|Ten Commandments, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1999|
‘The Ten Commandments’ is epic in ambition, in scope and -- at three hours, 40 minutes -- in length. It pretty much epitomizes what modern audiences think of when ‘50s Biblical tales are mentioned. It’s got huge crowds (real extras, not CGI), bright colors, a reverential mood and a campiness factor that probably was evident even in first release, let alone over 40 years after the fact.
Director Cecil B. DeMille can’t be accused of trying to play it safe. As he says in both a filmed introduction (in front of movie-theatre curtains) that opens ‘Ten Commandments’ and in the film’s initial trailer, the Bible doesn’t say much about early life of Moses. The Old Testament chronicles how the Pharoah of Egypt decreed that all male Hebrew infants be killed and how one such infant, Moses, was rescued from the Nile by Pharoah’s daughter, who subsequently raised the foundling as her son. The Bible picks up the tale of Moses’ life as an adult at the moment when he learns of his Jewish heritage. DeMille and his screenwriters, Aeneas MacKenzie, Jess L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank, spend much of their film’s first two hours establishing the accomplishments of Moses (Charlton Heston) as a prince of Egypt, showing him to be level-headed, modest and compassionate even before he knows his destiny. There is also an inordinate amount of time given over to the romantic triangle between Moses, his arrogant stepbrother Prince Rameses (Yul Brynner) and the princess both love, Nefertiri (Anne Baxter). The film then takes up the Biblical thread, sending Moses into desert exile where he sees the burning bush and hears the voice of God telling him to lead his people out of bondage. Rameses, now himself Pharoah, will not believe Moses or release the Hebrew slaves until God has unleashed 10 plagues upon the land. After Rameses’ own son dies, he allows Moses to lead the Jews into the desert -- but then pursues them with vengeance in his heart. God parts the Red Sea for Moses and finally gives him 10 commandments written in stone … hope I’m not spoiling any surprises here.
The script and performances are clearly trying to be reverent, but the solemnity often has the effect of sounding like a tract rather than an expression of spiritual belief. Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the old Pharoah gives a startlingly sly, smart portrayal in this context. Heston’s Moses succeeds in being iconographic, not so much as what we personally might imagine a Biblical prophet to be, but certainly as what the popular concept of such a figure was in the U.S. in the 1950s. The soap opera aspects of DeMille’s version also tend to undercut the film’s more serious aspirations, with a subplot between Moses’ pal Joshua (John Derek) and a beautiful slave (Debra Paget) seeming especially like filler. The suggestion that Nefertiri is personally responsible for bringing down the wrath of God on Egypt one last time is on the one hand a bit of kitsch worthy of a drag show and in another way trivializes the whole notion. In a satirist hands, it would be merely irreverent -- considering the intent here, it plays more as sacrilege.
The special effects are great by 1956 standards but don’t look quite so nifty now. The print used for the DVD transfer is exquisite, with barely a blemish to be seen in the whole 220 minutes on either of the two disks. The colors are bright and vivid, though this has the effect of underlining the improbable cleanness (and anachronistic-looking fabric and design) of the costumes and people alike. It seems a bit incongruous for the oppressed slaves to be immaculately coiffed and made up at all times.
Sound is also strong throughout. Intriguingly, when God speaks to Moses, his voice is at a lower pitch and actually sounds as if it exists in a different reality than the rest of the sound mix, which is quite an effective approach.
Three theatrical trailers -- one from 1956, with DeMille addressing the camera at some length, one from the 1966 rerelease and one from the 1989 rerelease -- are included on the second of the two-disk set. The materials are an enlightening example of how movie marketing has changed over time, just as seeing ‘The Ten Commandments’ now is instructive on how our views of cinematic spectacle and spirituality have altered since the film was made.