Combined Rating: 4.25/5
I have vague warm memories of walking in on various scenes of this movie growing up, while my dad had it playing on network TV. Frank warned me that it was excessively long, but I guess I can’t blame the filmmakers for that—it covers thirty-two chapters of the book of Exodus, and biblical writers pretty much stick to the bare bones of the action. In order to make an evocative film for a modern audience, it also needed characterization, relationships, and interpersonal drama—so on top of what’s in the scriptures, a lot more is added in besides. The female lead, for instance, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) isn’t even a character in the biblical account, though she plays a pivotal role in the film. But what’s a drama without romance?
The story is familiar, but apparently based on a novel dramatization of the book of Exodus. It spends probably half the film on Moses’ life growing up as a prince in Egypt (which only takes up one chapter of Exodus), emphasizing the rivalry between him and his adopted brother Rameses (Yul Brynner, who was superbly cast for that role. What a voice!) This is where Nefretiri comes in, as Moses’ love interest who nevertheless ends up wed to Rameses when Moses is exposed as a Hebrew and banished. One major contrast between Charlton Heston’s Moses and the biblical Moses is that Heston comes off more or less like John Wayne of the Old Testament. He’s always self-assured, heroic, faithful, and courageous, like a 1950s leading man should be. By contrast, Moses repeatedly begged God to send someone else when God finally called him to return to Egypt and deliver the people, provoking God to anger. He was so timid that God had to send Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece until the plagues really got underway and Moses suddenly found his voice. I suspect this had something to do with his browbeating wife (Zipporah in the Bible, Sephora – Yvonne De Carlo—in the film). Zipporah had a razor tongue, and either Moses sent her away before he went back to Egypt, or she left him—they definitely didn’t have the loving marriage which evokes Nefretiri’s jealousy in the film. The Moses of the Bible also spent forty years in the wilderness before he saw the burning bush; Heston returns perhaps eight years later, judging by the approximate ages of his son and Rameses’ son by the time he returns (but then, it would be difficult to re-cast the role as an eighty year old for the second half of the film. And the romantic confrontations with Nefritiri upon Moses’ return clearly wouldn’t have worked!) Though the plagues of Egypt are pivotal to the actual Exodus account, they’re mostly skipped in the film, as they do get rather redundant after awhile. Emphasis is rightly placed on crossing the Red Sea instead, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s pursuing army—though in this version, Pharaoh lives to return to Egypt and tell Nefritiri that Moses prevailed. But for dramatic effect, I think this was the right choice.
Considering how much film sensibilities have changed over the decades, I was surprised that this one held up as well as I thought it did. I didn’t exactly get sucked into the story, which is usually a prerequisite for me to really enjoy a film, but I was engaged enough, particularly because I knew the story well. You might think this makes it less interesting, but in a way, retellings hold my interest sometimes better than an original, because I can both anticipate where it’s headed, and also delight in how my expectations are uniquely fulfilled (or subverted). Interesting that the film is called “The Ten Commandments,” though, since that event feels almost like an afterthought at the end. But I guess the title “Exodus” was already taken.
As a spiritual guy myself, I hesitate to heckle such a bonified epic as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, but one thing I believe is that God has a sense of humor, and while He created the world in seven days, it may also have taken him that long to sit through the movie. We got through it in two consecutive nights, which is a major feat for Lauren, given that we’re working with about one hour of screen time per commandment. Actually, it’s not that bad at 3 hrs 40 minutes (IF you go with the theatrical version…make it an even 4 for the director’s cut) but given that the “extra-biblical” recounting of the major events of Moses’ life play more like soap opera than stoic history, we could have done with less fabricated stuffing, and more scriptural meat and potatoes. But, if you’re a fan of oily chest hair, fake beards glistening in glorious technicolor and lots of slaves pulling ridiculously heavy objects over long distances, this is your sand saga! Moses spends the first half of the film loyally serving Pharaoh, questioning his own purpose, and killing time in the desert, but once Moses leaves the infamous burning bush with his own fire lit, sporting a “post God-encounter white fro,” the show really takes off. Then it’s all plagues and snakes and finger pointing fun!
And what can one say about the committed performance of Charleton Heston? To his credit, this may be one of his only films in which he doesn’t flagrantly overact, bestowing a vital gravitas on Moses’s struggles with the fantastic weight of what God is calling him to do. His decision to almost underplay Moses gives him a relatable, everyman feel, and grounds the outlandish proceedings unfolding all around him. Heston is able to convey a humility that belies his rough exterior, and damn does he get dirty. So much so that Amazon felt the need to warn viewers upfront of the movie’s violence, adult themes, and… “brownface,” provoking my biggest laugh of all. Self-appointed virtue signalers seemingly found a way to slap a religious film merely for not denigrating the source material, shining their accusing light on stuff nobody ever questioned, but surely would have been offended by if pointed out. Thanks to our enlightened cultural guardians for that service! BTW…if you enjoyed all the brownface in Ten Commandments, you’ll absolutely love Heston as a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil. At least DeMille didn’t touch Vincent Price, who as the nefarious “Baka,” remains white as ever.
Although the titular ten commandments don’t make their cameo until late in the film, their impending transport across the parted red sea at the head of leagues of Jews fleeing Pharaoh’s pursuing troops is one of cinema’s greatest spectacles! For 1956, the Oscar winning rear projection and blue screen effects still hold up, and are truly miraculous to behold. There is little more satisfying than seeing an entire army of Egyptian slavemasters crushed by water, and their proud leader having to retreat and explain to his prima donna wife how they got away. Despite the film’s historical liberties, there are still many lessons that convey: God’s faithfulness, his faithful’s inevitable persecution, how quickly we ignore and/or forget God’s blessings, and the power in trusting God, even though we all don’t get signs as blatant as Moses did. But, the real reason to watch this film is for the pure spectacle of it all, which was crafted with sincere, painstaking detail and a most genuine reverence to the great I AM.
Meal Pairing: roasted lamb chops with bitter herbs, roasted potatoes and flat bread.