Lavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic. Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realizes his true origins. Few films have attained such an unqualified level of sheer excess. Over the course of almost four hours, the picture dramatizes the life of Moses. That the script treats this topic with only the most holy reverence, is never a question. A viewing is akin to a religious experience. However it presents its subject with such unrestrained grandiloquence that at times, the exhibition verges on pageantry. Nevertheless the drama is an unqualified success.
Two mesmerizing performances highlight the saga. Charlton Heston is front and center as the main character. He embodies every bit the part with honor and authority. Cecil B. DeMille had been responsible for his breakthrough as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth. As successful as that picture was, The Ten Commandments would prove to be much more iconic. “Let my people go!” he demands in one of his signature lines. Matching Heston for sheer magnetism as his arch nemesis is Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses II. He will not relent seemingly ending every proclamation with “So let it be written, so let it be done.” For Yul Brynner, 1956 was a phenomenal year. The Ten Commandments was sandwiched right between The King and I which had come out 3 months prior and Anastasia which was 2 months away. His subsequent Oscar win for playing the King of Siam overshadowed his work here. It was well deserved but Yul is quite extraordinary as the unrelenting pharaoh. This is Heston’s film but Brynner’s importance cannot be underestimated. He is a charismatic villain yet he engenders some sympathy. One would not expect a ruler who advocates slavery to have any redeeming qualities. A scene where he pleads with a statue of a falcon-headed Egyptian god to resurrect his firstborn son has an unexpected emotional nuance.
Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t know the meaning of moderation and thank goodness for that. Ornate sets, crowds of extras, special effects, it is a magnificent spectacle unlike any other. A director with a well tended ego, he even appears as himself at the beginning intro. Perhaps in an effort to silence critics of the liberties he took with the story, he freely admits that the narrative is compiled from sources that include other ancient texts. Occasionally the script veers into unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Perhaps chief among them, “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” These actual words are uttered by Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, a part enhanced by her lustily exaggerated dramatics. She’s joined by a host of solid supporting performances. These include blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson in a comeback role. He is memorably evil as Dathan, the unethical Israelite who betrays his own people. There’s sultry Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses’ loyal wife Sephora. This was before achieving TV fame as Lily Munster. Joshua, a young slave played by actor John Derek, later known for launching the career of wife Bo Derek, and Jewish slave girl Lilia, portrayed by 50s starlet Debra Paget. Even Vincent Price and John Carradine show up in minor roles.
The Ten Commandments is certainly extravagant. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point. All exterior shots were actually photographed on location in Egypt. It employs a cast of thousands with 70 speaking parts. In an era where they really had to hire all of those people you see in the background, this was truly an epic undertaking. No computer animation. This is all practical effects. In a surprising bit of restraint, only 3 of the 10 plagues are depicted: the water turning into blood, thunder & hail storm, and killing of the oldest sons. The latter features an Angel of Death imagined as a thick, green mist that creeps through the streets claiming the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons. As memorable as that was, it pales next to one of the greatest special effects sequences of all time that follows the Exodus of over 12,000 extra. The production culminates in Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the climatic scene. Even now it’s a visual feat to be admired. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards winning 1 for Best Visual Effects. To this day, the movie is the sixth most successful ever when adjusting for inflation. It remains the yardstick by which all biblical stories must be measured..
P.S. I’m well aware Ben-Hur is technically set during biblical times but it’s NOT a biblical story.