There is another 1001-movies blogger I’m an occasional pen-pal with, down in Miami. He’s about 15-20 films ahead of me, and has reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments already; I reread it in advance of my own review here, and there’s a phrase he uses that sums up my perspective on this film going in: “this movie has played its role in history and I’m only here to look at it.”
It’s rather a meal of a film, let’s be honest. It’s nearly four hours long, it’s enormously ambitious in its look and approach, it’s got some of the most iconic images in film history, and it’s an interpretation of one of the major founding stories for one of the major world religions. (Speaking of which: I think we can dispense with my usual bare-bones plot sum-up.) Personally, it’s also something that remember growing up and seeing on TV as a special broadcast every Easter. There are some bits I remembered from when I casually watched as a child (and had much the same reaction), but this is the first time I consciously remember watching the whole thing all the way through. I was bracing myself, wondering whether I’d have more of an appreciation for it or if it would feel like a bit of a slog.
And….I feel much as I did as a kid. There are some bits that were creatively impressive, some special effects that I could tell were quite advanced, and some moments from some performances that were cute and clever. But most of it had an air of red-blooded, corn-fed American earnestness, this…50’s-ness which, then as now, repelled me. The most vivid memory I have of any of those early viewings was a moment when Moses (Charlton Heston) has been initially exiled from Egypt and is first taken in by the Bedouin shepherd Jethro (Edouard Franz) and his daughters, and is being tended to by Jethro and eldest daughter Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo). After a bit of talk about where Moses has come from, who Jethro is and what the land is like, and who Sephora is, Moses takes it all in for a moment, and then gazes into the middle distance and intones, “I shall dwell in this land.” On the screen, Jethro and Sephora give each other a significant look – but ten-year-old me in front of the TV just scrunched up her face and thought, “who the heck talks like that?”
There are a handful of other moments like that, which I completely understand DeMille couldn’t resist throwing in – but which ring corny and staged with me. The dippy sight gag of a bunch of kids trying to coax a stubborn mule into moving during the big Exit From Egypt scene. Or Moses’ mother Bithiah (Nina Foch), who’s thrown her lot in with the Hebrews, stopping to offer a ride to an elderly man during the Exodus – and the whole scene grinding to a halt so he can whisper out some vaguely Biblical quote about how he’s been “poured out into the ground like water”. Or how the carousing the Israelites do around the golden calf was just this shy of vaguely naughty – lots of waving-arms dancing done by women in artfully draped tunics, laughing men cheerfully raising goblets, maybe a man catching a woman around the waist before she playfully scoots away – a lot of movement, but nothing really happening that would offend anyone.
I grant that this is very much a personal reaction, though, and empirically I can respect the skill involved here. I’m actually surprised not to remember the burning-bush sequence, because the look of that struck me most this time; DeMille chose not to somehow recreate a bush that was literally “burning”, so there are no super-imposed flames or strategically-located fires around the bush. Instead, it’s depicted as being surrounded by a kaleidoscopic orb of rippling light – something that a prehistoric Bedouin would absolutely interpret as “burning”, but different enough that you know that something altogether different is going on. The carving of the Ten Commandments is a bit more conventionally dramatic, with curling shafts of lighting engraving the writing into the side of a cliff; other special-effects marvels, like the Parting of the Red Sea or the Plagues (we only see about four) are also more literal-minded (albeit still special-effects marvels). The Burning Bush was something that surprised me both on a technical and emotional level.
And, I mean, the performances are fine. I really liked the relationship between the Pharaoh Seti (Ian Keith), Moses’ adoptive sort-of-father, and Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess who’s hot for Moses but has been promised to whoever will be the next pharaoh. While Moses and his adoptive brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) keep trying to outdo each other and impress Seti, that leaves Nefretiri and Seti to bond; there’s a whole little thing going on with them, with shared in-jokes, quips and asides, and even an ongoing board game rivalry. It’s relaxed alongside Moses’ pompous intonations or Rameses’ posturing. I missed Seti when he died – partly because he seemed more fleshed-out, but also partly because this meant more of Moses and Rameses and I wasn’t interested in that.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t DeMille’s first outing with the Ten Commandments. He also made a silent adaptation nearly 30 years earlier; that version pairs a much shorter retelling of Moses’ story with a contemporary tale, depicting four different peoples’ attempts to follow God’s law. DeMille seemed determined to connect the dots for audiences, driving home the relevance of the story to the present – and did so with this version as well. There is a prologue address by Cecil B. DeMille himself, during which he speaks of some of the source material used for the script – but also implies the tale has some contemporary parallels. “Are men the property of the state,” he asks, “or are they free souls under God?….This same battle continues in the world today.” No doubt DeMille is referring to the then-new rivalry between the United States and Communist-controlled USSR, suggesting that the Soviets are no better than the cruel Rameses and that us God-fearing Americans are in the right.
Ultimately, I think that this is what I was picking up on as a child – DeMille was so determined to Seem Relevant that his tale verged into preaching, and I’ve always been able to pick up on that. It’s gorgeous and technically innovative, but it’s still preaching instead of simply storytelling.