“A city is built of brick, Pharaoh. The strong make many, the starving make few. The dead make none. So much for accusations,” says Moses to Sethi.
One of the first big-name film directors was Cecil B. DeMille, who is perhaps best known for his religious epics (such as the 1926 version of The King of Kings, The Sign of the Cross, and Samson and Delilah). One of his silent masterpieces was his 1923 film The Ten Commandments, which contained a depiction of the Biblical exodus as well as a modern tale revolving around two brothers and their views on the Ten Commandments. More than 30 years later, DeMille would return to the exodus story and expand the depiction of the life of Moses in what would become (at that time) the most expensive film ever made. I first saw DeMille’s remake of The Ten Commandments on the big screen 12 years ago at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of a mini-DeMille retrospective and enjoyed it very much. I got to see it a second time on the big screen a few months ago courtesy of NCM Fathom and Turner Classic Movies (that presentation was the restored roadshow version, complete with the DeMille intro, overture, intermission, and exit music), and it was a joy to watch once again. This review of The Ten Commandments is my entry in the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini.
1956’s The Ten Commandments follows Moses, the son of a Hebrew slave in ancient Egypt raised by the Pharaoh’s sister, as he learns of his true heritage, is banished to the desert wilderness, then returns to Egypt to convince the Pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves. DeMille assembled a terrific ensemble that includes Charlton Heston (as Moses), Yul Brynner (as Rameses II), Anne Baxter (as Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (as Dathan), Yvonne DeCarlo (as Sephora), Debra Paget (as Lilia), John Derek (as Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (as Sethi), Nina Foch (as Bithiah), Martha Scott (as Yoshebel), Judith Anderson (as Memnet), Vincent Price (as Baka), John Carradine (as Aaron), Olive Deering (as Miriam), Henry Wilcoxon (as Pentaur), and Eduard Franz (as Jethro). Heston gives a commanding performance as the former prince of Egypt-turned-messenger of the god of Abraham. Brynner is also strong as Moses’ rival for the throne and eventual Pharaoh, as is Baxter as the throne princess who loves Moses but must marry Rameses II once he becomes Pharaoh. The rest of the cast, including Robinson, Derek, Paget, Hardwicke, Anderson, and, of course, DeCarlo shine as well.
The screenplay by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Fredric M. Frank is quite thorough in telling the story of Moses, having been based on Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Pillar of Fire by J.H. Ingraham, On Eagle’s Wings by A.E. Southon, and the Holy Scriptures (aka the Bible). Loyal Griggs’ Oscar-nominated cinematography offers a wonderfully diverse color palette, and the Oscar-nominated production design by Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler, Albert Nozaki, Sam Comer, and Ray Moyer spectacularly recreates Ancient Egypt with many massive sets (the Pharaoh’s palace was my favorite). The Oscar-nominated costume designs by Edith Head, Ralph Jester, John Jensen, Dorothy Jeakins, and Arnold Friberg are top-notch, as is Anne Bauchens’ Oscar-nominated editing. John P. Fulton’s Oscar-winning special effects still hold up well after 60 years (the parting of the Red Sea is still one of the greatest special effects of all time). Elmer Bernstein wrote an epic score that is rich with memorable motifs and dramatic tension. Best Picture Oscar nominee The Ten Commandments delivers a grand spectacle on an epic scale, earned seven Oscar nods (including Best Sound Recording), was a big box office hit, and has become an undeniable film classic.