Movie Review: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Film: The Ten Commandments
Director: Cecile B. DeMille
Distributor: Paramount
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, and a cast of thousands

I don’t think I’ve had occasion to mention it, but I’m a big classic movie buff.  Watching movies is probably my favorite hobby and I almost always watch two or three each week.  After each film I rush to Netflix, Rotten Tomatoes, Flickchart, and my own personal database to add, rate, or rerate what I’ve just watched.  Older movies, from the dawn of cinema through the 1970s, tend to be my favorites.  I have a particularly fondness for epics and period pieces.

Cecile B. DeMille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments” is, therefore, right in my wheelhouse in many ways, yet I had never seen it until a few months ago.  Other than its director and stars, the only thing I knew about it was that it was about Moses.

The nearly 4-hour film opens with Cecile B. DeMille standing in front of a curtain speaking directly to the unseen audience.  He gives a rather stern introduction to the film in which he cites his sources.  The Bible, he notes, omits Moses’s early life between his birth and his flight from Egypt, so DeMille says he has filled the gap using information found in the writing of certain ancient historians.  This preliminary bibliography notwithstanding, it wasn’t long into the movie before I got the distinct impression that the imaginations of DeMille and the four credited screenwriters had more influence over the story than any two-thousand-year-old texts.

The first two hours are a creative take on what Moses’s life may have been like.  When we meet the adult Moses (Charlton Heston) he is a well-respected Egyptian prince and warrior, having been groomed by Pharaoh as a possible successor.  Only two people in the court are aware of Moses’s true identity as a son of Hebrew slaves: his adoptive Egyptian mother and her disapproving handmaiden.  Moses is romantically involved with Nefretiri (Anne Baxter, whom you may know as the title character in “All About Eve”), who is destined to marry the next Pharaoh.  Nefretiri clearly wants to marry Moses, and the feeling is mutual.  The only trouble, apart from the well-guarded secret of Moses’s birth, is that Pharaoh’s biological son Rameses II (Yul Brynner) also hopes to win the throne and Nefretiri.  Moses is the ideal ruler: loyal to his adoptive father, but also kind  and generous to the Hebrew slaves whom he has to oversee on a major construction project.  Rameses, meanwhile, stalks the corridors of the palace, glowers at Nefretiri, and sneers at the mention of the beloved Moses.

Almost none of this is Biblical.  Some of it, like the name Rameses II, may be historical.  Most of it is clearly a Hollywood fabrication.  But that’s fine, because the story is interesting and the acting is good.  Brynner lights up the screen and fills it with his presence.  This was one of two films he appeared in that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1956, the other being the screen adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” in which he plays the irascible but broad-minded King of Siam.  Brynner is an ideal antagonist because he has the natural ability to be imposing but alluring, implacable yet sympathetic, wrongheaded but mostly well-intentioned.  Stray too far in any of these directions and the character would falter, becoming either too sinister or too comedic, but Brynner walks the line effortlessly and with style.  In a documentary included on the DVD, Charlton Heston calls Moses “the role of the year,” but Moses clearly isn’t even the best role of this movie.

There is some fairly heavy-handed moralizing regarding the treatment of Hebrew slaves, which even legendary actors of the caliber of Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price cannot entirely compensate for.  These innately likable actors, who are usually known for playing sleazy, creepy villians (although to me Robinson will always be the upright insurance claims adjuster from “Double Indemnity”), turn in decent performances as lascivious Egyptian taskmasters.  Their characters are two-dimensional, though, and exist mainly to provide foils for the plucky Hebrew slave Joshua (John Derek, who is perhaps most notable for having been married to Ursula Andress and Bo Derek).  Moses does his best to look after the Hebrews, and eventually kills Vincent Price’s character to rescue Joshua and his girlfriend Lilia (Debra Paget).

Nefretiri finds out Moses’s true identity and goes to murderous lengths to keep the information from him, but reveals the truth to him when questioned.  Moses flees to be with his people and live as a slave, but is soon captured and disowned by Pharaoh.  He is finally released by Rameses, who becomes Pharaoh and marries Nefretiri.  Moses leaves Egypt and starts a new life in the shadow of Mount Sinai, where he meets and marries Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo, probably best known as Lily Munster from TV’s “The Munsters”).

So it’s well over two hours before anything supernatural happens, namely Moses’s encounter with God (voiced by Heston) in the burning bush.  From this point on the film doesn’t quite live up to the first two hours, though the scenes in which Moses performs miracles for Rameses II, now Pharaoh, are pretty good.  Brynner and Baxter get a surprisingly touching scene when Rameses and Nefretiri’s only son is struck down as part of the death of the Egyptian firstborns.  Moses himself, though is never really very likable; he comes across more or less the way he does in the Bible, which is as a zealous, distant, uncompromising old man.  There isn’t much humanity in him, unlike in Rameses, whose frustrations and sorrows we feel almost every time Brynner is on camera.  That’s partly the fault of the script, which seems to give Moses nothing but glib one-liners, whereas Rameses, Nefretiri, and some of the minor characters each seem to get a few good, substantive rants in.

DeMille’s directing when the Hebrews leave Egypt is phenomenal, with several cameras capturing a march of literally thousands of people of all ages along with camels and donkeys.  The sets are pretty good, too, and richly decorated.  The special effects, while obviously not up to twenty-first century standards, are fun and neat, especially the parting of the Red Sea.  That’s probably the real climax of the film, even though the issuance of the titular Ten Commandments doesn’t come until almost the very end.

All in all, I enjoyed it and am glad to have watched it.  I’d probably watch it again.  It wasn’t the best film of 1956 (“Around the World in 80 Days” won that honor at the year’s Academy Awards ceremony, whereas my personal pick would be “The Searchers”), and it’s nowhere near the best epic ever made, but it might be the best Bible-based movie I’ve seen.  Wait, scratch that, I’m a big fan of the film version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  Well, we’ll have to wait a while before getting to that review.

4 out of 5 stars.

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