Seasonal sentimental diehards swear by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmastime. Not me. I’m a Cecil B. DeMille man all the way. If ’tis the season of Passover and Easter, it’s time to watch Charlton Heston’s mane go dramatically gray in The Ten Commandments. Easter eggs and candy, unleavened bread and bitter herbs . . . it’s just not the same without Heston’s Moses going pec-to-impeccable-pec with Yul Brynner’s Ramses in one of the greatest over-acting jobs of all time. Not to mention a paean to push-ups. Those guys are gym-body buff for the 12th century, B.C. (Who knew they had protein shakes in Pharaoh’s Egypt?) The movie makes its annual run on ABC this Saturday — from 7 o’clock Eastern to about mid-June. The thing lasts longer than the NFL Draft. (Now selecting in Round 435, the Levites choose, out of the House of David . . . .)
Actually, the best way to watch Cecil B.’s theater of the absurdly overstated is while reading. By strategically using the mute button during the lighter parts — for example, when Moses hangs with the shepherd girls and winds up just another son-in-law — you can go through the entire classified section. And the really good scenes — like the parting of the Red Sea — are perfect for a perfunctory thumbing through of the editorials in the New York Times. Which are distinguishable from the news sections by their lack of strong opinion.
Warning: If you watch enough of The Ten, you may come down with a 24-hour bout of Ramses Inflection Disease, whereupon you respond to any and all requests thusly, “So it shall be written; so it shall be done!” Then you strike your breast and stalk away, your back military-straight. Similar to a case of just-won-the-office-pool-itis, it’s highly non-contagious and annoying to everybody but you.
The Word According to DeMille is a true camp classic. The casting is downright inspirational — John Waters, maybe. There’s Vincent Price as the Master Builder and Anne Baxter as the pinup princess. (“Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) If Yul Brynner plays the Pharaoh as king of Siam, Edward G. Robinson plays the evil Dathan as Little Caesar. Nomination for best supporting actor goes to the Green Death that covers the land, turning biblical epic into sci-fi B-movie. It ain’t art, it’s certainly not the Bible in any but the most attenuated and hoked-up way, but it’s fun.
The movie makes its yearly return to the small screen because it works on several levels: Because Heston and Brynner are Heston and Brynner, only barely pretending to be Moses and Ramses. And because the special effects still manage to hold up after 50 years in the high-tech wilderness. (Hey, you try to part the Red Sea with 1956 technology.) And also because you grew up watching it. And perhaps your parents and grandparents did, too: Did you know The Ten Commandments was a remake? There was a silent version in 1923, which was also produced by Cecil B. DeMille. He didn’t get older, he got grander.
There’s another reason why Passover and Easter week isn’t the same without some quality tube time spent with Cecil B. and The Big Ten: The story. It’s a doozy. Power struggles, betrayal real and imagined, enough political intrigue to stock several White House war rooms, handsome hunks and beautiful babes, great comebacks, neat architecture, racing chariots, fire raining from the sky, frogs — frogs! — and a narrator with a voice so deep you could bathe in it. And it’s all in VistaVision! To quote one critic at the time, the costumes and settings show what God could have done if only He’d had the money.
Watching The Ten Commandments, I wish I was a kid again and learning this comic-book version of Scripture for the first time. With youth comes a clear understanding of good and evil, of man’s inhumanity to man, and how simple everything really is. The lines are so clear and easy to see. They only get fuzzy and gray with age.
A couple of years ago about this time of year, a friend passed along an article from Harper’s magazine. It included an excerpt from A History of the Past, Part II by Anders Henriksson, a professor of history at Shepherd College in West Virginia. The professor had compiled the Greatest Hits of his students’ papers. Here’s one that stood out: “Moses was told by Jesus Christ to lead the people out of Egypt into the Sahara Desert. The Book of Exodus describes this trip and the amazing things that happened on it, including The Ten Commandments, various special effects, and the building of the Suez Canal.”
For a moment I wondered if the student was Cecil B. DeMille. He’s probably gnashing his teeth somewhere right now for having left out that part about the Suez Canal. But, no, this scenario was from a college student. You’ve got to wonder what influences molded this young mind back in elementary and high school. Maybe DeMille’s The Ten Commandments? Clearly, the kid should have paid closer attention. But, hey, if he liked the movie, just imagine what he’d think of The Book.
– Kane Webb is a writer in Little Rock, Arkansas. A version of this first appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.