Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Ten Commandments1

The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956, was Cecil B. DeMille’s last film. At $13.2 million it was one of the most expensive movies made to that point in time, and it was one of the biggest box-office successes in history, pulling in $64 million on its first release. Adjusting for inflation and taking into account re-releases it remains one of the most successful movies ever made.

DeMille’s share of the profits was huge but he gave half of it away to be distributed amongst the crew, an unprecedented gesture.

DeMille took an enormous risk with this movie. Paramount were very nervous about the whole project. Had DeMille not been involved they certainly would not have proceeded with it. DeMille had to be very careful not to offend either Christians or Jews, and considering the fact that the movie fictionalises a good deal of the life of Moses it was no easy task to come up with a screenplay that would not upset somebody. DeMille insisted that the screenwriters could not just make it up as they went along when it came to filling in the gaps of Moses’ life. Everything had to be at least vaguely plausible and the script drew on the work of various Biblical scholars as well as the works of ancient historians like Josephus.

The location shooting in Egypt undoubtedly shortened DeMille’s life. He suffered a massive heart attack. The doctors told him that if he rested in bed for four weeks with oxygen he would make a full recovery. He told them, “Forget it gentlemen. I’m going to the set in the morning.” And he did. He intended to finish the picture even if it cost him his life.


The story of course is essentially an expansion upon the Biblical story of Moses, of the infant Moses being found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket on the Nile, of his early life as an Egyptian prince and of his deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from bondage. Needless to say, this being a DeMille movie, it also includes a love story, plenty of sex and plenty of action. There might not be any actual battle scenes but DeMille has no trouble in turning this story into an exciting adventure yarn filled with spectacle.

There was no way of doing spectacular scenes like the parting of the Red Sea using existing special effects technology. The production team and the crew had to invent their own special effects. They did this so well that Steven Spielberg has described the parting of the Red Sea as the greatest special effect in movie history.


Even by DeMille standards this is a big movie. Officially some scenes utilised the services of no less than eight thousand extras although people who were there believe the true number may have been closer to twelve thousand. And in scenes on that scale DeMille would fuss over the placement of a single extra. Much to the horror of star Charlton Heston. But Heston admitted that DeMille was right in taking such pains. No-one ever had the same feeling for crowd scenes that DeMille had. DeMille did not believe in the concept of extras. As far as he was concerned everybody who appeared on screen was an actor. They should know what the director was trying to achieve, they should know what the scene was about and they should know what part they were to pay in the scene.

DeMille was fiercely loyal to the people he had worked with in the silent era. H. B. Warner, who had played Jesus in DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings, was brought out of a nursing home to play one last role.


After considering half a dozen other actors DeMille finally decided on Yul Brynner in the role of the Pharaoh Rameses. The danger of putting Brynner in such a role was that he was likely to overshadow the real star, the actor playing Moses. Fortunately with Charlton Heston as Moses there was absolutely no danger of that happening. Both Rameses and Moses are played as truly epic larger-than-life characters, which is as it should be.

Yvonne de Carlo brings a surprising (and entirely appropriate) dignity to the role of Moses’ wife Sephora. Anne Baxter gives one of her better performances as Nefretiri, the woman for whose affections Rameses and Moses are bitter rivals. Vincent Price has great fun with the role of the master builder Baka while John Carradine chews up the scenery as Aaron. For Edward G. Robinson the role of the Hebrew slave master Dathan was a career-saving role. Despite their political differences Robinson had immense respect for DeMille. I’ve always thought Cedric Hardwicke was rather overrated but he does well as the old Pharaoh Sethi.


The movie had to be ready for a November 1956 release and unfortunately the consequent haste is evident in a few scenes. Some of the blue screen shots certainly could have used more work. What is extraordinary though is just how well the important scenes hold up. Every scene that really matters works superbly.

This movie is an odd mix of outrageous entertainment and piety. DeMille saw no conflict between the two. This is a rare example of a deeply religious movie that is also enormously enjoyable as entertainment.

The Region 4 DVD release spreads the movie over two discs, which presents no problems since the movie has an intermission. The transfer is an excellent one.

It is unlikely that anyone but Cecil B. DeMille could have made a movie such as The Ten Commandments work. This film is an extraordinary achievement. It’s one of those movies you just have to see.

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