Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Written by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank (based on the books by Philo, Josephus, various rabbis, Dorothy Clarke Wilson, J.H. Ingraham, A.E. Southon, and God)
The 1956 production of The Ten Commandments is a lot of things—it would somewhat have to be—not all of them great. It can be flat and stagey, just dropping its actors into a master shot and calling it a day; it can have some barbarically bad editing, ranging from some questionable cross-cutting decisions to straight-up human teleportation. Throughout, it does little to situate its action in the 1270s B.C., and hopes that its substitution of costly, spectacular bigness for anything remotely resembling authenticity will suffice. And yet it looks cheap more often than you might remember—consider a pharaonic throne room that is hard to distinguish from an overlit bank lobby, or the numerous sets that very clearly end at (or before) the boundary of the frame, or (and this always sticks in my craw) the relegation of 70% of the Plagues of Egypt to a few lines of expository dialogue. Its characters, meanwhile, are arguably just as abstract as its setting, emblems rather than people. Somehow they become moreso as they go along, and the film outlasts its own drama by at least a solid 40 minutes.
The Ten Commandments is so long, in fact, that merely saying "it's 220 minutes long" would require you to do some math to conceptualize how long that actually is. The best screen adaptation of its source material (the book of Shemot/Exodus, with a bit of Bemidbar/Numbers thrown in), DreamWorks Animation's Prince of Egypt, tells almost the exact same story this film does, including the same modern glosses, in 99. I assume the only reason this film is not a cool four hours is because, by the point it reaches three hours and forty, it's already jutting up uncomfortably against the "golly, there sure do seem to be a lot of people with splittable skulls and rapeable daughters already living here in our Promised Land" parts. (Ah, the Bronze Age.)
But The Ten Commandments is also very special to me, in downright primal ways that shaped how I approach and appreciate film. I'm an atheist raised as an atheist, and I think I had to make some modest exertions to watch this when I was little; there was, doubtless, an element of stubbornness in my desire to watch a four hour movie with alien themes, mostly just to prove I could, and then to subsequently declare it the greatest film of all time. (And so we have the first blush of my contrarian bullshit.) But it was also the very first time I realized that a movie isn't just a story, it's a storyteller—deliberate and calculating. This is something of a milestone for a child. I have no idea what the first movie I saw was; the first movies I loved were Star Wars and Indy. But such things feel natural and immediate when you're young, like they'd always existed, somehow. Despite its goals, The Ten Commandments never felt that way. It was, in its great honking obviousness, an act of creation, and even innocent eyes can perceive the choices it's making—maybe even because so much of the movie does not involve particularly interesting ones.
As an adult, I am naturally much more aware of The Ten Commandments' flaws. I haven't considered it the greatest film of all time in a very long time. It's not even the best of the 1950s' Bible epics—though it may be second-best. But then I see the way that, roughly 170 minutes in, DeMille's camera suddenly finds itself morally repulsed by his hero—and, by extension, the very God this film was made in worship of—and I notice the way it lingers instead with the unbearable cost of the Exodus; I'm awestruck anew. I'd still call it one of the most provocative things a filmmaker has ever done, especially considering this one's assumed audience, not to mention his own priors. It doesn't always take the brutish effortfulness of a Cecil B. DeMille for a child to realize there's such a thing as a cinematic language, but he was my first teacher, and I'll always cherish that about him.
One gets the impression that these Bible epics were rarely their directors' favorite jobs, what with all the cumbersome sets, the casts of thousands, and the tendency for the things to be filmed in newfangled formats. Most didn't make a career of it. DeMille, however, was the great exception. Confessionally, he was an Episcopalian, though one of partly Jewish descent. Ideologically, he was a true believer and, not to put too fine a point on it, a reactionary. Personally, he was very much the study in contrasts that you'd doubtless expect, never apt to keep to the commandments he held in such high regard—though, as far as I know, at least he never killed anybody.
Cinematically? It's obviously too much to say he truly made a career out of Bible movies, for as one of the fathers of the American industry, DeMille's resume is tremendously long and diverse. (In genre. Biologically, not so much, despite there being no continent other than Antarctica refusing to appear in a DeMille film, though if it had, even the penguins would've been played by white people in unpersuasive makeup.) Nevertheless, the visual possibilities of archaic pomp clearly held an irresistible fascination for him—as early as 1919's Male and Female, which is just some relationship drama, he was already indulging a yen for distant times with a fantasy sequence set in Babylon—and he must have had some significant respect for the God of Abraham, too, though it's hard to guess which gave rise to which: the desire to tell edifying tales of God, or the realization that he could use God to justify the enormous cost of creating the mythic vistas and pagan cities that so captivated his imagination.
Either way, the two impulses went hand in hand: 1956's Ten Commandments is often called a remake of his own 1923 film, likewise titled The Ten Commandments. It's not really an accurate characterization; the only real overlap is that the 1923 picture's first fifty minutes roughly track the plot of the last fifty of the 1956 version—it renders a much less investing version of it—whereas the remaining seventy minutes of it deal with the various commandments broken by a crooked building contractor and his wife in the 1920s. It is, by no means, actually good. Maybe the most notable thing about it in 2020 is that the crooked contractor bears a marked resemblance to Jared Kushner. But I appreciate how thoroughly it overcooks its melodrama, which includes a church built with substandard materials collapsing on the antihero's own mother, as well as a bout of leprosy. (This "half Bible picture, half hectoring contemporary morality play" was almost a trend in the 1920s, probably somehow traceable to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. It may be the most dysfunctional pseudo-genre I ever saw: Michael Curtiz's 1928 Noah's Ark does the same stuff but with World War I, and is almost unbearably bad.) In any case, DeMille got that out of his system; by 1927's King of Kings he was doing straightforward period pieces, and he would return to antiquity again and again.
I cannot speak authoritatively about it—who can? he made seventy films—but it's entirely possible that the only good movies he ever made concerned swords and sandals. And he still didn't make that many good ones. In this respect, DeMille may be the great oddity of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was a man who helped invent the industry, and successfully managed to brand himself as the very incarnation of "the film director." He was—somehow—the most commercially successful filmmaker of his age. He's also a man we've largely forgotten except in the broad, caricatured strokes. His movies are rarely studied, and even more rarely praised. I'd like to say this is unfair, but it isn't. He's remembered by most, correctly, for just this one film. Perhaps uniquely amongst all directors, it was his last film that established his enduring legacy. And despite suffering during its production the chain of heart attacks that would eventually kill him—despite devolving enough on-set responsibility to his daughter Cecilia that she deserves some acknowledgment, too—I don't have any doubt his second go at The Ten Commandments really is his best.
As loudly as it credits "Holy Scripture," The Ten Commandments is, for the balance of its runtime, forced to contend with the huge gap that the Tanakh leaves in the life of Moses (Charlton Heston as an adult, Fraser Heston as a Nile baby, which is cute). Finding this an opportunity rather than an obstacle, it fills the thirty year void between Moses' rescue by Pharaoh's daughter and his journey to Midian with various other sources. Partly, it relies on midrashim; partly, it relies on the speculation of ancient historians; perhaps more than anything, it relies on various works of contemporary fiction, especially Dorothy Clarke Wilson's (reputedly quite materialist) 1949 novel, Prince of Egypt. I believe that the greatest innovation in Exodus stories, however, is one that the screenwriters made on their own—namely, that Moses was raised by his adoptive mother Bithiah (Nina Foch) and uncle Pharaoh Sethi (Cedrick Hardwick), not just as a brother to the son of Sethi's blood, Rameses (Yul Brynner), but, by the time we catch up with him, as the heir presumptive to Egypt. I tend to prefer the DWA cartoon's vision of a warm, loyal relationship between Moses and Rameses; but The Ten Commandments' interpretation works almost as readily for its drama, and, here, competition has long since poisoned whatever friendship they once shared.
Indeed, the spite of disfavored son Rameses and his determination to secure the throne drives the whole plot, though it doesn't help that Rameses also desires the throne princess, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), who—of course—loves Moses. Yet despite his loyalty to Sethi, when Moses is tasked to build Sethi's new city in Goshen, he is disturbed by the abject misery of the Hebrew slaves there; when he learns that he is a Hebrew, he even seeks out these miseries for himself, living the life of the slaves he'd once overseen, unable to any longer countenance the degradation that made his former life a possibility. Brought back out of bondage by Nefretiri, he can still only reject her and Egypt, and so he is exiled from his home and into the murderous wastes—Rameses "spares" him execution for Nefretiri's sake, but in a nicely cruel touch, explains that Moses's life is in his Hebrew God's hands now. But he does not die. He finds a place in Midian, and a wife (Yvonne De Carlo), and a family. But this contentedness likewise comes to an end when he is confronted with his God, whereupon he becomes a rather less interesting character and is sent back to Egypt to deliver the Hebrews from slavery. You presumably know how the rest goes.
If the signal quality of the Hollywood Bible epic is oppressive length, let us consider that quality fully: The Ten Commandments, for all its much-advertised location shooting and DeMille's customary monumentalism, is not a transportive experience, at least not through the conventional means of realistic production and costume design, natural acting, and immersive filmmaking. This is not to say it lacks any lovely or fabulistic quality, or that DeMille never manages impressive feats, because he very often does—the first shot of the movie after its overture and introduction is a marvelous piece of expressionistic geometry on the subject of slavery in ancient Egypt, only let down a little by 50s-era effects—but the sense of scale it wants to promote is very rarely a convincing one, and I doubt it was to audiences at the time, either. Indeed, outside of individual moments like the Hebrews' procession out of Egypt, which is physical and tangible in ways that much of this badly-composited, badly-rear-projected movie is not, I somewhat doubt it was meant to be. Rather, it's inordinately pageantlike, from the shiny costumes, to the tenor of the performances, to the stately shot length, to the compositions that, at their best, look like thronging Thomas Cole paintings; and the genius DeMille ultimately does seize upon is to use the pageantlike qualities of his production to poke at the mythological truth he hoped existed beneath the surface of history.
That's where the length works wonders, and The Ten Commandments requires you to live in its version of ancient North Africa for so long that it takes on an impression of realism despite itself; and the tension between that and the always-fanciful nature of its aesthetic winds up tremendously productive. The Ten Commandments uses its length better than almost any similarly-long movie, not least because it's (astonishingly!) never boring—it's a bit repetitive in its situations, but it's written with a lot of sharp wit and justly iconic lines, some Bible-based ("behold his mighty hand!"), some not ("so let it be written, so let it be done!"). But more than anything, it's because it winds up forcing character arcs onto a variety of figures who don't necessarily actually want to be characters—Rameses is somewhat unchanging, but Nefretiri is wonderfully dynamic (she's a femme fatale transposed to ancient Egypt, but in compelling ways that keep her riding a thin line between love interest and villainy, for even if she does love Moses, she and Rameses are of a piece, each of them pragmatic but id-driven schemers). It's above all the case with Moses himself. The two full hours we spend with him before he even leaves Egypt, and the half hour still to come before he comes face to bush with God, offer a rich, sometimes even nuanced spiritual awakening, and Heston's performance is provided with a whole lot of wide-open space in which to live, breathe, wonder, yearn, self-loathe, forget, and express skepticism about the nature, power, morality, and even existence of his God. (I particularly like that it raises the prospect of Moses simply becoming pharaoh himself, but he plainly can't bear the possibility of becoming even more responsible for the suffering Egypt is built upon.)
The performances in general align rather perfectly with everything else the film has going for it, then: every single gesture they make winds up larger than life, but they make so many of these gestures you start to accept that this must've just been how large these mythic beings lived. Brynner is marvelous in his imperious wickedness—and, indeed, his shirtless sexual menace, insofar I don't think three scenes go by without some element of the love triangle's horniness coming in to keep things spicy—but even Brynner's one-dimensionality shades into the kind of shellshocked incredulity and grief that make a death ride into the Red Sea psychologically plausible; Baxter is here more to have fun with a woman scorned than she is to explore Nefretiri's humane contradictions, but, to her credit, she doesn't ignore those contradictions entirely; somewhere in the background, as minor antagonists, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price essay the kind of slimy venality they could secrete in their sleep. Heston is inevitably the stand-out, though he's also cut somewhat short: Heston and The Ten Commandments try extremely hard to humanize Moses, in a Hestony way, but the prince must eventually become the prophet, and there's no arguing they have trouble navigating Moses afterwards, giving him only a few scattered moments as a whole person rather than a traumatized instrument of the divine.
But then, there's still something terrifically interesting about that, particularly the sheer suddenness of it, for it comes as something of a epistemological rupture at the end of a whole feature's length worth of earnest but agnostic spiritual striving; because it's Biblical and preordained, I suppose nobody even thinks to mention it, but not one single supernatural thing happens before, like, 150 minutes have passed in this film. And this gives The Ten Commandments' religious side an unexpected, subliminal weight: because it has spent so very long grounding itself in at least a picturebook version of reality, the shift into mythic phantasmagoria hits extraordinarily hard, and though this second phase of the film also lasts a very long time, it never stops feeling uncanny, wreathing The Ten Commandments with a heavy, sacred atmosphere that, perhaps, even benefits from optical effects that look deliriously unnatural and fake. God is a scary intrusion into this world, and while I have serious quibbles about how it all goes down—the abrupt defocusing of our hero's thoughts and feelings; the rather dumbassed manner in which Egyptian and Hebrew alike just keep ignoring this very angry deity who performed violent miracles, like, twenty minutes earlier; the apparent way that any homeless person can just wander into pharaoh's court to yell at his monarch whenever he feels like it—but it works wonderfully at underlining the holiness that DeMille had been seeking for much of his career, and had now finally found.
I didn't even actually start at the beginning, though; the very first shot of The Ten Commandments is of a literal stage. Priming you for what to expect, it holds on the curtains for a good twenty seconds, until finally DeMille himself comes out and just straight-up explains his movie for several minutes. He goes over the story; he concedes that much of it is Hollywood invention; he lays out the themes and their modern significance. Referring to places where humans remained in bondage, he could not be clearer if he just said "this is anti-communist propaganda." Altogether, it has a useful distancing effect; it fits in with the Biblical pageant he's made. Of course, what he does not say probably needn't be said, but The Ten Commandments is absolutely a film of 1956—eleven years after the Shoah, eight years after the foundation of Israel. It is not even too much to say this is the reason why this Ten Commandments exists; DeMille might have been concerned with Russians and Christianity, but it was very much the recent memory of the Holocaust that animated its production at Paramount, and, accordingly, the Holocaust resonates in every frame, or at least every frame where Baxter isn't being sexy at Heston.
This is where we come back to that shot that made an eight year old kid notice a director's hand for the first time. It is in the aftermath of the final plague of Egypt, in the throne room of Rameses. Moses has declared the death of the firstborn, Yahweh's retaliation for Rameses' grandfather's slaughter of the Hebrew children, and for Rameses' own planned butchery. Heston plays the prophet as ranting. I notice now, there's something legitimately dissociative about his performance here. The camera pans as he walks out the door, and then halts, unwilling to follow; its attention is instead drawn by the woman coming down the stairs, a dead child in her arms, the Queen of Egypt and what used to be its Prince. We can still hear Moses' voice, but The Ten Commandments has no interest whatsoever in hearing whatever superfluous things he has to say about the terrible and arbitrary power of his God, so his voice fades and fades in the sound mix, as one might disregard but not be entirely able to ignore the ravings of a street lunatic. Nefretiri carries her child, and there is fury and grief in her and Rameses, the actual subjects of this scene. Rameses prays to his god. It doesn't work. There are echoes of the Holocaust here, but also the war; and Exodus is a story that was renewed in the shadow of the camps and in the light of firebombing, and maybe only makes any real moral sense when you can point to such an object example. If the first part of this Ten Commandments is about how people you've lived alongside your whole life, and even loved, turn out to be monsters, the second is about the horror that must be done to put a stop to monsters. But it is not triumphal; it recognizes the tragedy of it. It is extraordinary that this film, of all films, stops itself cold for such long, ugly minutes to take stock of the terrible things that had to be done for liberation—to acknowledge that the consummate villains of a foundational national myth did, nevertheless, love their child—and there is probably not a more sincere, or honest, or powerful moment in the whole genre of Bible movies than this.
Other reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)