"Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of men for all time." ~ Sethi
"You let Moses kill my son. No god can bring him back. What have you done to Moses? How did he die? Did he cry for mercy when you tortured him? Bring me to his body! I want to see it, Rameses! I want to see it!" ~ Nefretiri
"Here is your king's scepter, and here is your kingdom, with the scorpion, the cobra, and the lizard for subjects. Free them, if you will. Leave the Hebrews to me." ~~ Rameses
"Does your god live on this mountain?" ~~Moses
"Sinai is His high place, His temple."~ Sephora
"If this god is God, he would live on every mountain, in every valley. He would not be the god of Israel or Ishmael alone, but of all men." ~ Moses
"Now see here, Moses, you dirty rat, you and I are going to take a road trip down to Thebes, see? And only one of us is coming back, and it ain't gonna be you, see?" ~ Edward G. Robinson, going off script
"Damn it, Edward, what was I thinking, hiring a guy who's spent his career playing gangsters?" Cecil B. DeMille
The Ten Commandments, aka Cecil B. DeMille's crowning achievement. The director made a career out of gigantic epics on film, using casts of thousands of people. He made a silent version of the familiar Biblical Exodus in the 1920s, and revisited the genre once again for the 1956 epic classic starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. Aside from the proverbial cast of thousands, he also enlisted a primary cast of actors from a wide range of backgrounds, with the odd miscasting. His crew paid attention to a multitude of details in this film that evokes ancient Egypt in a grand spectacle. It was nominated for multiple Oscars, rightfully winning for special effects, along with other awards at the time, and has retained its classic status, aired yearly at the Easter and Passover season. At least it seems to make sense to air it this time of year, unlike, oh, the yearly airings of The Sound Of Music at Christmas. Memo to the networks: caterwauling nuns have nothing to do with Christmas!
DeMille introduces and narrates his story, drawing us back in time to the bondage of the Hebrews in Egypt and the salvation of one, an infant who ends up in the house of Pharoah, saved from the Nile by a daughter of Pharoah, Bithiah (Nina Foch, playing both the young and older versions of the character). Years later, her son is Prince Moses (Heston), a celebrated hero of the Egyptian people, treated like a son by his uncle, Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), lusted after by Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), and resented by his cousin Rameses (Brynner). He has no idea of his true origins, simply going through life winning military victories, securing peace with those who opposed himself, and covering himself with glory, all in the service of his king.
Meanwhile the Hebrew people are busy being worked to the grindstone by their overseers, such as Baka (Vincent Price, menacing his way through the film like he usually did), or Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), a weasel of weasels. And that's insulting weasels. Those under their heel include the young Joshua (John Derek), a fearless and restless stonecutter, who yearns for the day he can put down his chisel, pick up a sword, and kick some Egyptian butt.
Rameses being Rameses, he tries to thwart the seeming inevitable rise of Moses to the throne. Moses finds himself supremely lost in the company of the self absorbed Nefretiri when he has the time. Sethi worries about rumours of a deliverer who will lead the slaves out of Egypt. And the audience looks at their watches right about now wondering how long it'll take to get to the Red Sea. If you haven't by chance ever seen this one (which, I'll admit, is odd), I should tell you it's a really, really, really, really, really long film. You could bake Peking Duck in the time this film takes.
Moses learns the truth about himself, as of course he must (otherwise, what would be the point to the story?). Rameses drives him off into exile, Moses wanders through the desert, and eventually fate will take a hand and lead the two rivals back into a confrontation. All the while Edward G. Robinson lurks around, acting as if he's looking for a tommy gun (the man did play a lot of mobsters, you know).
DeMille was the gold standard of epic movie making. Take a look at just some of his resume: Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show On Earth, Union Pacific, Unconquered, and The Plainsman. He was skilled at managing huge casts and crews, though he had a reputation for perfectionism and something of a difficult nature. This was his last film, as it took a toll on his health (he suffered a heart attack during filming and was back within a week on set). He filmed on location in Egypt and the Sinai, and the sets constructed by his crews for the film were massive. The logistics alone in managing everything boggles the mind. His crew outdid themselves in the building of the sets, the lavish attention to detail of costuming, makeup, and props. As a filmmaker, DeMille had an innate understanding of how to film thousands in one scene, and in the next to use intimate lighting for a moment between two characters. And though the film is long, it doesn't drag (except when we have a really, really, really annoying child actor, but more on that in a bit). DeMille takes the story that comes to us from a committee of screenwriters, and runs with it in a way that does justice to the story, as if he knew this was his last go around behind the camera. The visual effects won the Oscar, and they do justice with the techniques available to them at the time, particularly in the Red Sea sequence, or the arrival of the last plague of Egypt, coming in the form of a mist in the night. One highlight among the crew: the music composed by Elmer Bernstein, who was early in his career at the time, and delivered one of his best, a majestic, soaring score filled with ethnic instruments and grand themes.
The cast is up and down as we go along. Let's start with some of the supporting characters. Vincent Price is somewhat miscast, but he's not around for long. Unfortunately he spent much of his career in horror films, so we the audience still associate him as such. At least his character's a sleazeball. His counterpart in all this, Edward G. Robinson, is an even bigger miscast. I like him a lot as an actor, but I've always found him a huge distraction as this character. I was so used to Robinson playing gangsters, and here he's playing a real creep, but I simply can't watch the film without expecting him to break out into the parlance of a New Jersey gun toting goon any moment. It's all the more distracting because the character sticks around through the whole film, constantly lurking about, sneering at everyone, throwing his weight around, scheming and plotting, and being a general prat willing to sell out his best friend if it'll get him an advantage. Come to think of it, Dathan would make a pretty good politician.
John Carradine and Olive Deering turn up as Moses' siblings Aaron and Miriam. They play the roles as stoic and earnest, meant to support their brother. We even get ourselves more than one love story through this film in the form of Joshua and Lilia (played by Debra Paget). John Derek plays Joshua as fierce at times, and perhaps too reckless, too willing to charge in without thinking. Yet as time goes on in the film (the Peking Duck ought to stewing in its own juices about now), his recklessness is tempered, and we see elements of the leader in his performance. Paget's cast in something of a quandary; her Lilia is a beauty, which tends to attract the attention of lecherous overlords (Price and Robinson, who- when they aren't busy carving up the brain of a mental patient or dropping a debtor off the side of a boat, outfitted with cement shoes- are both lusting after her). She plays the character as seemingly resigned to her fate, sacrificing herself for the man she actually loves, the stonecutter with the abs. One minor character, but whom I must mention. Eugene Mazzolla (who, you ask?) plays the son of Rameses and Nefretiri. I stand by my firm belief that this is the worst casting of a child actor of all time. He's horribly wooden and awkward and brings the movie to a crashing halt every single time he opens his mouth to speak. My thought when the kid finally bites the dust?
Cedric Hardwicke plays Sethi in a dignified way. Sethi is charming with Nefretiri, who is meant to be the Queen of Egypt upon his death. He favours Moses early on, seems to roll his eyes at the ambitions of his own son Rameses, which makes it all the more painful for him when the truth comes out. Nina Foch is one of the bigger surprises of the film, utterly sympathetic as Sethi's sister Bithiah, adoptive mother of Moses. She spends years hiding secrets, and yet we see her as the person who shapes so much of the man he is to become. Also sympathetic is Martha Scott playing the biological mother of Moses, making difficult decisions early in his life that speak to the character's love for him, and conveying an inner strength in the role.
The leading actors are what grounds the film, and each of them perform well in their roles. Yvonne DeCarlo plays Sephora, the woman who claims the heart of Moses (not literally, this is not a Saw movie) during his exile in the desert. She plays the character as steadfast and strong, with a faith that sustains her and an inner decency. Sephora is a character who puts the needs of others before herself, and a better match for Moses than the one we first see earlier in the film. Anne Baxter plays Nefretiri as the vamp you might expect her to be. She lusts for Moses, claims to love him even long after he's moved on with his life and gotten himself a decidedly gray beard. I'm not sure she does love him. I've always felt, watching this film, that Nefretiri is only in love with herself... and that's what makes the performance work. She's selfish, spoiled, and completely self absorbed, and Baxter conveys those qualities in an over the top kind of way.
Yul Brynner is magnificent and fierce as Rameses. There is an arrogance to the character, a disdain that exudes his every moment on screen. He feels no loyalty to the sort of brother he was raised with. His loyalties, ultimately, are to himself. He plays the role as a man of jealousy, ambition, and determination, driven to be immortalized in history, and yet consumed by that same ambition. Heston plays Moses as you might expect. As a young man we see a prince who still has a sense of fairness about him- he's willing to spare the life of a slave and to treat them decently. You wouldn't see that kind of consideration out of Rameses. As time goes on and he finds his destiny, and starts taking on the look of what you'd expect out of an Old Testament prophet, he brings weight to the role, and gravity that matches Brynner's performance.
The Ten Commandments remains a tradition in the decades since it was first released. It's one of the biggest box office successes of all time, adjusted for inflation, and it's a grand, sweeping spectacle retelling of the Biblical epic. It confronts the audience with the price of ambition, the meaning of freedom, and the struggle for a better life. It deserves its status as a classic. Even if Edward G. "Mugsy" Robinson doesn't get a chance to tote a tommy gun this time out.