While selling Bibles door-to-door in the summer of 1969, one customer totally cracked me up when responding that Charlton Heston was her favorite character in the Old Testament. Is there anyone who can picture Moses without thinking of Heston dramatically lifting his staff to part the Red Sea? Heston has cinematically chiseled that role into icon status just as much as Michelangelo has sculpted the definitive marble rendition (currently housed at Rome's San Pietro in Vincoli)—in fact, the two are intertwined in the 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments. Cecil B. DeMille cast Heston as his Moses after it was pointed out how closely he resembled Michelangelo's masterpiece!
This marks only one of DeMille's ingenious casting decisions for arguably his greatest movie. Equally memorable are Yul Brynner's striking portrayal of the film's resident badass Pharaoh, Ramses, and Edward G. Robinson's supporting efforts as Hebrew traitor Dathan. Blacklisted during the McCarthy scare, Robinson credits DeMille for literally saving his acting career, and he makes the most of it as the stand-in for the forces of evil after Ramses lets the Hebrew slaves go. Even Vincent Price takes a break from his horror and Edgar Allan Poe genre work for some small sinister work as slavemaster Baka until Moses righteously finishes him off. Remembering his silent film era roots, DeMille loyally casts numerous silent actors in cameos.
DeMille took a lot of flack from studio executives for wanting to remake his silent 1923 epic immediately after his crowd-pleasing The Greatest Show on Earth. Thinking the Biblical epic a tired genre, the studio wanted the legendary director to work with more marketable material. What a loss that would've been, as this supreme epic remarkably stands up over time despite its overly stylized choreography, touches of melodrama, and unintentionally funny dialogue flourishes. Part of why many continue to love it and religiously watch its traditional Easter showing on network television is due to the melodramatic delineation between good and evil that comes directly from the silent era. Enhanced with brightly hued Technicolor and full soundtrack, Elmer Bernstein's indulgent score completes the old style drama by overtly announcing the good and evil characters as they appear. You can almost sense the audience alternately cheering and hissing.
The overdone dialogue also is a real treat. Everybody repeats "Moses, Moses" whenever addressing him (you can make a decent "drinking game" based on this conceit), including Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) on his deathbed despite previously ordering that the name "Moses" be erased from the memory of man for all time. Funniest are Nefretiri's (Anne Baxter) numerous flirtations ("Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!") that betray her obsessive lust and propel the plot forward. Nefretiri powerfully uses her sexual favors to get the jealous Ramses to do whatever she wants, whether manipulating him to give Moses a break or belittling for allowing the Hebrew slaves to go (after being spurned by her former lover).
Behind it all is DeMille's driving force to carve a story about man's first struggles for freedom. Not only does the 75-year old director dramatically step in front of golden curtains to preach the lesson, but he also emphasizes it during the narration (also performed by DeMille), and leaves absolutely no doubt with Moses' final dramatic send-off to Joshua as the people prepare to cross the Jordan River. Taken from Leviticus but more often associated with the Liberty Bell, Heston raises his arms (much like the Statue of Liberty) and bellows: "Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the lands unto all the inhabitants thereof." Most directors would receive snickers for such a cheesy marriage of American and Biblical icons, but DeMille gets away with it with his grandeur and sincerity!
Metaphors a-plenty proliferate throughout the dialogue. Ramses consistently compares Dathan's slimy character to rodents—"You have a rats ears and a ferret's nose." But he piles most of them on Nefretiri, calling her a peacock before demonstrating proper Egyptian chauvinism: "You will be mine, like my dog, or my horse, or my falcon, except that I shall love you more—and trust you less." The flowery metaphors aren't only reserved for the Queen. Nefretiri describes Memnet as a "puckered old persimmon" while Dathan and Baka describe Lilia (Debra Paget) as a "mud flower" or "lotus" as they vie to woo her from Joshua (John Derek in his most notable acting role).
Above all, however, the classic Cecil B. DeMille trademark epic scope and meticulous detail of the production design win new fans each year. The Ten Commandments is BIG. With the largest sets ever designed, filmed both on location in Egypt and Sinai and on the Paramount back lot, DeMille literally directs a cast of thousands with the generous help of the Egyptian army as extras, organizing the grandest production of the first half century of filmmaking. A Bible scholar, DeMille took great pains during pre-production to recreate the period as accurately as possible—only taking cinematic liberties for dramatic purposes. A few examples:
1. Purposely leaving out colorful interior palace murals so that they don't dominate the cast.
At three hours and thirty-six minutes, plus intermission, the film plays much shorter—especially during the second half when Moses unleashes the plagues. Turning the Nile into blood remains one of the great moments in epic films, particularly when Ramses' attempts to purify the river from a sacred vase are thwarted. The fiery hail (achieved by popcorn and sound effects) and the foggy green pestilence that claims Egypt's first born are also rendered with suspense and continue to mesmerize, all without CGI assistance. DeMille axed another scene with frogs (prophetically avoiding any future association with the pretentious Magnolia).
2. Moses can not stutter as described in Exodus. It wouldn't be fitting to have the hero stand by silently as his brother Aaron delivers the message.
3. Only hinting at Moses' marriage to an African, as a direct reference would be far too challenging to fifties audiences.
Although the plagues are really well conceived, the scenes that everyone remembers are the great set pieces: the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and God's revelation of the Law. DeMille tirelessly worked with numerous bit players in the large crowd scenes, so that everyone has specific tasks to do and marks to hit. Those all make up for the disappointing burning bush, only notable because the voice of God is actually Heston (deepened and distorted). Heston's idea was that Moses likely heard an "internal," but feel free to devise your own comments about the hambone actor's ego here.
Although it's easy to poke holes in DeMille's The Ten Commandments, there's good reason that it remains one of cinema's best-loved classics. Yul Brynner was never better and makes us believe that he really comes from Egyptian royalty, and Charlton Heston carves out a true religious iconic role as Moses. In the highly choreographed world of Cecil B. DeMille, Heston turns in a perfect performance for Moses (despite a final scene with really lame whitened beard and make-up with hands that somehow retain their youth). Heston isn't the most creative actor in the business, but he reads heavily and researches his parts for historical purposes. In the hands of DeMille, all he need do is remain his wooden self and follow directions—Heston always hits his marks, and it pays off hugely.
Ask anyone what image forms when they think of "God" and "Moses," and you can pretty much bet that most people will be thinking of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and a scene from The Ten Commandments. It may seem ironic that the film for which Cecil B. DeMille has become most famous for was his final project out of the 79 he directed, but any director deserves to be proud of such a wonderfully constructed film for the ages. It's a fitting legacy to a great pioneering director, who spanned both the silent and film eras. "So let it be written, so let it be done."
Note: the special edition DVD released in March, 2004 contains six short featurettes and one of the most detailed commentaries you'll ever hear by author/historian Katherine Orrison, who spent seven years meticulously researching every aspect she could about this film. She narrates behind-the-scenes stories during the entire running time, mostly about the various actors appearing—including a cornucopia about actors that appear only briefly. Among the interesting tidbits: baby Moses is played by Heston's own 3-month old son, and Yul Brynner only showed up for one day of shooting exterior shots in Egypt (he was committed to his Broadway production of The King and I).