#296. The Ten Commandments (1956)

Director Cecil B. DeMille had a fucking heart attack while filming The Ten Commandments, a three-hour Bible epic with thousands of extras, state-of-the-art special effects, and ended up generating some of the most enduring iconography in the history of cinema; so the question of whether I liked it or not hardly seems to matter. It’s like asking a reader if they enjoyed the Bible.

            Who cares?

This is something of a hot take and I can imagine myself having to apologize for the shortsightedness of it, but here’s my attitude: you read the Bible to get in touch with your faith, your culture or your history, and if you happen to see and appreciate its poetry, its beauty, well then good for you. But the Bible a literary monument whose power resides almost less in what it contains than in what it represents (far fewer people have read the Bible than have claimed to live by it).

            The same, I think, might be said of The Ten Commandments—which I did kind of enjoy, incidentally, since, like a commercially-sculpted James Cameron movie, Ten Commandments seems to carefully cover a base for every type of audience: it’s got romance, action, comedy, children, a revenge plot, espionage, moral fortitude. It’s hard not to be swept up in its cadence, given how it zig-zags across so many story elements and employs so much spectacle and color.

            But what a modern viewer is probably most focused on is the “meta” element of appreciating how famous and influential this movie has been over the past 70 years of Americana.

            And DeMille wanted even his contemporaries to watch this film with as much a mind toward the story as toward its scope and scale.

            The Ten Commandments came out at a time when television was threatening the movie industry. TV entertainment was cheap (both to consume and produce), the flow of it was new, varied, family-friendly and unending, and–perhaps most importantly–people didn’t have to leave their homes to enjoy it.

            The natural counterpunch from Hollywood, then, was to start giving moveigoers an experience that they couldn’t have in their living room.

            Which comes down to size, basically. Spectacle.

            We’ve seen that same fight manifesting again over the past ten years, as Hollywood contends with the allure of streaming platforms, in things like the resurgence of Star Wars and, more pointedly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe—especially the Avengers films in which there’s literally too much going on in in some shots for a viewer to appreciate on a small screen. It’s increasingly common that people have home theaters to rival whatever they might get out of the casual moviegoing experience, but these modern big-ticket movies generate such a pop-culture sensation, so much deliberate controversy surrounding plot points and casting choices and representation, that it feels almost like you’re missing out on a huge social event by waiting until it’s available on streaming.

            Anyway: my point is that The Ten Commandments, like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance before it and, to some degree, producer David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, is built to dazzle an audience. And that Dazzle component in a movie, more often than not, exists at odds with the story.

            Hence, the “meta” factor that risks alientating the audience.

            Just as I felt with Oklahoma! that there was a distracting meta-ness in the way that these great actors, celebrated for their versatility, were playing these chintzy aw-shucks roles and singing showtunes, there’s a similar meta-ness in the sight of Charleton Heston, a Hollywood heartthrob, playing an octogenarian who rescues the Israelites from Egypt.

            Everyone is doing a good job here, but they’re also inhabiting characters who already exist in our minds and whose influence on Western civilization is incalculable.

            When Leonardo Di Caprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, or Rene Zellwigger plays Judy Garland, there’s a way in which the actor’s present-day star power is rival to (or greater than) the present-day star power of the person they’re portraying. So it feels like, “OK, the actor here is channeling their subject, they’re trying to get into that person’s headspace.”

            A giant of today imitating a giant of yesterday.

            It’s not a white guy with a fake beard saying, “I am Moses!”

            There’s something of a high school stage production to it, in that sense.

            Something distractingly cute about the whole thing. Harmless.

After watching this movie I read a chunk of Exodus (the book of the Bible on which Ten Commandments is based) out of the King James Bible, which is the most commonly-read version, and then, when I began to struggle, switched over to the New Living Translation, which is a re-telling of the Bible in a more modern prose style.

            The verdict: Exodus is a weird story, and The Ten Commandments, accordingly, is a pretty bare-bones adaptation. It leaves a lotta stuff out.

            But I think the omissions are necessary.

            DeMille is clear about saying, in the film’s opening, that he’s consulting other texts as the film’s source material, ancient and modern, although the narrative is obviously drawn (broadly) from the Old Testament.

            This frees him up a little.

            I don’t mean to be blasphemous, and I want to say again that the whole purpose of this Project is to keep track of what I’m learning as I’m learning it and how it all strikes me.

            Diary-type shit.

            And what struck me most about the NLT version of Exodus is how God tells the 80-year-old Moses that the wailing of the Israelites’ mutli-generational suffering has finally reached his ear (after what delay?) and, OK, here’s how they’re gonna movie forward to straighten things out: I’m gonna make you threaten the Pharaoh with a plague unless he frees the Israelites, but then I’m gonna have him say no and refuse to free you guys, then I’m gonna have you threaten him again, and then I’m gonna “harden his heart” so that he refuses to free you again

            On and on!

            And meanwhile the Pharaoh will become more cruel with his slaves, and scores of animals and children will die—all so that the Pharaoh and his people (most of whom the Lord will then abruptly drown) can see, along with the worshipful Israelites, the spectacle of His power.

            When the Israelites are finally free, and made to wander the desert, they’re told to employ all sorts of culinary rituals to appease Him…

            It’s just an odd story, though admittedly very inventive and powerful. I guess my biggest issue at the end of it is that the Lord is made to seem like he’s just out here entertaining Himself rather than really trying to help anybody.

            Then there’s the question of why He allowed the Israelites to be enslaved to begin with if he loved them so much.

            Well, comes the answer, He did it so that the story would endure for generations and make clear to future sufferers that God works in mysterious but loving ways.


            What it illuminated for me, with respect to the movie, is that one of DeMille’s masterful moves, in terms of dramatizing the events, is to reduce the role of God.

            He’s got big Hollywood personalities like Charleton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter and Edward G. Robinson fill the screen and give flesh and depth to otherwise stale and one-dimensional characters who, because of their one-dimensionality on the page, make God look more like a fiendish puppeteer than, say, an intelligent entity who’s overseeing the very tricky issues of man’s free will.

Personal Takeaway: DeMille’s Obsession

Cecil B. DeMille

Apart from feeling compelled to acknowledge, with a mournful note, that this is only the third appearance of Edward G. Robinson on the List, following Little Caesar and Double Indemnity, I don’t have much to say about The Ten Commandments except that I’m glad to’ve seen it and that I feel like I finally get why it was such a big deal. Otherwise, I’m just striking the bell I struck over Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane and Fantasia and Wizard of Oz: this movie has played its role in history and I’m only here to look at it.

            And what most captures my attention when I get to pondering the movie is the heroic dedication and craftsmanship of Cecil B. De Mille, who worked on this movie for five years and almost died for it. He travelled the world for it, guided a cast of thousands, oversaw costumes and sets and consulted historical work.

            The Ten Commandments is one of the great visionary monuments of the 20th century.

            I watched it on a 50th anniversty DVD box set that came out in like 2006 and, to give you a small idea of how far home entratainment has come in the past fifteen years, the movie’s runtime couldn’t fit on a single disk. It spans across two.     

            But that second disc is also loaded with a six-part documentary about De Mille, and about the film’s production, and features among its interviewees a be-wigged Charleton Heston, the man who played Ramses’s son, and De Mille’s granddaughter, who spent some time on the set as a child, and who makes her grandfather sound like a man greater than the subjects of his movie.

            The constant gentle referencing to his “perfectionism” sounds like a whitewashing of his propensity for tantrums. Heston recounts with a smile some anecdote of how De Mille, bothered by the chatting of two distant extras before a scene (young women), called them up with his bullhorn and had them broadcast to the hundreds of people on set what they were discussing that was so much more interesting than the production of this movie.

            He was trying to humiliate them, in other words.

            Fortunately the young woman who took the bullhorn said, “We were wondering when that bald-headed son of a bitch with the bullhorn is gonna call for lunch.”

            Everybody laughed and De Mille, to his credit, took the bullhorn back from her, directed it to the legions gathered before his mount, and called for lunch.


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