During a recent evening of margaritas and casual blasphemy, my wife posited a theory concerning the radical difference between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament. The Bible, she said, chronicles the arc of God’s development from childhood (in Genesis, li’l Jehovah is playing with light, making mudpies that walk and talk, letting the water run and overflow the planet) to adulthood (He settles in, has a kid, and works on His anger issues). Kind of the way Star Wars turned out in the end to be all about Hayden Christensen growing up to be James Earl Jones.
The book of Exodus is Yahweh in his adolescent phase, surly and contrary and bossy as hell. After having promised Abraham that his descendents will be His Chosen People, He finds them naughty and consigns them to centuries of slavery in Egypt. Even when He relents and calls upon Moses to deliver the Hebrews out of bondage, it’s not until after God plays a few mind games with all concerned. Moses goes before Pharoah with signs and wonders and plagues and after each round, Pharoah agrees to let the Hebrews go. But then God “hardens Pharoah’s heart” and Moses has to keep going back with his demands like some Biblical Norma Rae. What is God’s deal?
Although its credits give big-font props to “THE HOLY SCRIPTURES,” Cecil B. DeMille’s epic retelling of Exodus, The Ten Commandments, circumvents the conflicting motivations of the Almighty, whom DeMille considered the real hero of the film. In the movie it’s not God who hardens Pharoah’s heart, but rather Anne Baxter.
The 1956 epic was DeMille’s final and greatest film, the capper to a long career as one of the giants of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As a technical achievement, it is stunning. In terms of its spectacle, it is nothing short of incredible, with skyscraper-high sets and a cast of literal thousands. They truly don’t make ’em like this anymore. They can’t afford to.
It is also one of the silliest damn movies ever made, in which mediocre actors cram King James Version dialogue into their mouths while their more accomplished co-stars are trying not to look embarrassed in the costumes. DeMille was a master of set and scope but as a director of actors he left entire worlds to be desired. According to Katherine Orrison, a film scholar who provides the commentary on the DVD, DeMille directed “from the office,” meaning that by the time he began principal shooting, he had already mapped out his actors’ line readings and character motivations. They were required only to show up and go through their paces in the stilted manner he preferred, and as a result, one can practically see the actors counting beats in their heads as they talk at — never to — each other.
The big story here is Charlton Heston as Moses, the prince of Egypt who discovers that he was born a Hebrew and chosen by God to liberate his people and pass down God’s laws unto them. It is the role that would provide him with fame, fortune, and the authoritative persona he now uses to convince people that hunting squirrels with AK-47s is not just a right but a duty. He was cast because of his resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses (according to Orrison, DeMille did most of his casting by looking at sketches of how the actors would look in the costumes), and Heston carries on his impression of a statue throughout the film: visually impressive, minimally expressive. His blustering, staccato line readings vary so little that one often has to look to the other actors’ reactions to tell Moses’ mood.
To this end, Heston is helped by a stellar cast, variously used. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is wasted as the Pharoah Sethi, who banishes Moses after he kills Egypt’s master builder (an equally squandered Vincent Price) and declares Rameses (Yul Brynner) his heir. In a wholly gratuitous romantic subplot, John Derek plays Joshua, eventually the hero of Deuteronomy and crumbler of Jericho’s walls, woos slave girl Debra Paget with tanned, preening vanity. Yvonne De Carlo gets her first big break as Sephora, the Bedouin shepherd girl who marries Moses in the wilderness, and punctuates each and every one of her lines with a calculated head turn, until she comes to resemble one of those animatronic figures at Disneyland.
Orrison says the pivotal role of Sethi’s daughter Nefertiri — who, according to the laws of Egyptian dynastic succession, chooses the next Pharoah through marriage — was supposed to go to Audrey Hepburn, but DeMille nixed Hepburn because she had the wrong figure for the costumes. The role went to the vastly inferior Anne Baxter, which is just as well because Moses spurns Nefertiri’s love in favor of his divine calling and, burning bush be damned, what sane man would dump Audrey Hepburn? Moses’ rejection prompts Nefertiri to marry Rameses and urge him on in a vendetta against the Hebrews, even after God sends fiery hail, rivers of blood, and the freaking Angel of Death to strong-arm Egypt, and one wonders just how Baxter’s shrill harridan can hold that much sway. It’s got to be the outfits.
In the midst of all this thespic wreckage, Brynner is an absolute wonder. Fresh off The King and I (1956), he brings a similarly lordly bearing to the role of Rameses. Strutting powerfully through every scene, purring with his Russian accent that sounds entirely appropriate here, dark and cut and imposing as hell, Brynner dominates this epic. In a cast chosen to suit their costumes, he alone looks like the outfits were made for him (side by side with Heston in their prince’s kilts, Brynner makes Heston’s attempts to suck in his gut painfully noticeable). And while the movie, at three and a half hours, is a marathon of scenery-chewing, Brynner rips into his portion and lets you know just how tasty it is. His final line, after Rameses’ entire army has gotten the Big Flush in the Red Sea — “His God… is God” — patently ridiculous spoken by virtually anyone else, is chilling. It would have made a great ending to a shorter film, and frankly the rest of the movie suffers from that point on.
About halfway through the film, there is an intermission (and the DVD set uses it as the place to go to disc two). Orrison remarks that during The Ten Commandments‘ inevitable Passover TV airings, rating go up dramatically for the film’s second half. This is understandable, as the second half is where all the money shots are, the special effects bonanza of God flexing His almighty muscles. Again, for as poor a director of actors as DeMille was, as a creator of spectacle he is hard to beat to this day, and the FX hold up remarkably.
Sure, the burning bush looks like someone stuck a shrub in front of a Klieg light (even Orrison, who has absolutely nothing else negative to say about this film, takes issue with the bush), and yes, the flaming hand of God is incredibly cartoony as it blasts the Commandments into the rock of Mount Sinai. But everything else is magnificent. DeMille pioneered blue-screen techniques, with nary a seam showing between actors in Hollywood and the vistas in Egypt they’re supposed to be staring at. The plagues of Egypt are nicely staged, especially the burning hail, which you see coming from Heaven a few beats before it hits, and the killing of the first-borns, manifested as a truly creepy black fog that serpentines malevolently through the streets and palace halls.
And then there’s the big enchilada, the parting of the Red Sea, done by filling a massive tank with water, running the film in reverse, and superimposing footage of thousands of Egyptian extras running along the sea bottom. It’s an amazing technical achievement, even by current standards, and while I’m usually bored stupid by making-of features, the ones here are fascinating. These, in addition to DeMille’s original 1923 silent version of the film, make the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Ten Commandments more than worthwhile for those who consider themselves film historians or completists. Those looking for insights into the mind of teenage God should probably look elsewhere.