Monday, April 18, 2011

The Ten Commandments (1956): A Review


So Let It Be Written, So Let It Be Seen...

It is now an annual television event: the screening of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments around Easter, and here is where people tend to get confused.  No matter how often I tell them, The Ten Commandments is not an Easter movie.  It has nothing to do with the Resurrection.  It is a Passover movie because it is about the Israelites leaving Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Granted, the film is often shown around Easter probably due to the fact that Easter and Passover tend to fall around the same time, similar to how more than likely what Christians call The Last Supper was really Christ celebrating a seder with his disciples.  Cecil B. DeMille ended his career with a remake of his own The Ten Commandments, and it captured everything about his style of filmmaking: a rousing spectacle with a grand canvas to which to tell its massive story.  However, upon watching the film, we can appreciate a far richer and deeper story than DeMille is usually given credit for.

The story of The Ten Commandments is a simple one and should be known to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Scripture.  Taking from the Book of Exodus, it is the story of Moses (Charlton Heston).  Brought up in the Court of Pharoah Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) as the son of his sister Bithiah (Nina Foch), this Prince of Egypt seems the favorite to take the throne.  He also cares more about the Hebrew slaves than his Egyptian brethren, but not enough to make them free.

He also discovers later that he is really Hebrew and a slave.  This makes no difference to Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the Egyptian princess who must marry the future Pharoah, but it makes a great deal of difference to Rameses (Yul Brynner), son of Sethi who has a rivalry with Moses.  Moses kills the Master Builder Baka (Vincent Price) to save Joshua (John Derek), who in turn saved his love, the water girl Lilia (Deborah Paget) from Baka's attention and intentions.

Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who styles himself "Chief Hebrew Overseer", does not shrink from betraying his own people to curry Rameses' favor, and informs him of Baka's killer and his true identity.  Moses is discovered as a Hebrew, as Baka's murderer, and as a man who would free the Hebrews if he could.  He is expelled from Egypt, and after wandering in the desert finds refuge in the tent of Jethro (Eduard Franz).  Here, Moses also finds a wife, Jethro's daughter Sephora (Yvonne DeCarlo), and while troubled to know of the plight of his people, is content to live out his life as a shepherd with Jethro's tribe.

That is, until he hears the voice of God, calling him to go onto Egypt-land and tell old Pharoah, "Let my people go".  Rameses will not let his people go, and God in response sends plagues upon the land, including turning the Nile red with blood.  Still, Pharoah will not budge, until he issues a decree that the firstborn of Israel shall die.

In truth, Pharoah has brought about the final plague upon his own nation, and it is the firstborn of Egypt that dies, up to Rameses' only son.  Filled with fury and hurt, at first he finally relents and emancipates the Israelites, but on the urging of Nefretiri, decides to go after the Hebrews and kill them all.  Facing down the mighty Egyptian army, God delivers His Chosen People in one of the most spectacular moments in film history.  With the Hebrews safely away in Sinai, they still lose faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, descending into an orgy, until Moses comes down with The Ten Commandments, and he leads them to the Promised Land, though he himself will not be able to cross over.

In retrospect, The Ten Commandments is more than a Biblical epic.  None other than director DeMille introduces the central theme of the film in a rare on-screen introduction to the film: whether man ought to be ruled by God's Law or the whim of a dictator, as he says.  "Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God?"  This theme about the nature of man, whether man is free or a slave, was a powerful one in the 1950's when the film was released.

America was in the early days of the Cold War, and in a vaguely subliminal way The Ten Commandments serves as am allegory of the struggle between the Soviet Union (Egypt) and the United States (the Chosen People).  You can even see it in the fact that Rameses is really godless, not unlike Communism, and who believes himself more powerful than God Himself.  In that sense, The Ten Commandments is very much the work of an auteur, one who put his own worldview in his films and drew parallels between the time of the film's setting and the time of the film's release. 

As much as there may be dismissal of DeMille as a director and The Ten Commandments as a whole as hokey or grandiose or overblown or having 'bad acting' or 'lousy directing', I find that The Ten Commandments holds an audience's attention and never lags.  This is an extraordinary feat given that the film lasts a whopping three-and-a-half hours.  The film itself moves at a steady pace from scene to scene, with some wonderful transitions between them.

Take for example when Bithiah first draws the infant Moses from the Nile; she gives him the name 'Moses', and starts to call him that, then it goes to the adult Moses arriving in triumph to Sethi's Court. 

As much as DeMille is derided for his films, some of the work within The Ten Commandments is quite daring for 1956.  For example, when Moses presents the Ethiopian King (Woody Strode) and his sister to Sethi, there is a suggestion of romance between the Princess and the Prince of Egypt much to the irritation of Nefretiri.  Even the idea of a white woman being jealous of a black woman's beauty is pretty radical in the pre-civil rights era, let alone hinting that a black woman could be attracted sexually to a white man and get away with it.

DeMille also has great moments of foreshadowing throughout the film: when Bithiah's slave Memnet (Judith Anderson) holds on to the infant's swaddling clothes, you know it will come up later, as well as when a dying slave looks on Moses and sorrowfully says that his dying wish was to look on the Deliverer just once, or when an Israelite child is given a small golden calf as part of the spoils of Egypt.  DeMille trusts his audience to not only know the story but to know enough to anticipate plot points to pop up later thanks to the hints he gives us.  However, I digress.

As I stated, in spite of the film's length The Ten Commandments never feels long or stretched out.  The credit to this goes to Cecil B. DeMille's directing, which is one where the acting and dialogue was entertaining.  Granted, at times it may seem today that the script (written by Aenas MacKenzie, Jessie L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank) may sound excessively eloquent, but the script does have great moments of wit.

Take the exchange between Sethi and Rameses before Moses appears at Court.  When Rameses states he will succeed his father, Sethi puts him down by telling him the best man to rule Egypt will be his successor.  "I owe that to my fathers, not to my sons", he tells him.  When the High Priest complains that Moses has taken the temple grain to give to the slaves, Sethi looks at him quickly and tells him, "You don't look any leaner".

DeMille allowed moments of levity to counter a story that at times is rather serious, even sad, in how man enslaves his fellow man based on his race or creed.  These themes that the film tackles were extremely relevant in the late 1950's when the Civil Rights movement was gaining steam with events such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, which took place a year after The Ten Commandments was released.  Even today, the idea that one group can subjugate another due to his/her background still resonate, and this may be one of the reasons why The Ten Commandments is still seen as a viewing tradition every year.   

The acting in The Ten Commandments is also by and large quite good.  In smaller roles, Hardwicke makes Sethi a good man but one still with the mindset that he can enslave people.  Price is effective as the villainous Baka, who does not shrink from allowing an old woman to be crushed to death to keep to schedule.  As much as comedians, and Chief Wiggum, may mock Robinson's interpretation of Dathan, he brings a menace to the role which granted, on occasion may be a bit campy, but effective whenever he is menacing Lilia.

Both Paget and Derek are strong as the young lovers Lilia and Joshua.  DeCarlo, in her first truly dramatic role, has a beautiful moment when she compares her people, and herself, with what Moses knew in Egypt and the Egyptian princess left behind.  Her monologue was delivered with great beauty and sincerity, a simply wonderful moment.

It is the three leads in the love triangle that should be singled out.  I will agree that Baxter was on occassion a bit over-the-top when playing Nefretiri, but given that she was playing the temptress we can give her a little leeway.  When she knows that she will have to lose Moses, the love of her life, her heartbreak and agony at Sethi's Court draws you into her misery. When she is spurned by Moses and she turns vengeful, Baxter brings an intensity and fury to Nefretiri.

Brynner has the presence and bearing of the haughty and arrogant Rameses, a monarch who will brook no disobedience and will oppress the Hebrews.  However, there is a slight break to Rameses when his son dies, and while Brynner does not have a grand scene here, he is able to show a slight heartache at the death of his heir.

Heston as Moses simply commands the screen.  He goes from the powerful Egyptian prince to the son of slaves through the shepherd and down the Deliverer, filled with zeal and righteous fury against both the Egyptians and the Israelites.  Throughout The Ten Commandments, Heston is a force of nature, bringing gravitas and presence to the screen.  He can show moments of tenderness, even humor and passion, but for the most part Moses is a heroic figure, and Heston shows Moses to be a man who could lead a nation to freedom.

Chief in the technical aspects of The Ten Commandments is the visual effects.  Even after all the advances in the fifty-plus years since its release, the parting of the Red Sea is still simply one of the greatest sequences in film history, a scene that has become one of iconic moments in cinema.   This is DeMille at the heights of his powers as a visual director and as a man who could give the public an overwhelming, powerful moment which still astounds today.

This is not to downplay other brilliant moments with visual effects: the turning of the Nile into blood, the Angel of Death arriving to take the life of the firstborn which is still effective in bringing a bit of terror to the film, and the creation of the actual commandments.  Visually, apart from the special effects, the sheer pageantry and spectacle of The Ten Commandments still overwhelms the viewer to where one becomes wrapped within the story.

Credit should also be given to the lavish costumes and sets in the film, which also serve to place one firmly within the world of ancient Egypt.  Also worth mentioning is Elmer Bernstein's grand score, with each character having a theme that cues the audience into what kind of character he/she is.  The music for the chase across the desert by the Egyptian army and the Israelite's flight across the Red Sea enhances the thrilling nature of the sequence. 

The Ten Commandments is not a film that broke new ground apart from the still sensational Parting of the Red Sea sequence.  Rather, it is a grand celebration of traditional filmmaking: in the epic scale of the story, the sets, the costumes, the dialogue, and even some of the acting.  It may seem to some rather grandiose, almost exaggerated, even camp.  However, I suspect DeMille was going for a sense of the epic in the film, to provide the viewer with an appropriate spectacle to such a grand story as that of Exodus.

In that case, Cecil B. DeMille's final film is a brilliant piece of film-making, giving the public what it wanted and holding up long after the cast and crew have passed from the stage.  It is a glorious epic, one that is proud to be grand, with a lavish scale perhaps never to be seen again.  The Ten Commandments will remain a thrilling, beloved film not because it is a film for the future, but because in its story of the birth of freedom, of whether man will be ruled by laws or by the whims of other men still resonate today, as does the faith-based aspect of the creation of a new nation.

The themes within The Ten Commandments: freedom from tyranny, of being true to your heritage, and of keeping true to the Laws of God as interpreted from the Bible, will always have people coming back to it.  The Ten Commandments is worth keeping. 


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