Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter
Tag line: "The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History"
Trivia: This was Cecil B. DeMille's only movie made in widescreen
When I hear the word “epic”, I immediately think of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 production of The Ten Commandments. Clocking in at nearly 4 hours, it is a sweeping, grandiose film, filled with spectacular scenes and larger-than-life characters. Ben-Hur is, and will always be, my favorite biblical epic, but The Ten Commandments is a close second.
The son of Hebrew slaves, Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah (Nina Foch), and raised as an Egyptian. In fact, Moses (played as an adult by Charlton Heston) is so well-loved that he becomes the heir apparent to his uncle, the Pharaoh Seti (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who favors Moses over his own son, Rameses (Yul Brynner). But when the truth about his lineage is revealed, Moses' name is stricken from all Egyptian records, and he is banished. Yet, despite his banishment, Moses returns to Egypt years later when a message from God instructs him to free the Jews from their bondage. Spurred on by his divine mission, Moses faces off against the new Pharaoh, Rameses, demanding the release of every Jewish slave in Egypt and promising severe punishment if Rameses refuses to comply.
As large in scope as The Ten Commandments is, much of the movie’s success comes down to the conflict between Charlton Heston’s Moses and Yul Brynner’s Rameses. Both actors do a fine job in their respective roles, with Heston convincingly portraying a man whose life has taken an unexpected turn and Brynner bringing to the surface all the jealousy and anger his character feels towards his adopted “brother”. The Ten Commandments is, indeed, one of the largest, most visually impressive motion pictures ever produced, but it’s the battle of wills between Moses and Rameses that forms the film’s dramatic core.
Of course, being a biblical epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments is, at times, unbearably pompous. A while back, I criticized George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, a film based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, for being “pretentious”, adding that it “buckles under the weight of its own self-importance”. Well, compared to The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told was an exercise in humility. In a pre-title sequence, DeMille himself addresses the audience, saying the goal of the picture was not to “create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created 3,000 years ago”. As if this weren’t enough to clue us in on the movie’s significance, the opening credits drive the point home a bit further, giving “The Holy Scriptures” its own title card, one that appears after “Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille”. I can’t say for certain whether The Ten Commandments is the single most self-important film ever made or not, but I’m sure it’d at least finish in the Top 5!
Still, there’s no denying the movie’s grandeur. Partially shot on-location in Egypt, The Ten Commandments is a lavish, beautiful motion picture, filled with one magnificently staged sequence after another, from the opening scenes showing the building of Sethi’s city right through to the parting of the Red Sea. The Ten Commandments set the standard for every epic, biblical of otherwise, that followed it, and remains, to this day, a film so amazing that it can take your breath away.