It takes something special for a motion picture to enter the Biblical canon. But ask any Christian what happened to Moses before age 30, and they’ll likely relate to you the plotline of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
Surprise! As DeMille himself tells us in a (somewhat silly) opening narration — where he comes out from behind a curtain and addresses the audience — the Bible skips Moses’ formative years altogether. One minute, as a baby he’s fished out of the Nile by Pharoah’s daughter, the next he’s banished to the desert for killing an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew man. There’s certainly no talk of Moses’ rise to power under Pharoah — which comprises the first two hours of this nearly four-hour film. In DeMille’s rendition (based, he says, on the works of ancient scholars), Moses (Charleton Heston, in the role that would define his career) toils under Pharoah (Cedric Hardwicke) as his adopted grandson, working hard building a treasure city for his glory. His rival is Pharoah’s son Rameses (Yul Brynner), who isn’t only also up for the future job of Pharoah, he’s also competing for the hand of Nefretiri (All About Eve‘s title character Anne Baxter).
Eventually Moses discovers his birthright — or lack thereof — and sends himself to the slave pits of Egypt, then out to the desert. He comes back after a time to find Rameses risen to Pharoah, and lets loose with the ‘Let my people go,’ plagues of hail, water turns to blood, death of the firstborns, and so on. Then it’s out to the desert for the parting of the Red Sea after Rameses has a change of heart once he finally gives in.
Shot in widescreen Technicolor, The Ten Commandments remains the standard by which Biblical epics — and many epics in general — are measured. DeMille is heavy handed, but that’s DeMille. Heston scowls and Brynner emotes; they are archetypal versions of themselves. Many of DeMille’s sets and stunts are obvious fakes(that animated pillar of fire wouldn’t scare a house cat), but most are impressive even today. When Moses turns his staff into a snake and back again, the effect is seamless. His turning of the Nile into blood is an impressive camera trick, but his parting of the Red Sea is one of Hollywood’s most famous stunts. It’s worth sitting through the 220 minutes of movie for this alone.
Say what you will about the factual content here — as it turns out, the film is based on a collection of novels, not historical texts — this is a movie about spectacle and excess. It doesn’t feel particularly religious or spiritual; it’s an adventure on the grandest — and longest — scale. Heston may as well be screaming about Soylent Green, but damn if he doesn’t make for one hell of an inspiring leader.
A DVD commentary track from Katherine Orrison, who wrote a book about the movie, is nothing short of awful. (She adds little to the flick, just going on and on about how she loves various shots and mispronouncing ‘Paramount.’) This isn’t a film that needs much extra though — in fact, there aren’t even any liner notes included. You’ll also find a six-part documentary about the making of the film, if four hours just ain’t enough for you.
The 50th Anniversary set includes both the standard DVD (with commentary and documentary) plus the 1923 silent film of the same name. Also with commentary from Orrison.