Produced, Directed, and Narrated by Cecil B. DeMille
November 8, 1956 (United States)
This is the story of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince, who becomes the deliverer of the enslaved Hebrews.
The Ten Commandments is one of the best films ever made. It is a visual and artistic achievement that has not quite been equaled. From the sets to the script to the cast, there has been nothing like it since. This is one of those films where all the right things came together and gave us a masterpiece.
This is the granddaddy of all Biblical epics and the final cinematic achievement of legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visually amazing film and epic in scale as well as cast. The list of greats in this film is long. Whenever I see a cast like this in older films, I feel a little sad because deep down I know that you will not get a group together like this again. You just do not see a group of this caliber and breadth getting together for a film of this quality today. In modern movies they confuse pretentious with the type of story told here.
Charlton Heston had a long and storied career, but he is most identified with this film as well as the original Planet of the Apes. And that is not a bad thing. Those are two of the greatest films in history and if that is the first thing if those are the first two things people think of when they think of your legacy you have done pretty good. I think most actors would kill to have just those two on their resume.
As Moses Heston created a very powerful yet very human individual. Moses is a man who does not want his destiny and turns from it at the beginning, but events and his sense of duty force him to do what he was essentially born to do. Perhaps that is part of the reason this movie endures. Moses has a bit of a hero’s journey and those movies tend to have resonance and staying power with the public. We can identify with that kind of hero more than the hero that does the good deed because it is the good deed or does their duty because it is their duty. Internal conflict is something we all feel and that is exactly what Moses goes through. He is accepting of his true heritage, but he does not want to be a deliverer of anyone.
And then there is the great Yul Brynner as Rameses II. He was just as strong of a character as Moses, but he did not have the doubts nor the moral core that Moses did. He was certain of himself and his destiny and embraced it. You could even say he ran towards it. He claimed everything he believed was his regardless of the cost.
Brynner had a powerful screen presence. He was just tough and strong the moment he stepped in front of the camera. He exuded strength and power and used that to full effect as Ramses. You could believe he was a man that felt called by destiny to rule a nation and viewed himself as a god among men.
The confrontation between Moses and Ramses is inevitable from the beginning of the film. There is no point at which of the relationship between the two characters would not end in anything other than some kind of fight. And like in life, the longer you put it off the more serious it will be, and this gets put off for a looooooong time in reference to the timeline of the film. I know that may be reducing the Biblical narrative a bit, but God would not necessarily choose people that are best pals. Their problem seems to stem though not from what goes on between Ramses and Moses but rather Ramses father Seti I (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) obviously favoring Moses over his own son. The qualities of leadership and command are natural to Moses. He knows how to motivate those under him while Ramses expects blind obedience. Moses is a man of the people and Ramses is a dictator.
Ramses is portrayed more as an individual that not only does not believe in the Hebrew God but also does not have much faith in any of his own gods. For each plague Moses unleashes through the power of God he has an alternative explanation despite the clustering of such things being improbable. One set of bad things can be explained away as a random act but as they pile up it becomes harder to justify.
Added to this volatile mix is Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the eventual wife of Ramses II. She desires Moses and does everything she can to ensure that he will not only ascend to the throne but become her husband as well. She goes so far as to kill a slave named Memnet (Judith Anderson) that knows the truth. When Moses embraces his heritage Nefretiri turns to stoking Ramses hatred for Moses in any way she can. She was as much of a villain here as anyone.
The Ten Commandments is a story not only about the Exodus but also one that is designed to draw parallels to the struggle for freedom in general. The Hebrews are a people that crave and want freedom and are waiting for a leader to come to show them the way. As is often the case when people get freedom and times are good the people are more than will to take up the fight. But good times breed soft people and soft people are easily frightened and lead astray and that is exactly what happens until Moses steps down from the mountain and in anger tosses the Ten Commandments at the crowd. If you remember, the debauchery around the golden calf was in preparation for them returning to Egypt with it in front of them and begging Ramses to take them back as slaves. The history of humanity is filled with people giving up freedom for the illusion of safety.
This film was not only based on the Book of Exodus but also the 1949 novel Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, the 1859 novel Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham, and the 1937 novel On Eagle’s Wings by A. E. Southon. The elements from those other works were used to fill in the gaps in the life of Moses that are not spoken of in the Bible. Nothing feels like it is extra though or someone’s own spin. This is one of those Biblical films with extrabiblical material that is done in such a way as to be harmonious with the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille was not trying to put his own take on the story but rather tell a compelling and complete narrative that would not only be about the Exodus but have parallels for the world of today. He did just that and that is why the film has such staying power.
The Ten Commandments is a long movie. I will not lie. Some people automatically skip films like that, but I think that is an extremely shortsighted and limiting stance. You are going to cut yourself off from so many great movies. The film is long, but it moves so briskly and the acting is so great and the story is just so good that you do not notice the passage of time. It holds you and keeps you hungry for the next scene and the next line and even though you know how the story ends you still want to see how the film gets there. You are transfixed from the beginning to the end.
This is a visually stunning film. From the sets to the costumes to the environment it is a work of art and a true triumph. The costuming is amazing and the sets are just beyond beautiful. It has been over 60 years since this movie came out and the parting of the Red Sea is still an impressive effect. It is a classic cinema moment and just visually stunning.
The Ten Commandments is an amazing work of film. With talented actors and a great script and a legendary director, magic happened here. Not only is this a most definitely a watch it, this is a must see!