A Movie a Day: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Every film you have not seen is a new film.

That is my motto, those are the words I live by. It does not matter if the film is seventy years old, if you have not seen it is a new film to you because you have not yet experienced the magic of the work.

This column will be 365 articles focusing on a single film each day. It is my hope to entertain, as well as enlighten, perhaps even to educate, but more, if you have not seen the film, perhaps I can get you to see it. I will explore great films, good films, bad films and films that had no business being made.

It is special to me as the film that forever hooked me on movies, and I still appreciate the work that went into the picture, its massive size and scope. Though the script is hokey and often terrible, the actors, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner especially rise above it all to deliver powerful performances, and Cecil B. DeMille brings a near miraculous epic scale to the film that cannot be ignored.

When they say they do not make them like this anymore, this is what they mean. No computer effects, no CGI sets or characters, they went to Egypt and built these sets, Heston trod the same ground as Moses did, and all of that is up on the screen. The costumes, sets, exterior shots, interior shots, everything within the film was created from scratch, and it gives the film a different sort of physicality than todays epics, which owe much of their existence and size to green screen and effects.

When DeMille won the Oscar for Best Picture for The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) perhaps the worst film to ever win the Best Picture award, he had the power and clout to make anything he wanted, and what he wanted was to remake his 1923 film The Ten Commandments (1923) but this time he wanted to devote the entire film to the life of Moses, from the bull rushes to his death. Beginning his research in 1952, he worked for two years on the details of Moses life, patiently for a script, scouting locations in the Middle East, and casting the film. Though he wanted William Boyd, best known to movie goers as Hopalong Cassidy for the part of Moses, the actor refused, feeling his connection to the western character would impact the film in a negative manner. After seeing Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, and the remarkable resemblance Charlton Heston has to the stature, DeMille cast the twenty six year old in the role of his career. Yul Brynner was cast as Rameses, the arrogant Pharoh, after DeMille saw the actors powerful performance as the King of Siam in the Broadway musical The King and I. Many of the other actors were part of the unofficial Demille company whom had worked with the director through the years.

At more than four hours, the film is a true movie event and became one of the top grossing films of all time despite the fact theatres could show it less because of the massive running time.

The film tells the sprawling story of Moses, the lawgiver, who after being pulled from the bull rushes by Egyptian royalty, is raised as one of them, despite being a Hebrew. After becoming a prince of Egypt and favored by the Seti the Pharoh it is discovered he is Hebrew, which even Moses did not know and he is banished from Egypt. God makes himself known to Moses as a burning bush and speaks to him, requesting he return to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves. In doing so he makes a ferocious enemy of Rameses, who hated him anyway and it becomes a tug of war to see who blinks. When the first born of Egypt is killed through the night by the hand of God, the slaves are set free and in an extraordinary scene with thousands of extras, Moses leads his people to freedom.

This leads to the film’s most famous scene. Trapped against the sea, Pharoh’s chariots racing towards them, God holds them back with a pillar of fire. Behind Moses the sea rages, black clouds gather, there is an ominous feeling in the air. Taunted that he has led them to death, Moses stands on a rock over the sea and roars, “Behold his mighty hand!” and the churning sea opens, becoming two massive walls of water on either side, a path down the middle. The Hebrews cross, as Rameses is stunned, not quite believing what he sees, but the moment the fire dies, he orders his army to follow them and kill them all, but to bring Moses to him. Into the sea they race, gaining on the Hebrews. But again God is on the side of the Hebrews and the walls coming crashing down on the Egyptians killing the entire army, leading the powerful Pharoh to exclaim, “His god is God”.

Charlton Heston is majestic and regal as Moses, perfect as the leader who takes the slaves out of Egypt. Coming down from Sanaii after speaking to God his beard is now streaked grey, his eyes burn with greater purpose. It is a brilliant performance, easily among the best of his career, but incredibly he was not nominated for the film. Neither was the director, who believed this was his greatest film, and frankly was right. Demille was robbed of a nomination given what he assembled with this massive achievement, all of it anchored by the towering performance of Heston.

Sure there is corn in the film, the dialogue is often stupid, “Oh Moses, you stubborn, adorable fool” or Edward G. Robinson chewing scenery as the rat like Dathan, betraying his own people for wealth. The pillar of fire does not quite impress as it is so obviously a cartoon, but the effect of the Red Sea is a knockout. The carving of the tablets is equally impressive as fire balls explode into the rock to carve the law to be taken to the people by Moses. Often the film is overly melodramatic when it does not need to to be, but it is never anything less than great fun, and sometimes downright awe inspiring.

I saw it at eleven, and was astounded.

A Movie a Day: Giant (1956)