The Boy and I saw The Ten Commandments five years ago for the 60th anniversary and somehow it was fitting that our moviegoing should resume with the 65th anniversary of the same. Rereading my review from back then, I have to say: I nailed it. My impression is largely unchanged from back then. (The Flower was with us this time, so she got to see this for the first time and really enjoyed it.) I was less struck by the datedness now than I was before, though in fairness, it can be hard to gauge how dated something seemed 65 years ago. (It’s easier to spot when they make concessions to the era they were made in.)
But if I were going to describe this movie in one word?
Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner are dueling alpha males whom the ladies swoon over, with Brynner being the loser (generally and from a narrative perspective) because he has no principles other than self-worship. Besides those two, you have the fierce Joshua (John Derek, who doesn’t put on a shirt until he’s supposed to be around 60-70) and the oh-so-sleazy Master Builder (Vincent Price) and taskmaster (Edward G. Robinson). Just walking around in the background, you got Mike “Touch” Connors and Clint Walker.
Sexuality is everywhere. This is seriously one of the lustiest movies ever made, which fits pretty well with Exodus and the Bible generally: From the ever-thirsty Ann Baxter to Jethro’s seven, man-starved daughters, everybody’s getting with someone, trying to get with someone, trying to get away from someone so they can get with someone else. A whole lotta begetting going on. This brings a lot of fun and humanity to the proceedings.
Speaking of Baxter, the way Edith Head’s dresses hang off of her and Debra Paget, they might as well be naked most of the time. Yvonne De Carlo is more modestly dressed as the Bedouin girl but she’s still got that barely-repressed Lily Munster sexuality oozing from every pore. (Or have I said too much?)
Beyond the sexuality, the overall humanity is key. Exodus is light on the details as far as how Moses came to be The Deliverer, and it’s such a brilliant idea (dramatically) to place him among the Egyptian royalty. As a story of deliverance from bondage, Exodus is (obviously) epic and mythic—in the sense of larger-than-life—but by giving the Pharaoh a personal stake, it also becomes more intimate in terms of human drama. (The historical accuracy of Exodus is one that scholars seem to go back and forth on, but I particularly enjoyed hearing Yul Brynner “debunking” the plagues in the words that modern skeptic use to debunk them, because he’s watching them as they happen.)
You feel for Cedric Hardwicke’s Sethi, because he truly loved Moses. And the degradation of Nefertiri becomes that much harder because (while she is kinda psycho) she seems to have both a genuine affect for Sethi and Moses, and a truly unhealthy obsession with the latter. The death of the firstborn sons for Passover sends a strong message vis a vis messing with God and his Chosen People.
The King of Swagger here is obviously C. B. DeMille, who got WB to foot the bill in 1952 for $8 million plus any overages of which there were another $5 million, and made an all-time box-office smash on a last-of-breed epic. A remake, no less of his own silent epic (which I’ll cover in an upcoming “Silents Are Golden” piece). There’s conviction here at every turn: conviction that the story is worth telling and True (in the most important sense); conviction that people love spectacle and that he could deliver something they’d love; conviction that he could make people relate to a 3,000 year old story which is, by any account, rather odd and often gruesome.
Conviction that, well into his 70s (back in the 1950s, when the life expectancy was 68) he could manage a cast of thousands. Who can do that now? What’s more, some of the greatest scenes involve these thousands of cast members hauling out of Egypt, and the little touches of humanity that are seen at every point in this migration keep it from being mere spectacle.
Conviction that Western civilization is good, and that freedom and individuality is good, and that this story is an essential to the modern experience of both.
And to all the Pharaohs and Governors out there I say:
LET MY PEOPLE GO