The Ten Commandments

Moses, an all-American boy, grows up to be prince of Egypt and fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That is, until he finds out he’s a Hebrew, which makes him give up everything, including easy ways of freeing his new found people, and throw himself in the mud.  Talk about self hatred.  After a peaceful walk in the desert, he starts talking to hot bushes (and not the fun types), that tell him to stand in dramatic poses and say things very loudly.  After winning a posing competition with the King of Siam,  he takes off with every Jew he can find, all of whom yell, “Stone him,” whenever things look dicey.  (Come on folks.  Get some backbone!)  But with his faith in God, Moses defeats the communists and is given the Constitution of the United States…I mean defeats the Egyptians and is given the Ten Commandments.  Same thing.

Frequent readers of this site will have noted a correlation between low ratings and low ratings.  No shock there.  With such quality religious flicks out there as King of Kings and Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force, it often seems a waste to give these films two grades.  So, I thought it was time I add one that oozes righteousness and still gets a thumbs up from me.  Thus: The Ten Commandments, the ultimate in cinematic spectacle.  Filmed with the color and contrast turned to eleven, gigantic sets, sweeping North African vistas, stirring music, and a cast of thousands, including substantial portions of the Egyptian military, they never made them like this, and never will again.  This is film as pageantry.

It’s hard to forget the parting of the Red Sea, or the fire-carving of the Commandments, but equally thrilling are the scenes of the great treasure city, with its gigantic obelisks, huge marble slabs, and numerous statues.  CGI hasn’t managed anything half as impressive.  God as a mildly glowing fern is a let-down, but the rivers turning to blood and the deathly fog that kills the first borns more than makes up for it.

There were plenty of other religious epics produced in the ’50s.  None so grand, but The Ten Commandments is more than the biggest parade.  It is the perfect vehicle for its larger than life stars.  Charlton Heston couldn’t handle subtle emotions or even everyday actions; he’s never believable displaying amusement, affection, or love.  But as a force of nature, a representation of authority, he’s magnificent.  The Ten Commandments never asks him to do anything small.  He rages and he proclaims, and at those, no one is better.   However, Yul Brynner is close.  When both appear in the same frame, I expect the extras to drown in a flood of testosterone.

Even with the impressive imagery turned off, this is still one entertaining movie.  I could be content just listening to the voices.  Besides Heston and Brynner, there are the distinctive Edward G. Robinson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine.  Where else can you find the remarkable tones of Robinson entwining with those of Price?

The behavior of the film’s characters  makes little sense (particularly that God guy, who apparently is all-powerful, but waits for generations before stopping the torture of “his people”), but for a change, that’s not a problem.   The Ten Commandments isn’t a slice-of-life pic, where real people deal with real situations.  It’s a hero-story told round the campfire (but in sparkling VistaVision), where the individuals are close kin to Agamemnon, Achilles, and Zeus.

DeMille could never decide if he was telling a tale of the glory of God or of the wonders of the United States.  I suspect the two were inseparable in his mind.  Moses may be the messenger of the voice from the fiery foliage, but he speaks of tyranny and repression as the reasons why the Hebrews must be freed, not simply because God said so.  In the weakest moments of the picture, DeMille, in an unneeded occasional narration and an embarrassing prolog, tries his best to connect the Biblical story to the fight against Soviet communism.  It’s an uncomfortable fit.  Yes, the Israelites are free from the Egyptians, but now they are under the thumb of a vengeful god, who will smite anyone who doesn’t worship as proscribed.  Not exactly freedom in my book.  But with the cold war behind us, the political propaganda merges with the religious propaganda to make both distant and irrelevant.  DeMille may have wanted to push faith and country, but instead, he ended up with a rip-roaring story and little coherent theme, which is how I like my religious pics.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn about religion from this film.  A few of the better bits:

  • God is an ass who just likes to fuck with people’s minds.  He keeps Moses on the mountain for 40 days just because its funny.
  • God is a vindictive prick.  If you don’t worship him, he makes you walk in the desert till you die.
  • God is indiscriminately cruel.  He kills the guilty.  He kills the innocent.  It’s all the same to him.  He just chooses a group (first borns) and their number is up.
  • The power of God is a stupid power.  The only way for the Angel of Death (code name: Destroyer) to know who NOT to kill is if he sees lambs blood on the door.  What kind of a system is that?  If he can figure out who is a first born, why can’t he work out who is a Hebrew?
  • God hates song and revelry (or at least Moses does).  Not sure why.  I guess God is a grumpy god.  So, no big parties for God.  Also, eating and drinking are frowned upon.
  • Moses was pretty much the same as Jesus, with a star heralding his birth and all the new born Jews killed to stop him.  Even the Bible didn’t know about that.  And the ladies loved that bare chest of his.
  • Once you’ve met God, you pretty much suck as a person, although you can be intimidating as a leader.

Sure, the whole thing is silly, but then so is The Iliad, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.  It is gloriously, magnificently silly.  It is the cinematic epic against which all others are judged.  And while it has flaws, I can never forget hearing Rameses proclaim “So let it be written, so let it be done,” and seeing Moses stretch out his staff over the Red Sea and part the waters.  Now that’s good fantasy.