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Schultz reviews: ‘The Ten Commandments’

Schultz reviews: ‘The Ten Commandments’

By Carl Schultz

Daily American correspondent


“The Ten Commandments” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 219 Minutes, Rated G, Released Nov. 8, 1956:


The movie is about as subtle as a sledgehammer and contains scenes and images so blatantly overproduced and larger-than-life that even during its original release in late 1956 they were more well-suited to the melodrama of the early silent film screen. But you just can’t say the movie isn’t effective and impactful, or deny its heart and soul. And even with a running time of nearly four hours it’s never, ever dull or boring, or allows the viewer’s attention to wander.  


In fact, after being screened on American television every year since 1973 as an Eastertime staple,”The Ten Commandments” has likely been seen by more people, over more generations, than can be counted. Originally released at the beginning of the holiday season in 1956, director Cecil B. DeMille’s mammoth epic religious drama, despite being quite possibly the most bombastic and audacious motion picture ever produced, is likely also one of the most inspiring ... and without a doubt among the most entertaining.  


The story of Moses, the onetime Prince of Egypt and heir to the throne of the pharaohs who discovers his Hebraic heritage and elects to follow a destiny of faith rather than a path of power and wealth, was filmed largely on authentic Biblical locations in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, and was for a time the most expensive motion picture even produced ... with a budget of only $13 million in 1954 US dollars. By comparison, the latest “Avengers” opus cost some $356 million, and never left Atlanta.  


Unless you’re already familiar with the picture or have seen it at least once, “The Ten Commandments” is nearly impossible to imagine or describe. Containing some of the most jaw-dropping special effects sequences ever produced — including one single shot which even more than 60 years later seems almost miraculous in its staging and impact — ”The Ten Commandments” is actually a remake, or at least a partial remake, of the director’s own 1923 silent film epic of the same title (in the 1923 version, the life of Moses provided the basis for only half of a two-part picture).


Considered an entertainingly egotistical film tycoon by some and a shrewd and arrogant vulgarian by others, Cecil B. DeMille was at the time of his 1956 production the most consistently successful filmmaker in Hollywood. “The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” DeMille said, often adding, “The public is always right.” And he gave the public what it wanted. Beginning his filmmaking career during the days of silent cinema with the squalid western “The Squaw Man” in 1914, by the time of “The Ten Commandments” DeMille had directed some 69 features — 52 of them silent pictures, before 1929.


“The Ten Commandments” was DeMille’s final film as a director ... and the production itself very nearly killed him. A notoriously harsh taskmaster with his production crew, many of whom worked with him consistently over the years through the course of several movies, DeMille while directing the picture’s Exodus scene from atop a gigantic scaffold suffered a massive heart attack ... but despite doctor’s orders was back on the set three days later, megaphone in hand. The filmmaker considered “The Ten Commandments” his greatest achievement — a mission, a ministry, and his destiny of faith. And he chose his cast well.


The Biblical Moses the Lawgiver is a towering historical figure, one who transcends boundaries of  belief and differences of faith, and whose actions despite having occurred some 3,500 years ago have repercussions and relevance to this day. The most important prophet in Judaism, Moses is also celebrated in Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i Faith, and a number of other Abrahamic religions, and is embraced in cultures the world over as a genuinely pivotal figure of global culture — truly difficult sandals for a performer to fill. 


During the 60-plus years since the original theatrical release of “The Ten Commandments” (the picture was re-released to theaters in 1966, 1972, and 1989, each time becoming a hit all over again) the larger-than-life performance of actor Charlton Heston as Moses has become a lightning rod for humor, parody, imitation, and caricature. Still, not one solitary critic or comic has ever claimed the performance is overripe, or suggested Heston was anything less than richly effective in the role.


In a movie which depicts the story of Moses quite literally from his birth until his death, in “The Ten Commandments” Heston inhabits the character from his reign as a Prince of Egypt, through his exile to the desert and return to Egypt as the long-promised savior of the enslaved Israelites, his guidance of the Nation of Israel across the Red Sea and through the wilderness, his ascent onto Mount Horeb to receive the Ten Commandments from the Hand of God himself, and his leadership of the Hebrews into the Promised Land — in other words, through the narratives of the Biblical Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.


One of the truly great voices in modern entertainment history — Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, and possibly Morgan Freeman are others — Charlton Heston is likely the solitary performer of his generation who could’ve effectively and persuasively fulfilled the role of Moses. Even towering figures such as John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Sean Connery, or Paul Newman would’ve run a risk of self-parody or ridicule (Burt Lancaster performed the role to some acclaim a generation later, but in a vastly different interpretation of the story). The role of Moses in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” might just as easily have been a career-ending performance as a career-enhancing one.  


Given his first important motion picture role in DeMille’s Academy Award-winning all-star circus spectacular “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952, the central performance of the then-unknown Heston in that picture as the harried but sympathetic circus manager (among a cast which included Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, James Stewart, and a host of actual circus performers and personalities) was so richly authentic that many audience members believed Heston was the real deal — an actual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuit boss hired for the production.


Cast in “The Ten Commandments” when director DeMille perceived in Heston a strong resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses in Rome’s Church of San Pietro (according to movie lore, the director first offered the part to the young evangelist Billy Graham, who politely declined), the actor performs the role with seeming effortlessness and even relish, displaying a smirk and a swagger uncharacteristic of a player so young and inexperienced. Heston’s career as an actor was informed by the role of Moses, but never overwhelmed by it — the actor earned an Academy Award some three years later, for the title role in 1959’s “Ben-Hur.”


Standing eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe against Heston’s Moses through most of the picture is Russian-American actor Yul Brynner as Egyptian pharaoh and Moses’ adoptive brother Rameses II. Possessed of a steely demeanor and exotic dark looks, seemingly incapable of subtlety or nuance, Brynner’s performance style was likely more appropriate to the stage — the actor’s signature role was as Siamese King Mongkut in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I,” which Brynner played some 4625 times, winning the Academy Award for the 1956 movie version (Brynner shaved his head for the Mongkut role, and his bald pate became a kind of professional calling card).


Brynner’s oversized performance in DeMille’s picture, however, is perfectly modulated to the oversized production values of the director’s epic vision — the actor’s perpetual scowl, humorless demeanor, and effortless sinister treachery are richly effective without ever becoming overwrought ... despite a tendency to enter a scene, strike a statuesque pose, and announce a line of dialogue as if he’s issuing a divine proclamation. Cast in “The Ten Commandments” after DeMille attended a Broadway performance of “The King and I,” the role of Rameses was Brynner’s second film appearance — although filmed afterward, “The King and I” was released a few months earlier.


The third corner of the romantic triangle which forms the primary subplot of “The Ten Commandments” is actress Anne Baxter as the scheming and manipulative but lovesick Egyptian Princess Nefertiri, who swoons over the virile Prince Moses but is coveted by his half-brother and rival Rameses. Having at the time recently completed her signature motion picture role as the title character in the critically-acclaimed 1951 backstage drama “All About Eve,” Baxter was surprised by the summons from Cecil DeMille for the Nefertiri role in “The Ten Commandments.”


In 1974, Baxter remembered, “(DeMille’s) office at Paramount was bursting with books, props, rolls of linen. He acted out my part and I kept nodding, and I walked out with the part.” Of the filming, the actress recalled, “The soundstage sets were magnificent. DeMille knew (the picture) was corny  — that’s what he wanted, what he loved. I loved slinking around — really, this was silent film acting, but with dialogue. No shading was permitted. ‘Louder! Better!’ That’s what (DeMille) roared at everybody.”


The stellar supporting cast of “The Ten Commandments” includes such 1950s luminaries as Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne DeCarlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine. Look fast for future stars Michael “Touch” Connors, Clint Walker, Robert Vaughn, and Woody Strode. Future Tijuana Brass trumpeter Herb Alpert can be seen in a small role ... as a drummer. Former silent film icon H.B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s 1927 film “The King of Kings,” has a small part as the elderly man taken into the litter of Bithiah during the Exodus. And that’s Fraser Heston, the star’s baby son, as the infant Moses.


In a movie seasoned throughout with startling optical effects, the film’s depiction of the parting of the Red Sea as the Hebrews flee Rameses’ chariot-borne army is without question the most famous and effective special effect ever produced — so effective that even if the viewer knows, or thinks he knows, how the shot was accomplished (dumping 350,000 gallons of gelatin-enhanced water into an enormous retaining pool from both sides, framing the shot with matte paintings, and running the film backward, in slow-motion), it’s still nearly heart-stopping in its impact and intensity.


The secret? Stagecraft. A brilliant showman as well as a premier filmmaker, DeMille’s buildup to the shot is so effective that by the time the scene actually arrives (at about three hours into the movie’s running time), the viewer is almost ready to explode from the suspense of the events taking place onscreen. The entire sequence is so filled with action and spectacle that the experience is almost overwhelming to the senses – even the imperfections of the matte photography work in the effect’s favor. By the time the shot arrives, all the viewer’s mind can genuinely comprehend is that it’s witnessing an event unnatural to physical possibility or the realm of earthly phenomena.


In fact, the parting of the Red Sea was also depicted in DeMille’s silent 1923 version of the picture ... and was accomplished in precisely the same manner. The shot was more effective in the 1956 version because of the advances in the cinematic art — modern Technicolor, sound recording, the dimensions of the VistaVision screen — and not modifications or improvements to optical effects. The majestic musical score by Elmer Bernstein also adds immeasurably to the picture’s overall impact. Still, in the opinion of many viewers who’ve seen both versions of “The Ten Commandments,” the Pillar of Fire effect which directly precedes the parting of the Red Sea is actually more effective, and more realistic, in the silent version.


“The Ten Commandments” premiered at New York City’s Criterion Theater on Nov. 8, 1956, with DeMille and most of the picture’s primary cast in attendance. During the days before wide release patterns for important new releases, the picture played in “roadshow” engagements — in a limited number of theaters in large cities, with reserved seating — until June of 1958, when the picture finally entered general release.


Still, “The Ten Commandments” was the most successful motion picture of 1956, earning an unprecedented $10 million in box office receipts ... from just 80 theaters. By the time the picture finished its theatrical run at the end of 1960, it had earned over $122 million in ticket sales and overtaken “Gone With the Wind” at the American box office as the most successful movie of all time. Over the years, “The Ten Commandments” is estimated to have sold some 262 million individual tickets, and remains among the most successful movies ever made.


Bosley Crowther, the influential (and hard-to-please) critic of The New York Times, wrote at the time of the picture’s premiere, “As Mr. DeMille presents this 3-hour-and-39-minute film, which is by far the largest and most expensive that he has ever made, it is a moving story of the spirit of freedom rising in a man under the divine inspiration of his Maker. And, as such, it strikes a ringing note today.”


Vivid storytelling at its very best, “The Ten Commandments” remains to this day a timeless classic of motion picture entertainment. Rated G, with scenes of oppression and some bloodshed, the film is available on DVD for about $9, or for streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

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