This is part of a religion in film series, concerning spirituality in its many forms through a cinematic lens. In this article, I will be exploring Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film “The Ten Commandments”, a touchstone in the historical epic of the 1950s. The film stars Charlton Heston, Yul Breynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson and a cast of thousands. I will be discussing the film in the context of other religious epics like it at the time, as well as how it shaped my idea of religion growing up.
Part One: An Introduction
I can say without hyperbole, that the greatest fears I experienced in my childhood came directly from the church. I’m sure it was never my parent’s intention to scar me for life with the word of God, but that’s exactly what happened. For the most part, I found church services to be unstimulating and boring; with my mom letting me bring Beatrix Potter books with me as reading material through the long drawn out sermons.
But then, there were the other sermons, the ones that were less about God’s love, and more about his wrath. These were the nightmare stories, the ones about plagues, fires, and floods. The ones about animal sacrifices, human sacrifices, the mark of the beast, and the end of the world. These were the stories I remember well, and which caused me to ask my parents to sleep in their room on more than one occasion. Yet I was afraid to tell anyone about these anxieties knowing that as a Christian we were taught not to fear God. Today it feels more like I was going through a Youth indoctrination program where being a kid was like being a guinea pig and I was conditioned to love God and not fear hell. It didn’t work, whether it was hell or the talk about the end of days, there was always something that filled my imagination with despair, and despite my lip service of faith, I was always left uneasy.
My constant salvation from the Religious House of Horrors among many other anxieties were movies. Movies were that escape from the barrage of hell scapes dancing in my mind, brought to life by my sadistic minister. They became my release and my serenity from my over burdened brain. Movies were that oasis into different lives and stories that seemed so separate from my church, yet it still nourished me with tales of morality, life, and death, and good and evil. Movies were the new religion, one I didn’t have to be afraid of, and there was no fear of these two denominations clashing. That is until I came across the scariest movie of all time: The Ten Commandments!
Part Two: The Epic to End All Epics
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments was my introduction to the genre of “The Religious Epic”. Religious films have been around almost since the dawn of cinema, in fact the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments is a direct remake of DeMille’s own film he made in 1923. But by the 1950s, you could see an insurmountable boom with the genre. This might have to do with the idea that with the advent of television, movies were now looking for new ways to remain relevant and bring people to the theatre. What better way than to take our favourite mythical stories and present them on screens in rich, glorious technicolor, and boasting casts of thousands. The gamble for the most part paid off, and between 1950-59, the domestic box office was usually conquered by the likes of religious themed films such as Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Demetrius and The Gladiators, and Ben-Hur, the latter of which would go on to win the most Oscars ever in a competitive year with 11 trophies, a feat that has only been matched by Titanic, and The Return of the King.
Along with the critical and box office acclaim, the studios spared no expense to show just how extravagant these epics were. They wanted everyone to see the money being put on screen, and thus we have them to thank for introducing panoramic widescreen which was first used in 1953’s The Robe. So whatever you want to say about the religious aspect of these films, it’s hard to deny the sheer spectacle they brought to the movies or that they helped bring people to the cinemas.
But let’s get back to the granddaddy of them all, The Ten Commandments. Although William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is, I would argue a far more artistic feat than DeMille’s film, The Ten Commandments is probably the one that has remained in the public consciousness the longest, being the most successful of the religious epics. If you count inflation, the film is the sixth highest money maker of all time just trailing behind E.T. The Extraterrestrial and Titanic. It is also the film which still gets broadcast every Easter/Passover on ABC at nauseum like It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. Yessir, it’s the type of film to get the kids hunkered down for four and a half hours (or five if you count commercial breaks) and watch Charlton Heston as Moses, live as an Egyptian, find out he’s Hebrew, talk to himself on a mountain (Yes Heston also plays the voice of God), them frees his people only to kill half of them at the end with some stone tablets.
So what makes this film so special? Why do we return to it every year and not the countless others which were like it? Well part of it probably has to do with the story. The Ten Commandments is literally one of the oldest stories known to man, and whether you believe in it or not, it’s the kind of story people often know by heart even without reading a page from the bible. I can’t even remember the first time I heard about Moses, whether it was from my parents, Sunday school, or this film, yet I can’t remember my life without knowing the story. I can imagine I’m not unique in knowing it at such a young age, as I probably knew the name Moses before I heard of the name Jesus.
But this is only coming from my perspective; what makes Moses so unique is not only his importance among Christian religions like mine was, but also the Jewish religion. Judaism was the most prominent religion in the world until the Christians kinda took over, and it wasn’t till later in life I found out just how important Moses was to them. For Christians, Moses was a very significant prophet in the Old Testament, but for the Jews, he was the most significant prophet according to the Hebrew Bible. He was the leader of the Israelites who are called God’s “chosen people”. These were the people who made a covenant with God and were told of a deliverer who would free them from slavery in Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land. The fact that Moses stretches across these two dominant religions in such an essential way might go towards why this film has such staying power.
Another reason might also be the sheer essence of the story as well. The Ten Commandments deals with oppressed people who have been enslaved, and the remarkable struggle they had to endure. It’s a story about the importance of freedom and fighting back against persecutors who deny you that right. Stories of rebellions and gaining liberty spread across universal themes that are meant to inspire and ignite passion in the viewer, which this film is able to capture. It’s also a film about morality, you might say it’s the ultimate story of it. The Ten Commandments themselves are literally ten moral rules handed down by God and which people still hold sacred today. We would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t at times think about films fishing out moral lessons about how to become a better person. Hollywood has done this all the time from Frank Capra to Star Wars, after all the battle for good and evil is as old as….THE BIBLE!!!
The Ten Commandments represents an origin of morality of sorts. If we believe that morality exists, it must come from somewhere, and the story of Moses is the most concrete sacred evidence we have found. Perhaps it’s the need to know that these rules exist and in order to be a good person, we must abide by them. Therefore there is a sanctity to the story. There are other bible stories that may hold some significance, but The Ten Commandments hover over all of them. It’s a communal tale, one that reminds us how we can judge ourselves, and what makes us a good person. All of these aspects make for great fodder for an epic film.
Part Three: The Wrath of DeMille
But let’s get back to the point at hand: that the film is fricken terrifying. Well it kinda goes back to those days of church sermons, meant to put the fear of God in me. The film represented those stories put into fruition by the magic of cinema. All of a sudden they became too real for me. Cecil B. DeMille decided to dramatise my trauma, and my anxiety, all my fears about God, and his wrath and morphed it into an epic blockbuster, and I was not amused.
For the first time in my life, I was subject to the actual power of God on screen; I would witness the the slaughtering of Hebrew children by merciless Egyptians, I would wince at the sight of the burning bush, and I would gaze at all of the deadly plagues among Egypt which I almost knew by heart. The effect these images had on my psyche at such a young age was profound. It was as if I could no longer look at these sermons as possible myth but the honest to God truth.
Two aspects of the film had the biggest impact on me, the first was actually hearing the voice of God which was provided in the film by Charlton Heston. For most of my childhood, I would associate Heston’s voice with that of God’s, and it left me shattered. Heston has all the earmarks of old testament wrath with his low baritone register, so much so, I could not enjoy any other of the man’s films till I reached adulthood. Heston leaves a dominance in both his roles as Moses and as the voice of God mostly due to his commanding voice. When I heard his voice, it was like a booming rattle from the heavens, yet it wasn’t the type which left me comforted, but rather uneasy. Even though Heston plays the hero in the film, he sounded like the boogie man. After all that’s what God felt to me in those days. He was this in-explainable entity responsible for our creation, but also the causer of such chaos. He could be the bearer of life and death, and I was petrified if I ever got on his bad side. In his limited range, you could feel Heston understood this and he was the kind of actor with the type of gravitas to take this role seriously. Heston plays it straight, almost as if he was given the most important part in all of movies. As Moses, he mostly stands erect, saying his lines as if they were scripture, marked down by God himself (or in this case probably DeMille who had a bit of a God complex).
The second factor of the film that left an indelible scar were the plagues. As depicted in the Bible, the plagues were the tools used by God through Moses to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. In the film, they are meant as a way to show God’s strength and to prove to the sceptical Egyptians that he is the one true God. However these plagues come at a great price. Before the Hebrews are allowed to be freed, death must happen, and it happens swiftly and silently making it all the more eerie and unsettling. I’ll forgo the minor plagues such as turning a river of water into blood, or the balls of fire coming down to the sky, and focus in on the most nightmarish that of the Angel of Death which came down like a fog and killed the first born child of every man in Egypt.
Recalling this scene, I remember hearing the screaming and wailing heard in the film, by the families of people who weren’t the Pharaoh but were being killed off by this unstoppable monster. There was also the smearing of goat’s blood put on each door in order for death to pass and where the true believers were safe. I remember the fog moving throughout the city, with the sense that anyone who would touch it would fall to the ground. This, along with the idea of The Second Coming, which would bring about the end of the world, were the two horror stories I lived with in my youth. And yet I was supposed to live in the comfort knowing I was saved, that I believed in God, and therefore I would not be harmed. But it did nothing to give me solace in the idea of seeing this image played out on film. Often when this scene came up during a random showing on television, I had to leave the room and waited it out until the parting of the red sea (which admittedly was always my favourite part).
So in a sense The Ten Commandments had the opposite effect of what Cecil B. DeMille probably had in mind. In a story that was meant to inspire and awe us, it left me with a great sense of scepticism, and probably lead me to question this so-called love of God. It lead to a path of fear, and then of questioning, that if God means love, why then is there so much death done in his name? I understood the Egyptians were the villains, and they were keeping slaves, but in the end, I was less afraid of Ramses and his phoney God, than I was about the real God who brought on such destructible force in his name, and laid is wrath down hard for the people who chose not to believe in him.
I know, I know, I’m sure Cecil B. DeMille never meant for the film to be a harbinger of existential dread for a pre-adolescent but the effect for me was so visceral and extreme. I was paralysed with fear at the thought of seeing the film again, even by accident if it was on television, or the thought of seeing Charlton Heston in a big grey beard, his robe, and his staff which could turn into a cobra (Did I mention it turned into a cobra?!) I like to think my experience with the film had a positive effect, but I didn’t see one for a very long time. As I grew up, I laid the film up to my many irrational fears which have at least caused me to lead a semi-neurotic lifestyle.
In the end, The Ten Commandments was a film which was indeed linked so heavily on how I viewed my own religion at the time, and how I perceived stories from the Bible. Today it reminds me of a society of Christians who worked less on faith and more on fear. For it’s part, I don’t really blame the movie for turning me into a nervous wreck, rather than the superstitious ramblings of a community of people I later grew suspicious of as to their real motives. Those suspicions never went away, and it caused me to distance myself more and more from the church in search of my own truth, something I’m still searching for to this day.
Part Five: Revisiting the Film
But that begs the question, how does The Ten Commandments hold up now? It had been years since I last saw it, and now that my fears about it have subsided, I was curious to see my reaction to it today. The film itself feels less epic than it did when I was a kid. There are many moments where the look is diminished by studio built sets which at times look phoney and even cheap. Although this was made pre-Lawrence of Arabia, I was expecting much more grandiose scenes. There are other times where the film relies too much on back projection and what looks to be stock footage to really make an impression. DeMille also stages his scenes in a very old fashioned way which hearkens back to the early silent period, where he has his actors stand in very traditional tableau, speak their lines, then exiting the frame. When it comes to the dialogue scenes, he doesn’t shoot them in any dynamic ways. The dialogue itself is wooden but bring about a healthy campiness to the proceedings, I chuckle at Yul Brynner’s final lines in the film where he pronounces “His God, is God”.
As for the performances, they range from spirited to downright still. After all the hulabaloo I gave about Heston’s intimidating voice, I found a certain self-righteousness in his performance. It may not be totally his fault, since Moses, as shown isn’t a very interesting character, but rather he is depicted as the prophet of God, someone who lacks any imperfection. Heston is basically given the task of a hero’s journey, and he becomes more convincing as the film goes on. Yet what we are missing is Moses’ struggle, or him even doubting himself or his mission to save the people. Heston does most of the heavy lifting, but it would’ve been nice if the script gave him something to work with.
However this being an all-star cast, part of the fun is seeing who pops up in bit parts and cameos, and the film definitely delivers. For his small role as The Master Builder of Egypt, Vincent Price can’t help but be dastardly, and devilish, as he chews the scenery at any chance he gets. Edward G. Robinson does the same in his role as Dathan, the Hebrew who works as a spy for the Egyptians. Robinson doesn’t skimp on his character’s ruthlessness and he’s a joy to watch in the small ways he schemes and connives in order for him to get ahead.
What shows this film as being very much of its time is how it depicts women. They are mostly seen as objects of affection for the men, and they aren’t given much time for any character depth. Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Moses’ wife Sephora has very little to do, and is mostly sidelined for God once Moses goes on his mission. There is a brief scene that suggests the sacrifice Sephora had to endure in being married to a prophet, but the film isn’t really interested in her story.
The one exception to the patriarchal mentality of the film comes from Anne Baxter playing Ramses’ wife Nefretiri. Although her character motivation is somewhat shallow (she loves Moses and does what it takes to have him), she makes the most of it, and gives a wonderful vampy performance.
Yet despite all of this, The Ten Commandments still does actually work. For every phoney set and back projection, there are moments of grand epic majesty and spectacle. The actual exodus from Egypt featuring over 14 000 extras and 15 000 animals is a site to behold especially when you think about how we will probably never see that again on film. Then of course there is the money shot of the parting of the Red Sea, something that is still breathtaking and wondrous. However, the scene I was most curious about seeing again as it was the sequence of my nightmares was the Angel of Death. It still doesn’t disappoint, there is something very atmospheric and creepy about the whole mood. There is a positively chilling shot of a large cloud coming down over the moon, stretching out and morphing into a giant hand with claws, it’s an image as if out of a Grimm fairy tale, and it’s still haunting.
But what really makes the film work so well is the power of the story itself. The Ten Commandments has endured almost like a campfire story, and it has everything someone would want in a compelling yarn. DeMille knew this, and he no doubt saw the power of its images which he could exploit onto the screen for our enjoyment.
So I can now say I have made peace with The Ten Commandments, it truly is one of the lasting epics of Hollywood’s golden age. I had fun watching it, something I could never say I did when I was younger. Yet it does reflect a time when I was young, impressionable, and uncertain about my beliefs. I don’t consider myself a victim of my religion and the fearful doctrine it preached, but it has left a mark on me that I won’t ever forget. If that time has taught me anything, it’s that fear should not be run on irrationality, and that no matter what you believe in, you shouldn’t trust the first person who tells you what they think the God’s honest truth is. But it also taught me about the power of the movies, something I may not have been aware of. Images can be very impactful and have a lasting effect on you. As a young boy, The Ten Commandments was as real as anything I was being preached about on Sunday. Those images came alive for me, and will stay with me forever.