Wednesday, September 11, 2013


The Ten Commandments (1956)


Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Producer: Cecil B. DeMille, Henry D. Wilcoxon (associate producer)
Story/Screenplay: Aenas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Garris, Fredric M. Frank
Based on: The Holy Scriptures, The Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, On Eagles' Wings by A. E. Southon and Pillar of Fire by Joseph Holt Ingraham
Narrated by: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Yvonne de Carlo, Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, Debra Paget, John Derek, Martha Scott
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Editor: Anne Bauchens
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 220 min.

"So let it be written. So let it be done."

The Ten Commandments is a large, gigantic, and grandiose piece of spectacle that no one in Hollywood attempts today, with the exception of the Lord of the Rings movies and the resurgence of the epic genre with such movies as Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, The Passion of the Christ, and the recent Bible miniseries.

It is, in my opinion, one of the best epics of all time, and while it is not as brilliant as Ben-Hur, it is definitely wonderful in its own way; that movie, while big, classic, and grand indeed, was more intimate and that laid the foundation for modern epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. This movie, however, is a more classical epic film, not as intimate as the later epic and not as individualistic in its focus; however, it does not neglect character in the name of grandiose. We do see humans in the grand story of freedom, salvation, the law of God and hope, and we see their contribution to that story.

Whatever its flaws may be, The Ten Commandments is, in my humble opinion, undeniably worth watching at least once in a lifetime.

Let's start with the plot. The film begins with Cecil B. DeMille (after a grand overture), who is on stage starting to narrate the grand tale of freedom that is found in the Holy Scriptures.

He points out that God created man to be free under Him, but man decided to rule one another, and the film fast forwards to Hebrew slaves in hard bondage in Egypt, toiling as they are whipped by the taskmasters. However, the slaves are still hoping for a deliverer who will bring them out of slavery. And we see a glimpse of the baby Moses, as his mother Yoshebel (Martha Scott) puts him in a basket, ready to save him from the Egyptian state.

The film cuts to the Pharaoh, who ponders on what to do with the growing Hebrew population; with advice from his advisors, he decides to kill every newborn Hebrew male child, supposedly in order to prevent a revolt against the kingdom. Thus, the Egyptian soldiers launch a massacre against the babies, but Moses is safe in the basket, ready to float on the Nile River.

Eventually, he is found by the Egyptian princess Bithia (Nina Foch) and adopted by her, thus making him the Prince of Egypt.

The film then cuts to a grown Moses (played by Charlton Heston), who is just returning from having conquered Ethiopia, and everyone in Egypt is pleased. However, his brother Ramases (Yul Brynner) is not pleased, and he desires to keep Moses from getting the throne and the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter).

At first, Moses is highly respected by Egypt, and Nefretiri wants only Moses to be pharaoh, as she is madly in love with him, so much so that she kills the woman who holds the secret to Moses's origins.

However, that is not enough for Moses to start questioning who he really is, when he meets his natural mother, who is near death, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam. He soon finds out his real mother, and this motivates Moses to be part of the Hebrew slaves until he finds his true purpose.

After killing the taskmaster Baka (Vincent Price), he is driven out of Egypt and into the desert, where he is almost starved to death except for the power of God that sustains him, eventually leading him to the tent and home of Jethro, where he marries Sephora (Yvonne de Carlo), who teaches him shepherding.

Years later, however, Moses goes up to the mountain of Sinai, where he meets Jehovah God and is called to be the deliverer of the Hebrews into the land of milk and honey. However, Moses tries to avert his plan, but ultimately he submits to the will of God. The following events ensue, with the ten plagues being brought on Egypt until finally the Hebrews experience a new birth of freedom.

The Ten Commandments is widely admired among cinephiles, critics (it received a 91% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes) Christians, Jews, Catholics and many other people, and rightly so. It is memorable, resonant, and identifiable. It not only shows an orthodox Christian theology, but it also deals very well with the age-old conflict between freedom and slavery, between liberty and power. The introduction to the film sums this theme up well. As Steven D. Greydanus said in his review of the movie, "Moses’ ultimatum to Pharaoh to “Let my people go” is couched not so much in terms of God’s divine authority, or the elect status of the Hebrew people, as in rhetoric about freedom, rule of law, and the injustice of tyranny and slavery — language that has less to do with the exodus from Egypt than with the seminal events of American history, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Heston’s Moses isn’t just the Prophet, he’s the Great Emancipator and the Father of his Country, all but draped in red, white and blue. The Ten Commandments is nothing less than a ringing invocation of the full weight of divine authority on behalf of the American way of life from an era when Christian America stood opposed to atheistic Communism and the 1960s were just around the corner." 

This has its benefits and drawbacks; on one side, it highlights the themes of liberty and freedom from slavery that are within Scripture, but it can also be seen only in that light, neglecting the richer parallels in Scripture. However, it is ultimately more beneficial than deficient. As Greydanus says, "For good and for ill, it’s as much a testament and a fixture of traditional American ideals and affections as a courthouse display of the stone tablets, and as weighty and solid." It takes on a civil libertarian character and it is a living testament to the eternal conflict of liberty and slavery, as many political philosophers, economists and historians have recognized.

Charlton Heston's performance as Moses is one of his greatest, and while I haven't seen many of his movies except for the brilliant Ben-Hur, I did enjoy this as much as his performance three years later as the Jewish prince turned Christian. Yul Brynner plays the wicked Ramases with passion and extravagance, though not with as much humanity as Ralph Fiennes' depiction in The Prince of Egypt (which is, BTW, one of my childhood favorites that I haven't seen in a long time). However, he does show some humanity through his own pride, and we see him humbled near the end of the movie, so much so that he cannot bring himself to kill Nefretiri even though he attempts to do so. His performance also shows the weight of what Scripture said that Moses decided to give up his life in Egypt to follow God's calling (Hebrews 11:24-29). The beginning of the film shows the pleasure and prestige Moses receives, even as Ramases tries to find fault with him, and this makes an impact as to when Moses faces his father Seti after killing Baka (who was about to execute Joshua (John Derek) for striking an Egyptian in an attempt to rescue his love interest Lilia (Debra Paget)). The film thus succeeds in telling the story of Moses, showing how he was successful and how he was thrown out of his success, only to find true success in the power of God.

The other performances are great as well, particularly from Yvonne de Carlo as Moses' wife Sephora, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, who is delightfully campy and sexy), John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia, Joshua's love interest (which shows Cecil B. DeMille's affinity for romantic themes in film). Vincent Price's Baka and Edward G. Robinson's Dathan both contribute to the darkness of the atmosphere of the Hebrew slaves, and they show the cruelty that was very much a part of ancient Egypt. And the scene where the tenth plague afflicts Egypt is a dark and moody scene.

Cecil B. DeMille does a great job at directing this motion picture, with Elmer Bernstein's epic score and a good script to back it up.

The special effects, while they do show their age, do still hold up, particularly the parting of the Red Sea; however, the burning bush was a little bit cartoonish, which is not so much the movie's fault as it is the times that the movie was made.

Now, as to whether it is better than Ben-Hur, there is room for debate (I hold that Ben-Hur is superior). However, this film is undeniably one of the greatest epics of all time, and it rightly received a place among the American Film Institute's top ten epic movies.

Overall, highly recommended. Five out of five stars, despite the occasional campiness of the movie.

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