welcome to come (or not) as they pleased. Because while it is a classic film, it’s also a four-hour experience! The movie itself is three hours and 39 minutes long—per Cecile B. DeMille’s wonderful “step out in front of the curtain to introduce the film” bit at the front—but with Ben Mankiewicz’ (mercifully brief) intro, the intermission, and outro, you’re splitting hairs.

It's long, is what I'm saying.

“Let my people go…to the bathroom!”

The Boy hesitated, if only briefly due to his experience with Laurence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. The Flower hesitated, then declined. The Boy had no regrets. The Flower, after I told her she would have loved this and that about the film, said she was sure she would have—she just didn’t know if she would’ve loved them four hours worth.

Fair enough.

I did, though. As did The Boy, though he didn’t find it quite as good as Zhivago or Laurence.

Remember those? They were a thing before CGI. And the '70s.

But those films lacked a literal “cast of thousands”.

Also, fair enough. If nothing else because DeMille was a creature of the silent era epic. Bogdanovich notes in Who The Devil Made It? that all of the directors he interviewed—the greatest in movie history—were of the silent era. But they were all journeymen of that era while DeMille was a master and a master of epics. What that means to the modern viewer is that the techniques used are rather stagey, relying on what are now called “practical effects”, as well as a cast of thousands where “thousands” means, literally, thousands of actual people rather than images rendered in post.

I have often said I do not find the “naturalism” of modern movie-making particularly noble or immersive: There is nothing “natural” about a movie (or play) and sometimes I think the conceit of naturalism belies an insecurity about being unable to reach the heights that older, better artists reached before you. (Similarly, I think that fear powers a lot of “abstract” art schools. I also note that the baroque era in music died with Bach, and suspect that is also because no one else could reach that level.)

Anyway, this is a delightful film. The most astounding thing to me is that this was a mainstream film, so acceptable and entrenched in culture that not only is it #6 on the all-time box office list, it has played every year on television since 1973. (My guess is that prior to 1973, Paramount figured there was more money in re-releasing in theaters it than in letting it play on TV.) I assume that it’s been grandfathered in at this point, or it would be considered too culturally insensitive to Egyptians.

Brynner? Russian. Hardwicke? English, of course. Heston? Illinois, back when that was part of the USA.

Which is silly, because there isn’t an Egyptian to be seen.

The story, largely non-Biblical, concerns Moses’ life in-between his babyhood and 30s—and what is it with Biblical characters having origin stories then not appearing for decades after? Who do they think they are? Superman? The contrivance, also featured in Spielberg’s Prince of Egypt (actually an uncredited remake of this), is that Moses was picked up by Pharaoh’s sister and raised as her own, alongside the legitimate Prince, Rameses.

This creates some tension when Moses turns out to be preferable in every way to Rameses and threatens to actually become Pharaoh himself over his snotty but damned good looking rival. This suits the vampy Nefertiri just fine since she prefers Moses, but her murderous actions set off the chain of events that lead to Moses finding out he’s not really Egyptian, to that whole series of plagues which ends with the firstborn of every house being killed.

As they say: that escalated quickly.

CB knew what was what.

So beautiful. So evil. So makes you think if you stare hard enough you can see through her top.

Funny—because it is straight text Bible that it was God His Own Self who hardens the Pharaoh’s heart but it’s hard to pass up a good femme fatale in favor of a faceless, enigmatic deity. It’s also great melodrama to have the Pharaoh and his reluctant queen chew the scenery and evil-up-the-joint, rather than deal with the devout, faithful Moses and his family.

The acting is wonderful. Yul Brynner kicks ass all up and down the screen. I’ve started putting my hands on my hips like he does on a daily basis just to try to get some of that awesomeness going. Anne Baxter is so wicked as the Queen, I was sure it was Yvonne DeCarlo. Because, of course, I have an image of DeCarlo as a “vamp”, get it? But DeCarlo played the faithful and much neglected Sephora, a modest beauty whose reluctance to play desert-girl games wins Moses’ heart.


Wow. I wonder if she’s dreaming of landing a dopey monster-based sitcom?

A pre-Horror-icon-ification Vincent Price plays the Master Builder, and a mid-heroin-addiction John Carradine plays Moses’ right-hand-man and staff-wrangler, Aaron. John Derek, known to me primarily as the creepy old guy who married Bo, plays the dedicated Joshua, pining for the all-too-lovely Lillia. Lillia was played by Debra Paget, who would team up with Price on the Corman/Poe flicks Tales of Terror and The Haunted Palace before retiring from the increasingly vulgar movie-making world.

I’ve mentioned that I have not seen this movie, in all the opportunities available to me growing up, but I have seen it and heard it mocked in all that time. As such, I was especially pleased by Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses. His physical countenance, especially his very strong nose, doesn’t seem as out of place as one might think, and his acting is inspired. I think a lot of the negativity toward him came from his anti-Communist values, frankly. (I mean, he couldn’t touch the hem of Paul Scofield’s skirt when he did The Man For All Seasons but the role of Messiah is a different challenge.)

Heston could pitch a covenant!

Plus, you need a strong right arm if you’re gonna crush the calf with those tablets.

The other thing I’m familiar with was Billy Crystal’s mocking of Edward G. Robinson’s Dathan, which was pretty much perfect in every regard. I think Crystal was just playing on Robinson’s gangster persona, much like James Cagney got ribbed for his spectacular performance as George M. Cohan. But I was surprised at how good—and how evil—he was. And he not once says “Where’s your Messiah now?” in his best Capone sneer. Which, maybe that was a little disappointing.

Music by Elmer Bernstein. ’nuff said.

Gorgeous sets, mattes, design, and mostly great special effects. Some of the composite shots were weak, but that was always the case with composite shots. I found the staff-to-snake trick disappointing in its animation.

So many sexy colorful costumes filled with sexy dancing girls that cannot be even remotely close to actual textile/ethnic availabilities in Egypt in the 14th century BC. Just great.

Improbably, I couldn’t find a shot of the dancing girls, so enjoy Debra Paget (Lilia) as a dancing girl in “Indian Tomb” (1959).

Nominated for a bunch of Oscars which it lost, primarily to—I’m not making this up—Around The World in 80 Days, which is another film I’ve avoided seeing. But a record-breaking film in a lot of ways, and a damn fine way to end your movie career. The movie cost a whopping $13 million and DeMille took four years to make it, including shooting in Egypt. (Try that today, Mr. Jewish Hollywood guy.)

Definitely worth the four hours.

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