“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I'll give you a picture.”
- Cecil B. DeMille
The single costliest and highest grossing film of 1956 was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments; an elephantine Bible-fiction spectacle designed to dwarf all others that had gone before it, including DeMille’s own 1923 silent version. That the resulting film is eye-popping and star-studded is little wonder. On a purely visual scale, few epics before or since can lay claim to as much staggering wealth in production values. After a lengthy career, this proved to be DeMille’s final cinematic gift to the world, and what a whopper it is and has remained in the intervening decades since its theatrical release; perennially revived every Easter as a right of passage for the young and old. DeMille’s approach to movie-making, even in the era of 'stereophonic sound', Technicolor and widescreen VistaVision, nevertheless heralded from a theatricality in his lengthy tenure during the silent era that never quite left him; also, an innate passion – nee, respect – for his interpretation of the ‘will of God’ – or some would add, the will of DeMille for which DeMille made absolutely zero apology. "You are here to please me," he often shouted at his extras, "Nothing else on earth matters!" In researching The Ten Commandments DeMille could be heavy-handed and philosophical. Yet he instinctively was a showman at heart, never above letting a good story go to waste. Once asked about his ‘exploitation’ of the Holy Scriptures, DeMille coolly replied, “The Bible has been a bestseller for centuries. Why should I let two thousand years of publicity go to waste?”
And yet, Paramount was not entirely certain DeMille’s pitch to remake one of their biggest silent epics would do for the new-fangled fifties. It was largely on his reputation, the Oscar-winning success of the picture that preceded it (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952) and Adolf Zukor’s say so that DeMille was granted the privilege to pursue this passion project a second time around. And pursue it he most certainly did. Mind-boggling are the statistics trumpeted by Paramount’s publicity department; as lengthy and involved as the film’s main title sequence. Consider just one fact: 60,000 extras dressed in as many costumes to perform the exodus scene against the largest free standing set (Seti’s city) ever built for a motion picture. The strain of micromanaging such a colossus took its toll on DeMille who suffered a major heart attack while on location in Egypt, necessitating some quick subbing in by no less than the film’s star, Charlton Heston – briefly seated in the director’s chair. DeMille recovered from his coronary in a record three days and was back on the set, in charge and most definitely in command. But it was bittersweet. His ailment had gravely weakened him. A scant three years later, DeMille was dead.
As film art, The Ten Commandments is not without its flaws – some of them glaring. As far as historians and Biblical scholars are concerned the research conducted has yielded an inconclusive screenplay by Joseph Holt Ingraham, Arthur Eustace Southon, Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Jack Gariss and Frederic M. Frank in which many artistic liberties were taken. I'll bite. So what? Given the task of distilling one of the most pivotal passages in the Bible into a manageable movie, the screenplay is a veritable wonderment in both its comprehensiveness and its concision. If artistic liberties have been taken, and – no doubt, they have – then these have nevertheless produced a superlative text book example of the meticulously crafted classic Hollywood narrative. While the scope and size of the project is undeniably impressive, DeMille becomes a tad too preachy, too reverent as it were, and too ensconced in the factoid information he crams into the film’s voice over commentary to truly see The Ten Commandments for what it is – or rather, what it aspires to be: pure entertainment for the masses and a spectacle for all ages. And then, of course there is the acting to consider – and reconsider. Stylistically, The Ten Commandments is straight out of the silent era with extras and stars alike prone to grand gesticulating. This lack of subtlety arguably serves our modern perceptions of antiquity. We never think of people from the ancient world as just people going about their daily business the same as ourselves, but see them as stoic, artfully placed caricatures of human beings, more articulate than we and infinitely more thought-provokingly inspired. DeMille’s epic falls into that misconception and as such, tends to lack in genuine heart and soul. His story is a moving tableau, populated by waxworks with the most fabulous oratory skills this side of Dale Carnegie. As such, The Ten Commandments becomes the ultimate example of style trumping substance.
And DeMille, for all his reverence, cannot help but occasionally transgress into pontificating. Even in interviews to promote the movie, DeMille ostensibly saw himself as Hollywood’s undisputed authority on the Bible. “Man has made thirty-two million laws since the Commandments were handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai more than three thousand years ago,” DeMille explained, “….but he has never improved on God's law. The Ten Commandments are the principles by which man may live with God and man may live with man. They are the expressions of the mind of God for His creatures. They are the charter and guide of human liberty, for there can be no liberty without the law.... Our modern world defined God as a ‘religious complex’ and laughed at the Ten Commandments as old-fashioned. Then, through the laughter came the shattering thunder of the World War. And now a blood-drenched, bitter world — no longer laughing — cries for a way out. There is but one way out. It existed before it was engraven upon Tablets of Stone. It will exist when stone has crumbled. The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. They are not laws — they are The Law.” And to many a God-fearing/Bible-thumping mid-westerner of a certain generation, DeMille appeared as God’s emissary in La La Land, using the medium of motion pictures to disseminate the gospel on the largest canvas in the world.
Very loosely based on the Holy Scriptures, our story begins in the time of Ramses I (Ian Keith) who declares that ever Hebrew man child shall be put to death to stave off rumours that a Messiah has been born among them. One child slated for the slaughter is Moses (a role played as an infant by Heston’s newly born son, Fraser). To spare his life, the child’s mother, Yochabel (Martha Scott) casts Moses upon the Nile in a floating basket quickly discovered by Egyptian princess, Bithiah (Nina Foch), who also happens to be Seti’s sister. Bithiah’s lady in waiting, Memnet (Judith Anderson) spied the Hebrew cloth the child is wrapped in and tells Bithiah she will not see this son of slaves reared in the royal house as one of their own. But Bithiah is a compassionate widow who orders Memnet to sink the basket and swear an allegiance to their secret or die for divulging the truth. Fast forward: an adult Moses (Charlton Heston) returns triumphant to Egypt to honour Seti II’s (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) jubilee. Although the aging ruler of the two lands has a son, Ramses (Yul Brynner) he favours Moses for his humility and compassion. Whoever rules Egypt will also marry Nefritieri (Anne Baxter), a sultry temptress who also prefers Moses to Ramses and who kills Memnet to keep Moses birthright from him. Through a merciless twist of fate Moses comes to realize he was not born to the royal house and vows to seek out his people and his real family.
Meanwhile, the wily overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) is seconded by Ramses to snuff out the true identity of the Hebrew’s ‘deliverer’. After Seti’s master builder Bacca (Vincent Price) is found murdered the Egyptian guard launch into a manhunt to find the stone cutter Joshua (John Derek), the last man to have supposedly seen Bacca alive, having come to the rescue his beloved water girl, Lilia (Debra Paget). But Dathan was hiding behind a pillar when Bacca was murdered by Moses. He relays this message to Ramses who exposes Moses as a fraud at Seti. The benevolent patriarch is crushed by this discovery, ordering that Moses’ name be stricken from every book, tablet and obelisk. Nefritieri is betrothed to Ramses and Moses exiled into the desert where presumably he will die. Instead, he receives his true calling from God and is discovered by Sephora (Yvonne DeCarlo); a lowly peasant girl tending flock with her sisters. Moses and Sephora are married and Moses returns to Egypt after Seti’s death to challenge Ramses supremacy as supreme ruler. Moses is commanded by Ramses to prove that his God is God. In response, Moses transforms his staff into a serpent. A court mystic challenges the transformation as a cheap magician’s trick by transforming his own staff into another serpent. However, when Moses’ snake devours the mystic’s the court is horrified. Ramses, however, is unmoved and unimpressed.
Next, Moses uses his staff to turn the Nile as red as blood. The inhabitants are petrified and plead with Ramses to release the Hebrew slaves from bondage. But when Ramses learns of a mountain in the Cataracts that spewed red clay into the river, he blames the Nile’s redness on a natural occurrence. Moses returns to Ramses court, declaring that forty days of darkness shall fall upon the land. Indeed, after a brief interlude the skies become dark. Hail falls to the ground, turning to fire upon the earth. Ramses threatens Moses, declaring that if another plague comes to Egypt he will turn the Nile red with the blood of first born Hebrews. Realizing that Ramses has brought about the ultimate death, Moses instructs his followers to smear lamb’s blood across their doorways to prevent the pestilence from entering their homes. Instead, the plague murders Ramses and Nefritieri’s only son. Emotionally destroyed, Ramses releases the slaves from bondage. But as Moses leads the Israelites into the desert, Nefritieri goads her husband with the promise he once made to her – to destroy Moses. Inflamed by her words, Ramses calls the Egyptian guard to amass for the slaughter of the Hebrews who have been led to the edge of the Red Sea.
Dathan attempts to woo the terrified masses to his side with promises of clemency. But Moses draws his staff against the waters and parts the sea so that they may escape to the other side. Ramses forces are consumed when these walls of water tumble back onto the ocean floor. He returns alone to Nefritieri, humbly declaring that Moses’ “God is God!” Yet, all is not well within the camps made at the foot of Mount Sinai. While Moses is up in the mountains receiving the divine word, his followers are seduced by Dathan to build a golden calf for worship. They indulge in all forms of debauchery. Repelled by what he sees, Moses raises the stone tablets given to him in anger. He casts the word of God to the ground, the tablets shattering and creating an earthquake that swallows up all the nonbelievers. Unfortunately, Moses actions have also displeased God. He is instructed to show the Israelites the path to the Promised Land but is not to follow them himself. At the crossroads of the past and the future Moses bids farewell to Joshua and Sephora, telling them to go forward with God’s blessing.
The Ten Commandments is a monumental achievement by any standard one may chose to ascribe to it. DeMille’s perfectionism was, in fact, in overdrive throughout, though especially during pre-production, reportedly flinging an early draft of the screenplay onto Jesse L. Lasky Jr.’s desk, saying “What I have crossed out I didn't like. What I haven't crossed out I'm dissatisfied with.” And yet, Biblical scholars have been particularly tough in their criticisms and condemnation of the picture ever since – even as an entertainment. DeMille’s interpretation of God’s voice in particular (actually Charlton Heston’s in slo-mo) has incurred their wrath. John L. Jensen and Arnold Friberg’s costume design also gets picked apart these days as a nod to fifties chic re-envisioning of ancient Egyptian clothes. And then, of course there is the narrative structure to consider. Many historians feel the first half of the picture plays like a Peyton Place retrofitted for the chariot and toga sect with palace intrigues, family incest, and other sundry infidelities abounding in glorious Technicolor, while the latter half is slavishly devoted to pure spectacle, capped off by the parting of the Red Sea, achieved using a full scale miniature photographed in long shot using two clear glass boxes filled with blue tinted water. By gradually removing the side panels from each box and photographing the spillage at very high speeds (later played back at a regular 24 frames per second) the effect proved utterly complete and jaw-dropping.
Despite these academic criticisms, most film critics of the day were kind to The Ten Commandments as highly fictionalized movie art. Audiences too were overwhelmed by the spectacle and flocked to see the movie over and over again. Adjusted to today’s inflation, The Ten Commandments has earned roughly $446 million worldwide, making it the fifth highest grossing film of all time. It remains among the most beloved movies ever made and a perennial favorite on Palm Sunday TV broadcasts. But DeMille, who wrapped principle photography on August 12th, ironically a date to coincide with his own 74th birthday, never entirely recovered from the strain of making it. Arguably, his reputation never did either. While evangelist, Billy Graham regarded DeMille as Hollywood’s “prophet in celluloid”, movie critic Pauline Kael rather murderously referred to DeMille as a “sanctimonious moralizer”; …and she should know! The most ingratiating of the backhanded compliments came from DeMille’s contemporary; director, William Wellman who suggested that “…I think his films were the most horrible things I’ve ever seen in my life. But he put on pictures that made a fortune. In that respect he was better than any of us.” Yet, perhaps the most astute and heartfelt of these eulogized observations are those from director, Martin Scorsese, who in hypothesizing upon the kernel of endurance in DeMille’s legacy, summarized that in spite of his sermonizing, “…the marvelous superseded the sacred. He presented such a sumptuous fantasy that if you saw his movies as a child they stuck with you for life.” Had he lived, DeMille would have likely concurred with this posthumous accolade. Regrettably, on January 20th, 1959, DeMille, experiencing chest pains, was attended at home by his family physician who suggested immediate hospitalization. “No,” DeMille quietly replied, “I think I’ll go to the morgue instead.” The next day, he did.
It took Paramount Home Video a while to get around to this hi-def release, but the results continue to prove rewarding some six years later: a deluxe Blu-ray, easily to eclipse all previous incarnations available on DVD. At long last we get to see The Ten Commandments in its glorious VistaVision motion picture high fidelity. Spread across two Blu-ray discs – broken at the intermission – The Ten Commandments has never looked more spectacular on home video. This is a reference quality presentation with rich, bold and fully saturated colors. Fine detail abounds. Contrast levels yield extraordinarily velvety blacks, and pristine whites minus all the ugly edge enhancements that plagued the DVD. Some of the matte work remains transparent and obvious as, indeed, it must have in 1956. What can I tell you? Audiences were more forgiving of SFX back then.
Paramount’s restoration effort is complete and breath-taking. The audio has equally received an impressive upgrade in 5.1 DTS with a refined sonic quality, particularly in Elmer Bernstein’s underscore and effects that are spatially satisfying. As for dialogue, it’s crisp and clean. Extras are another reason to celebrate: a brand new 75 minute ‘making of’ takes an intimate look at the larger-than-life figures of DeMille and Heston with fascinating back stories to tell. We also get the six part ‘documentary’ that accompanied the DVD, an audio commentary and theatrical trailer – plus DeMille’s 1923 silent version. The elements on this earlier film are badly worn. It’s still watchable, but just barely. Finally, Paramount has fleshed out the extras in flashy collectible packaging. The case parts down the middle – just like the Red Sea – revealing two faux stone tablets housing five discs – three Blu-ray and two DVD. We get a handsome booklet brimming with factoid info and original art and stills, and reproductions of telegrams from Paramount and DeMille, plus costume design inserts. Wow! What a class act! Bottom line: Paramount Home Video has outdone themselves on this presentation. As such, The Ten Commandments on Blu-ray remains a ‘must have’ for every film lover! “Behold, His mighty hand!” – indeed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)