By John H. Foote
Cecil B. DeMille’s thundering story of Moses, The Ten Commandments (1956) comes back to Blu Ray with his original silent film of the same title from 1923 on Tuesday.
DeMille’s massive four-hour Biblical epic is the film that forever addicted me to movies, with its scope, size, massive cast and production values, brilliant visual and sound effects and of course, Yul Brynner, the arrogant Pharaoh Rameses, and Charlton Heston, towering as Moses. Just 26 when cast in the film, Heston respondeded with a magnificent performance, one that once seen, is unforgettable.
A colossal film, the 1956 version begins with the Hebrew infant being found in the bulrushes by Bithiah, sister to Pharaoh Sethi, hiding the child’s identity and raising him as her own. Growing into a just and powerful Prince, young Moses is adored by the crowds and the Pharaoh, who eventually chooses Moses over his own son, Rameses, to rule when he dies. The arrogant Rameses plots against Moses when he learns he was born to Hebrew slaves and exposes him. Stunned by the revelations, Moses flees to work in the mud pits, only to be brought before his beloved Pharaoh when he kills a sadistic man for whipping a slave. Cast out of Egypt, banished, his very name stricken from their history, Moses wanders into the desert and likely death.
Instead he finds a life as a Shepard, love with a Hebrew woman and a good life. One day he finds a burning bush and the voice of God speaks to him, asking him to return to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves from bondage. Coming down the mountain, his beard and hair now streaked white, his eyes ablaze, he does indeed take his family back to Egypt.
Rameses is now Pharaoh and the two men become locked in a power struggle over the slaves, Rameses refusing to release them. Down upon the great city rains plague after plague until finally when the firstborn of each home is killed, including Rameses’s son, the Pharaoh releases the slaves.
This is when DeMille got cooking and unleashed his great gift for massive sequences involving thousands. Gathering in front of the city, among the Avenue of Sphinxes, which they built, the slaves congregate by the thousands. They bring with them everything they own, camels, cattle, chickens, ducks, geese, an array of carts, and people ranging from newborn to the very elderly. With Moses in front of them, they leave the city and slavery behind in a majestic deeply moving scene of extraordinary motion and size.
Meanwhile, teased and tormented by his wife, Rameses has a change of heart when told the people of Egypt are laughing at him. Gathering his army, their chariots explode out of the city, across the desert in pursuit of the legions of slaves who they find camped on the shores of the Red Sea. Panic sets in as the slaves see the approaching chariots, as the sea begins to churn behind Moses. A pillar of fire bars the way for the army as Moses tells the slaves to gather all they have, for they must go.
Standing high over the now raging waters, Moses roars “The Lord of Host will do battle for us! Behold his mighty hand!” With the sky black, the wind whipping them about, the waters now savagely raging, the sea opens, leaving two churning, massive walls of water on either side and a path through the waters. Down they go into it, fearfully glancing at the water, waiting for its collapse, but the slaves make it to safety. As they arrive, the pillar of fire holding back the army of Egypt dies and Pharaoh orders the pursuit and the destruction of them all but Moses, who he wants alive. Foolishly they do charge into the parted waters, only to be consumed by the sea. When each Hebrew has safely crossed, the towering walls of water come crashing down on the army, swallowing up chariots, horses and soldiers leaving the Pharaoh to return to his Queen to say, “His God IS God.”
The film ends years later with Moses now ancient, leaving the Hebrews in the care of Joshua (John Derek) as he has been called to the mountain. His long white beard flowing, at peace at last, he goes off to die, his work for his God complete.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards (11 or 12 seems just) and incredibly won just one, for John Fulton’s superb visual effects. Despite being a massive hit with audiences, critics picked at the film’s weaknesses, which cannot be denied, rather than celebrate the films astonishing strengths and sweeping visual power. True some of the dialogue is terrible, and a few performances are wildly over done or too reverential, but the lead actors make it work, Heston and Brynner in particular.
The original silent film is a very different film, being two stories. The first deals with Moses bringing his people to freedom while the second half is a modern day (in 1923) story about living to the moral code of those Ten Commandments. Obviously the first half was far more interesting to audiences as movies taken from the pages of the Bible were very popular.
Beginning with Moses (Theodore Roberts) challenging the Pharaoh to release his people, it culminates with the Exodus from Egypt and of course the parting of the sea. Given the year the film was made, both events on film are much less impressive than of what was to come 33 years later, but given the time and technology available, DeMille and his team did just fine.
Unlike the remake, the original was not shot on the Egyptian locations, instead DeMille’s company shot in the deserts of California, outside Hollywood. The Red Sea was the great Pacific Ocean, and the gates and Avenue of Sphinxes were built, and buried in the desert to be found years later. You can read Craig’s article about that lost city on the site.
The remake is the greater film, and Heston towers over Roberts as Moses who often resembles primal man, looking as though he walked out of a cave.
Both films have been beautifully remastered and digitally restored so the colours of the remake are lavish, lush and vibrant. The images on each film are pristine and perfect.
Movies like this will never be made again, not with computers able to generate images making the building of entire sets unnecessary and more cost effective. But imagine walking on those magnificent sets, meticulously researched for years, and feeling in the moment, being there. I wonder if green screen offers actors that same sense of actually being there?
A wonderful addition for film buffs.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.