Surprise! As DeMille himself tells us in a (somewhat silly) opening narration -- where he comes out from behind a curtain and addresses the audience -- the Bible skips Moses' formative years altogether. One minute, as a baby he's fished out of the Nile by Pharoah's daughter, the next he's banished to the desert for killing an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew man. There's certainly no talk of Moses' rise to power under Pharoah -- which comprises the first two hours of this nearly four-hour film. In DeMille's rendition (based, he says, on the works of ancient scholars), Moses (Charleton Heston, in the role that would define his career) toils under Pharoah (Cedric Hardwicke) as his adopted grandson, working hard building a treasure city for his glory. His rival is Pharoah's son Rameses (Yul Brynner), who isn't only also up for the future job of Pharoah, he's also competing for the hand of Nefretiri (All About Eve's title character Anne Baxter).
Eventually Moses discovers his birthright -- or lack thereof -- and sends himself to the slave pits of Egypt, then out to the desert. He comes back after a time to find Rameses risen to Pharoah, and lets loose with the "Let my people go," plagues of hail, water turns to blood, death of the firstborns, and so on. Then it's out to the desert for the parting of the Red Sea after Rameses has a change of heart once he finally gives in.
Shot in widescreen Technicolor, The Ten Commandments remains the standard by which Biblical epics -- and many epics in general -- are measured. DeMille is heavy handed, but that's DeMille. Heston scowls and Brynner emotes; they are archetypal versions of themselves. Many of DeMille's sets and stunts are obvious fakes(that animated pillar of fire wouldn't scare a house cat), but most are impressive even today. When Moses turns his staff into a snake and back again, the effect is seamless. His turning of the Nile into blood is an impressive camera trick, but his parting of the Red Sea is one of Hollywood's most famous stunts. It's worth sitting through the 220 minutes of movie for this alone.
Say what you will about the factual content here -- as it turns out, the film is based on a collection of novels, not historical texts -- this is a movie about spectacle and excess. It doesn't feel particularly religious or spiritual; it's an adventure on the grandest -- and longest -- scale. Heston may as well be screaming about Soylent Green, but damn if he doesn't make for one hell of an inspiring leader.
A DVD commentary track from Katherine Orrison, who wrote a book about the movie, is nothing short of awful. (She adds little to the flick, just going on and on about how she loves various shots and mispronouncing "Paramount.") This isn't a film that needs much extra though -- in fact, there aren't even any liner notes included. You'll also find a six-part documentary about the making of the film, if four hours just ain't enough for you.
Run time: 220 mins
In Theaters: Friday 5th October 1956
Box Office Worldwide: $65M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Motion Picture Associates
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 29 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.9 / 10
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Producer: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenwriter: Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank
Starring: Charlton Heston as Moses, Anne Baxter as Nofretete, Yul Brynner as Ramses, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Martha Scott as Yochabel, Judith Anderson as Memnet, Vincent Price as Baka, John Carradine as Aaron, Douglass Dumbrille as Jannes, Frank Dekova as Abiram, Henry Wilcoxon as Pentaur, Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi, John Derek as Joshua, Vincent Price as Baka, John Carradine as Aaron, Olive Deering as Miriam, Douglass Dumbrille as Jannes, Frank Dekova as Abiram, Eduard Franz as Jethro, Donald Curtis as Mered, Lawrence Dobkin as Hur Ben Caleb, Woody Strode as King of Ethiopia, Joan Woodbury as Korah's Wife, Henry Brandon as Commander of the Hosts, Clint Walker as Sardinian Captain, Luis Alberni as Old Hebrew, Michael Ansara as Taskmaster, Terence De Marney as Hebrew at Rameses' Gate, Richard Farnsworth as Chariot Driver, Gavin Gordon as Trojan Ambassador, Patricia Hitchcock as Court Lady, Michael Mark as Hebrew at Dathan's Tent / Old Man, Gordon Mitchell as Egyptian Guard, George Robotham as Attendant, Robert Vaughn as Spearman / Hebrew at Golden Calf, Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer as Slave, Mike Connors as Amalekite Herder (as Touch Connors), Henry Corden as Sheik of Sinai, Mimi Gibson as Little Egyptian Girl
Also starring: Jack Gariss
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