US Release Date: 10-05-1956
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
- Charlton Heston, as
- Yul Brynner, as
- Anne Baxter, as
- Edward G. Robinson, as
- Yvonne De Carlo, as
- Debra Paget, as
- John Derek, as
- Cedric Hardwicke, as
- Nina Foch, as
- Martha Scott, as
- Judith Anderson, as
- Vincent Price, as
- John Carradine, as
- H.B. Warner as
Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments is probably the most famous and popular of all the many Biblical movie epics that were made during the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties. Old-time director Cecil B. DeMille was so enamored of the story of Moses that he made the movie twice. The first time was a silent movie made way back in 1923. This version would be his last, and most famous, motion picture.
DeMille created both a timeless classic filled with pageantry, spectacle and a cast of thousands as well as a laughable campfest. It all depends on your point of view. At any rate, although it is certainly meant to carry an aura of reverence, it definitely comes across as a Hollywood interpretation of this most famous story from the Old Testament. What makes it work is the utter seriousness with which the actors deliver their stilted dialogue and the sheer massive scale of it all. And to be honest, the special effects have held up quite well over the decades. Only a handful of movies made before 1960 still get primetime network presentations and The Ten Commandments is one of them.
Charlton Heston has received plenty of ridicule over the years for his holier-than-thou performance. I say let's cut the guy some slack. He was playing Moses after all. Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter give the two campiest performances. As Rameses he stomps around with a perpetual scowl on his face and as Nefretiri she delivers every line with such showy melodrama that it is as if Norma Desmond were playing the part.
This movie is filled with iconic moments. There is the burning bush, the amazing shot of the thousands of Hebrews setting out for freedom, the debauchery in the desert when Moses goes up to receive the Ten Commandments, and of course the parting of the Red Sea. All of this is underscored by the mellifluous voice of the director himself as narrator.
Cecil B. DeMille directed the very first feature length movie ever made in Hollywood. It was called The Squaw Man and was released in 1914. Forty-two years later he was still at it, having seen such technical advances as sound, technicolor and wide-screen and having conquered them all, while still maintaining a silent movie director's visual eye, in this quintessential epic motion picture.
Anne Baxter and Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
Yes Patrick, this movie has some of the most famous over-acting scenes in film history. Every time I watch this movie I can hear Anne Baxter saying 'Moses' for days. She says 'Moses' in a lusty voice and 'Moses' out of desperation. Heston's 'Let my people go' may be straight out of the Bible, but it is delivered a bit over-the-top as well.
What I have always loved about The Ten Commandments is the grand scale in which ancient Egypt is portrayed. Having first seen this movie as a child it perked my interest in Egyptian history. Much to my wife's dismay, I could watch a Discovery Channel show on ancient Egypt all day.
The scene where Moses, as Pharaoh's son, pulls back the curtain to reveal the city and monuments that he has had built is a brilliantly filmed shot. It covers the entire wide-screen. I can only imagine how impressive it would be on a full sized movie theatre screen.
Heston's charm has never appealed to me. He is always so damn stiff in his acting. The rest of the cast is famous but none stand out. I can't watch Edward G. Robinson without picturing Billy Crystal imitating him with the line 'Where's your people now, see.'
DeMille was a great director in the same way that James Cameron is a great director. They do action and spectacle better than anyone, but they need help when it comes to directing actors.
Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments.
Patrick is right when he says, "DeMille created both a timeless classic filled with pageantry, spectacle and a cast of thousands as well as a laughable campfest. It all depends upon your point of view." I remember watching this movie many times as a child when I was definitely caught up in the spectacle of it all. Now however, having watched it for the first time in many, many years, I couldn't get over the campy melodrama of it all.
There are many moments of humor masquerading as high drama that I never noticed as a child. Moses sees the burning bush on top of the mountain from way down below as if it's right above him and yet it takes five minutes of shots of him slowly climbing the mountain and entering an area surrounded by rocks before he actually gets to the bush. Damn, he's got good eyes. And later, after he gets Pharaoh to release the Hebrews, you'd think they'd be grateful, but every time the slightest thing goes wrong on the trip, they instantly cry out, "Stone Moses! Stone Moses!" "The Egyptians are after us!" "Stone Moses!" "How are we going to get across the sea?" "Stone Moses!" "The sun is too hot!" "Stone Moses!" "I stubbed my toe" "Stone Moses!" How fickle are these people? When Moses goes up the mountain to get the Ten Commandments, he's up there for forty days and forty nights. Compared to the 400 years of enslavement, that's nothing, but somehow that's all it takes for these once civilized people to suddenly turn into residents of Saddam and Gomorrah. These are supposed to be God's chosen people and all it takes for them to turn into the worst bunch of sinners is a little boredom? It also takes forty years of wandering the wilderness for Moses to lead his people to the land of Milk and Honey. This incredibly long amount of time is do doubt due to how slow Moses walks after becoming a prophet. For the first half of the film while he's a prince, he bounds around with endless energy, yet as soon as he hears the word of God, it takes him at least 30 seconds to take a single step.
With its nearly four-hour running time, this movie really is an old school epic of biblical proportions. Obviously DeMille wanted to get as much of the pageantry as he could up on screen, but it's much too much. There's an hour's worth of material that could be trimmed without losing one line of dialogue. You truly need the patience of a saint to sit through this whole movie in one go. And the reward for doing so just isn't worth it.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1956)