In his book Hollywood Animal Joe Eszterhas describes being taken to see Biblical films like Quo Vadis when he was a kid: His mom thought they were like watching a prayer, and he liked the scantily-dressed women. That pretty much sums up the appeal.
The Ten Commandments is Cecil B. DeMille's last movie, shot in VistaVision and Technicolor. DeMille didn't invent the Biblical drama but he got the most fame and mileage from it. I haven't seen the silent original but I'm told it is excellent. I saw this 1956 re-do as a child of six or seven and several scenes were permanently etched in my mind.
The film is like a pageant. The writing is incredibly stiff and naïve, as if it was intended for audiences with a 1923 mentality. It's obviously made by someone devout, but the messages are deeply split. One one hand, the level of reverence is almost intimidating, with imagery that pulls one right back into Sunday-school mode. But most of the time DeMille revels in hypocritical Biblical Lust. The 'big drama' love scenes are embarrassingly trite. It's ridiculous but also impressive in its primitive way.
Audiences love it. To many, Charlton Heston is Moses.
"Moses. Moses. Moses. Princes of Egypt can't be bothered with such things!" The dialogue all the way through The Ten Commandments is either comic-book drivel, or grandiose bible-speak. Every character wears their feelings on their sleeve. Every utterance is a twisted workhorse conveying needed exposition, about relationships that should be shown rather than spoken.
DeMille and his writers have a big chunk of Biblical history to get through, and can't be bothered with subtleties. The old woman saved from being crushed in the construction zone just happens to be Moses' secret mother. Evil Egyptians (Vincent Price's suave master builder) and evil Hebrews (Edward G. Robinson's overseer) lust after nubile Hebrew virgins like (pant, pant) Debra Paget (The Tiger of Eschnapur). The characters are incapable of anything but pure emotions and uncomplicated desires. Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston fare rather well in their rather obsessed roles. Brynner goes after unwilling bride Anne Baxter with a definite lack of finesse - on a dramatic level, there are some really hilarious scenes here. Rameses describes how after their marriage he will be able to "make her come to him" at his bidding, and Nefretiri gives him a juicy kiss, to show him what he won't be getting later on.
The odd thing is that DeMille knows the power of the story he is telling, and how deep the Bible stories are in many of our childhood memories. Without our noticing, the mechanics of one of the species' oldest tales catches us up, and the sheer earnestness of the proceedings begins to take effect. Moses' sojurn among a gaggle of bubbleheaded shepherdesses, all wishing to be his bride, is an awful concoction. But what should be trite or insulting can still get to us. He winds up choosing fall-down beauty among them, Yvonne De Carlo, because she doesn't throw herself at him, and somehow it seems appropriate. I think stories like this hit us at a different level.
Of course, narrative logic is never a problem, because the good Word is very clear on the plot points. The tawdry love triangle provides the motivation for most everything in the story, including Rameses' pursuit of the Hebrews to the Red Sea. Poor Yul Brynner can't win, with Charlton glaring at him from one side and sneaky Anne Baxter manipulating him on the other. He should have seen how crooked Baxter was in All About Eve. Heston makes demands like a Biblical labor negotiator, with good help from the booming voice of John Carradine to back him up - boy, that's a perfectly-cast actor.
DeMille put together one mighty production. A sizeable company went to Egypt and some fairly gigantic structures were built. A huge part of the show is bluescreen travelling matte work by the Paramount experts (named above). Blue fringing is everywhere, and fast-moving objects sometimes disappear, such as when Rameses hands Moses his walking staff as he abandons him in the desert. On the wide VistaVision screen, some of these composites just look cheap (Nefretiri's barge view) and some are pretty darn impressive (the setting of a giant obelisk in Sethi's new Treasure City).
Other special effects tend to be more representational than believable. The animated fire looks terrible - was Ub Iwerks occupied at MGM animating ray guns for Forbidden Planet? A couple of snake transformations are okay, and the Nile turning blood red is graphically impressive. The famous parting of the Red Sea doesn't look that good, but it is a dramatic high point well-sold by the writing, acting and roaring soundtrack.
The show is a regular cornucopia of juicy roles. John Derek is a set-upon freedom fighter who line-produces the flight from Egypt for Moses. Martha Scott Our Town is Moses' birth mother, and Judith Anderson the slave who knows the secret of the basket in the Nile. There are just too many well-known actors to name, but some really odd faces show up. H.B. Warner (an early Christ, I believe, and Mr. Gower from It's a Wonderful Life is here, and Woody Strode appears in two separate roles. The list of names on the IMDB is pretty impressive: Gordon Mitchell, Robert Vaughn and Herb Alpert (as a drummer) are in there somewhere as well.
DeMille always considered himself a showman, but he shows an awful lot of hubris in placing himself so ostentatiously in his own production. He reads his own purple-prose narration over montages. He personally introduces the show like an upscale barker, assuring us that it is a really important story, honest! He betrays his cold war leanings by telling us that the big struggle in the world is still between Freedom and Tyranny, with Freedom of course meaning the bliss of worshipping a Christian God. Anyone looking for subtleties is free to go elsewhere; DeMille's gaudy fairytale version of the scriptures is what much of the world thinks their faith is about.
I think the lessons taught by The Ten Commandments aren't particularly Christian. I saw it only once when I was six years old. All I really remembered was the killing of the first-born children, the woman in danger of being squirshed in a pyramid, the blood in the river, and the Red Sea scene. Not a very spiritual set of messages. Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind probably had the right idea - his kids couldn't stay up late, so he told them they could only watch the first five commandments.
Paramount's DVD of The Ten Commandments looks just plain great. The film is spread across two discs and given a fat bit rate. It's richly colored and widescreen enhanced, and Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack will fill your TV room. In a comparison with the old two-disc set, the transfer appears to be the same, but the encoding slightly improved - as if authoring in the interim has become slightly better. But there is no dramatic difference in quality or content.
Six docus cover the show's production fairly well and sport some nice vintage clips from behind the scenes. They're broken up into subjects like "Moses", the location shoot, the director, etc. Charlton Heston and a few other actors (one of the shepherdesses, Rameses' son) tell their stories. Heston gives a good accounting of himself until he tells the oldest Hollywood joke ever, the one with the, "Ready when you are, C.B." punch line. It was always a good joke, but it comes across like a chicken crossing the road. The docus (which can be played as one larger item) were produced in-house at Paramount and have production credits, something Para extra features sometimes lack.
There's a newsreel of the NYC premiere and several trailers including a '56 one with lots of BTS footage. There's also a commentary by Katherine Orrison, who wrote a book about the making of the movie.
My disc came in a double-width box with the two discs mounted in a way that leaves a big empty interior space in the package. For a moment I thought that there must have been a fat book that was omitted, but apparently not. If you're taking a long walk, you can use your The Ten Commandments DVD case to carry a snack, too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ten Commandments rates:
A plug: old friend Robert S. Birchard has a book on Cecil B. DeMille coming out in June 2004: Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood.