Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Paramount Pictures invite you to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments (1956) when it returns to select cinemas nationwide for a special two-day event on Sunday, March 20th and Wednesday, March 23rd.
For sheer pageantry and spectacle, few motion pictures can claim to equal the splendor of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his own epic film, “The Ten Commandments.” Filmed partly on location in Egypt and the Sinai with one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture, this version tells the story of the life of Moses (Charlton Heston), once favored in the Pharaoh’s household, who turned his back on a privileged life to lead his people to freedom.
Charlton Heston, who knew a thing or two about it, once remarked that he thought the Biblical epic was the hardest movie genre to bring off well. As it happens, Heston starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of his own 1923 silent epic, “The Ten Commandments,” thanks in part to his happy resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. The 1956 Technicolor remake was the most expensive movie ever made up to that time – over $13 million – and one of the highest-grossing. That point alone should underscore the movie’s vast entertainment value.
The movie industry was at war with TV and Communists in the fifties, and “The Ten Commandments” reflected both battlefields. DeMille’s epic was a physically gigantic production, shot in Technicolor and VistaVision, one of several widescreen formats being marketed to compete with the tiny, black and white screens sprouting up like crabgrass across America’s living rooms. DeMille was a lifelong conservative Republican and ardent anti-communist. The film’s tone, while not openly political, did emphasize the struggle between the political tyranny of human dictators, like Rameses (and godless communists), and God’s law, which by inference at least meant the United States, “one nation under God.” In an on-camera prologue, DeMille himself addresses the audience: “Are men the property of the state? Or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.” It was hardly accidental that the Hebrews are played almost exclusively by American actors, while Europeans play the Egyptians. This subtly added to the American audience’s identifying with the Hebrew slaves, yearning to be free of the yoke of foreign oppression.
Ironically, Edward G. Robinson, who plays the composite character Dathan, and the film’s composer Elmer Bernstein, had both been persecuted during the Red Scare.
The script, by Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank, was based partly on The Bible, but filled in the blanks in Moses’ life by incorporating material from several books, as well as the works of the ancient historians Philo of Alexandria, Josephus and Eusebius. The results were a speculative but compelling drama about two young men, Rameses (Yul Brynner) and Moses (Heston), raised together in the royal household, at odds over the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), a ward of the Pharaoh Seti who must marry his successor. The movie opens, however, with a rapid succession of scenes adapted fairly literally from the Biblical Book of Exodus, with the infant Moses (played by Charlton Heston’s newborn son Fraser) being placed in a basket to float down the Nile, in attempt to avoid an infanticide holocaust by the reigning pharaoh who fears the birth of a messianic leader from among the Hebrew slaves and being discovered, and raised, by a daughter of pharaoh.
The Bible does not enlighten us on how Moses discovered his true ancestry, but in the hands of DeMille’s writers it’s the stuff of great soap opera. Nefretiri, who’s head-over-heels for Moses, murders an old family retainer (Dame Judith Anderson) who knows the truth and is going to spill the beans when it looks like Moses is going to ascend to the throne, and then spills her guts to Moses. Exodus records that the adult Moses eventually kills an Egyptian slave master who was smiting a Hebrew, and that’s pretty much the case in the movie. He then saves the life of stonecutter Joshua (John Derek) from the whip of vengeful Master Builder Baka (Vincent Price), killing Baka in the process. In the Bible, Moses flees Egypt. In “The Commandments,” he’s banished. In both, he later encounters a burning bush through which he hears the voice of God, ordering him to return to Egypt to demand freedom for the slaves.
Charlton Heston may be the only actor who’s had to play a character who unexpectedly finds himself face-to-face with God in two separate movies: as the title character in “Ben-Hur,” being force-marched to a living death as a galley slave, Heston is given water by Jesus Christ, whose face is never seen by the audience. He plays it pretty much the same in both films: an appropriate mixture of awe and incomprehension.
DeMille’s writers hew to the King James language whenever God speaks in “The Ten Commandments.” Even in the late fifties more accurate translations of the ancient Hebrew texts were available, but the majesty of the more archaic King James translation fits the tone of the larger than life movie. When the voice of God (which was provided by an uncredited Heston) commands Moses to approach the burning bush, He says: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” When Moses asks why God has not heard the cries of his children in bondage, God’s answer is appropriately majestic, and again quoted directly from Exodus: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters.”
Once Moses returns to Egypt, the special effects are let loose, as the plagues of Egypt (some of them, anyway) are recreated: the Nile turns to blood, flaming hail falls on Pharaoh’s patio and in a genuinely eerie sequence, the angel of death, in the form of a green fog, descends to claim the lives of the firstborn of Egypt. Most famously, Moses parts the Red Sea, in a special effects sequence that was spectacular in its day, and remains an iconic Hollywood moment.
DeMille realized early on that The Bible provided story material that was loaded with sex and violence. It was difficult for critics, or the Hayes Office, to kibbitz too loudly about purience when the material was lifted literally from scripture. “The Ten Commandments” was no exception, and the costumes particularly for Anne Baxter and Debra Paget were shamelessly designed to show off the figures of the leading ladies. (Yvonne DeCarlo, playing Moses’ eventual wife, Sephora, never gets much beyond modest shepherdess dresses.)
There are moments in “The Ten Commandments” that border on camp. Anne Baxter’s line to Charlton Heston “Oh Moses, Moses, you splendid, adorable fool!” doesn’t have the ring of day-to-day dialogue, but this isn’t day-to-day subject matter. As Rameses, Yul Brynner tells Anne Baxter “You are going to be mine, all mine, like my dog or my horse or my falcon. Only I will love you more and trust you less.” And most memorably, Rameses eventually declares “His god IS God.” Not only do both the screenplay and DeMille’s direction approach the material with a larger-than-life sensibility, they also go in with a Sunday School sincerity that not only works but may be the only tactic that does work. Ridley Scott’s recent epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings” had the benefit of vastly superior technology and a more sophisticated approach, but never quite hit DeMille’s simpler but higher peaks.
“The Ten Commandments” is a Passover and Easter season TV perennial, and TV is the only way many have ever seen the movie. But DeMille didn’t know from TV. He made movies to be seen on theaters on larger than life screens, and “The Ten Commandments” is his magnum opus. The opportunity to see this old school Hollywood spectacle on the big screen should not be missed. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” is still the Biblical epic master class.
Locally, “The Ten Commandments” will play at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM on both dates. Tickets are available at http://www.fathomevents.com/event/the-ten-commandments/more-info/details by clicking on the orange “Buy Tickets” button, or at the Crossgates box office.