There are three stages of watching Cecil B. DeMille’s epic of all epics The Ten Commandments.
As a kid I watched it just because it was on. Sprawled out on the floor in front of the TV, I’d always fall asleep before Moses found his way out of the desert. Never once did I make it to the parting of the Red Sea.
As a young adult, I found the movie a bit . . . cringe. Is the double-crossing Hebrew Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) from the Canarsie section of Cairo? Is there a worse actress than Anne Baxter as Nefretiri? Could they have found a less Jewish actor than Charlton Heston to play the Deliverer of the Hebrews? Why is God turning Moses’s staff into a cobra that devours two other snakes, anyway? That sounds more like a Satan kind of thing. And those special effects, which were cutting-edge when the film was released, came to look ridiculous over time.
Still, though: I always liked Yul Brynner’s Rameses, the epitome of an antagonist who inspires respect because he sticks to his sense of honor. “Better to die in battle with a God than live in shame,” he says, as demanding of himself as of others. Baxter’s acting may be campy (“Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) but she makes for one of the era’s classic bitchy vixens. As for that desert scene I never got to the end of as a little kid, it reaches a powerful climax when Moses silently contemplates a lamb who serves as the herald of a life-saving oasis. Is this the holy Lamb of God we all heard of in so many church services? It’s a beautiful, simple image of salvation.
Charlton Heston may have made a preposterously Gentile Jew, but his oaken style of acting grew on me over the years. He’s playing Moses; he’s not supposed to be hip or loose. He shouldn’t come across as a self-questioning, internally tormented Marlon Brando type. He is the Lawgiver, one of the all-time heroes, and he is there to personify fortitude and leadership. Heston is stately, manly, commanding.
Heston’s style is in perfect harmony with DeMille’s equally calm and patient staging. DeMille chose not to get in the way of one of the most potent stories ever told. Never hurrying, but never letting things drag either, he used long takes, typically planting his camera for medium shots and letting the actors go to work uninterrupted for minutes at a time. He hardly ever cut or used close-ups. The film is so sparing with its camera movements that it’s a startling departure from form when the camera dollies in on the Pharaoh Sethi for the banishment of Moses from the Egyptian court, accompanied by thundering drumrolls of doom. The palace set is so gigantic, the depth of the space established by long rows of guardians receding into the distance, that as Moses walks slowly away from the emperor’s denunciation — “Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of men for all time” — he attains a physical distance from the camera that enhances his isolation and peril. In short, DeMille is a showman. He sells this moment. He makes it matter, and makes you care.
Once you get used to the Fifties studio fakery — the mighty Nile from which Moses’s basket is drawn is plainly just a tank of water on an indoor set — appreciate how DeMille sells almost every plot beat expertly. The dialogue is meant to sound like something you’d see carved in stone. When you’re retelling an Old Testament story, you have to sound as authoritative as the source material. The four screenwriters did an impressive job channeling that ancient gravitas: “So let it be written. So let it be done.” “Let your own image proclaim my loyalty for a thousand years.” “Do they love less who have no hope?” In many cases, only the well-versed can tell which lines are from the King James Bible and which are not.
DeMille’s writers took the exact opposite approach of most of today’s screenwriters, who would have us believe that everyone, in all ages of man, spoke with all of the jargon and slang that infects our communication today. Anyone who thinks that a great story alone will always save a filmmaker need look no further than Ridley Scott’s hilariously inept stab at the Moses story, 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which contains such mortal lines as “Listen, from an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic to say the least.”
Scott’s film was instantly forgotten; DeMille’s is one of only two pre-1965 films that is still shown on network television. (The other is It’s a Wonderful Life.) DeMille hoped to shoot an epic that would be passed down the generations, and despite being locked into Fifties acting conventions and visual effects he succeeded to an impressive degree. Today the Fifties Hollywood style, so clearly belonging to another era, helps the film stand out; in our current media landscape of pulverized attention spans, at a time when a 30-second television commercial might contain 40 shots, The Ten Commandments is like a classic tuxedo at a Hawaiian-shirt pool party.
Despite having been released at a time when the country was about half its current population, The Ten Commandments is still the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time, having earned $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. It remains the pride of Paramount (neither Titanic nor It’s a Wonderful Life was made at the studio), which oversaw a suitably glorious ultra-HD Blu-ray reissue that has been near the top of sales charts since its release this week. On television, ABC’s annual showing in the Passover/Easter window regularly wins its time slot, even among younger viewers in the 18–49 demographic. (You can catch it on your local ABC station tonight.) Last year’s broadcast out-drew all other network TV offerings on its night, sweeping up 5 million viewers.
Tens of thousands of movies have come and gone from the cultural consciousness in the past 65 years, leaving no trace behind. Movies that prided themselves on their trick endings, on their catchphrases, on technically complicated action scenes or high-concept sight gags or cool-bro nonchalance, all became so much dust. Cecil B. DeMille set out not just to be entertaining but to do as much justice to the Moses saga as he could, with as much awe and pomp and grandeur as the Fifties studio system could muster. He succeeded spectacularly, creating one of the most enduring of all Hollywood productions.