#209) The Ten Commandments (1956)

TheTenCommandments

#209) The Ten Commandments (1956)

OR “Moses Proposes”

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Written by Aeneas MacKenzie & Jesse Lasky Jr. & Jack Gariss & Fredric M. Frank. Adapted from “Prince of Egypt” by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, “Pillar of Fire” by Rev. J.H. Ingraham, and “On Eagle’s Wing” by Rev. A.E. Southon. Also the Bible.

Class of 1999

Even the trailer is epic!

The Plot: Moses (Charlton Heston) is a Hebrew slave whose mother (Martha Scott) gave him up to save him from death. He is adopted by Bithiah (Nina Foch) and raised in the palace of the Pharaoh (Cedric Hardwicke) alongside Rameses II (Yul Brynner). As an adult, Moses learns his true heritage and is banished to the desert. He encounters a burning bush and vows to use the word of God to free the Hebrews of Egypt. Rameses has ascended the throne and won’t let his people go that easily. Stay tuned at the end for a handy shortcut through the Red Sea.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it Cecil B. DeMille’s “most epic” film and praises the special effects.

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. It’s bloated and not without its flaws, but “The Ten Commandments” is iconic enough to earn a spot on the NFR. Their write-up correctly points out that the real star is the special effects, and while dated compared to today’s technology, they really do steal the show. “The Ten Commandments” is a textbook example of the kind of epic filmmaking Cecil B. DeMille was known for, as well as the type of spectacles Hollywood made throughout the ‘50s to lure people away from their newfangled televisions. It’s still a massively impressive feat of filmmaking.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the supporting cast, notably Yvonne “Lily” DeCarlo, and the screenwriters (Surprisingly, Hollywood never took notice of the writings of Philo and Josephus).

Wow, That’s Dated: With the exception of the chariot drivers (actually filmed on location in Egypt), no one in this movie is Egyptian. Brownface, lots of brownface.

Take a Shot: In the “Guffman/Godot” category: The actual 10 Commandments don’t show up until 3 ½ hours into the film. The title is spoken later, about 10 minutes before the end.

Seriously, Oscars?: The highest grossing film of 1956 and the biggest hit of Cecil B. DeMille’s career, “The Ten Commandments” received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It lost in six of those categories to either “The King and I” or Best Picture winner “Around the World in 80 Days”. The film did, however, take home the prize for Visual Effects, beating out fellow NFR entry “Forbidden Planet”.

Other notes

  • This film is a partial remake of DeMille’s 1923 “The Ten Commandments”. Weirdly, only the first part of that film is about Moses and the Exodus. The bulk of it is a modern day parable about the commandments. Huh.
  • An overture, an on-camera introduction by Cecil B. DeMille, and THEN the opening credits. When will this movie get started?
  • I’m not the first person to make this point, but the beginning of this movie is very similar to the beginning of “Superman”.
  • Yul Brynner with hair? Clearly this is a work of fiction.
  • Anne Baxter as Nefretiri is giving what may be the worst performance on this list. Take it down a notch, Eve. In fact, take it down several notches.
  • Moses was the Norma Rae of his time. ומןםמ
  • A mini-“Laura” reunion: among the ensemble are Judith Anderson and Vincent Price. Coincidentally, both films were added to the Registry in 1999.
  • It’s hard to watch Edward G. Robinson in a movie and not do a Chief Wiggum impression.
  • The juxtaposition from on location shooting and in-studio blue screen is really jarring.
  • He Who Has No Name? Voldemort? Clint Eastwood? Dewey Bunnell?
  • Many have claimed to be the voice of God in this film over the years. For my money, He sounds like Charlton Heston with the track slowed down.
  • Nice early morphing effect for the staff/snake. You earn that Oscar, John P. Fulton!
  • If Moses can’t sway Rameses, perhaps he should send over Deborah Kerr.
  • “They’ve been plagued by frogs, by lice, by flies, by sickness, by boils. We can’t show any of these on screen, but just take my word for it!”
  • Moses would have been an excellent meteorologist.
  • Just a reminder that Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson would work together again in “Soylent Green”.
  • The actual Exodus scene is astonishing to watch. There’s your cast of thousands.
  • That parting of the Red Sea is iconic for a reason. It still looks great.
  • My main question with the actual Ten Commandments is what their definition of “neighbor” is. Two of the commandments involve your neighbor. Do they mean the literal person next door? What kind of beef did God have with His neighbor? George Carlin answers all other questions I have about the commandments.

Legacy

  • “The Ten Commandments” continued the trend of biblical epics in Hollywood, most notably the other Charlton Heston convert movie: “Ben-Hur”.
  • Many other adaptations over the years, including the 1998 DreamWorks film “The Prince of Egypt” which tells the same story in literally half the time.
  • In another case of my film education crumbling around me, Edward G. Robinson never actually says “Where’s your Messiah now?” in this film. Billy Crystal coined the phrase while impersonating Robinson in his stand-up routine, and it stuck.
  • As a publicity stunt for the film, large replicas of the Ten Commandments were placed in major U.S. cities. Many of them stayed up for years and caused no public outcry whatsoever.
  • The shot of the slaves raising the obelisk was put to good use in “Naked Gun 2 ½”.
  • And of course, “History of the World Part I”.

Further Viewing: My favorite from the “recut trailer” craze of the mid ‘00s: biblical epic/teen comedy “10 Things I Hate About Commandments”.

4 thoughts on “#209) The Ten Commandments (1956)”

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