The Ten Commandments by Oscar B. DeMille
There comes a moment in every movie when you have to decide whether you are going to stay the course or go looking for something else to do. This doesn’t always mean that the movie has given you a great scene to grip your heart, or a bad scene that makes you wonder if doing a puzzle of a polar bear eating vanilla ice cream in a blizzard might not be a more rewarding use of your time. It simply means that your attention has been caught and, consciously or not, you decide that you are in it for the long haul.
I know exactly this moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. About forty minutes into this nearly four-hour movie, Queen Nefertiri (Anne Baxter) flirts with Moses (Charlton Heston) by seductively mocking him with the words, “Oh Moses, Moses. You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” Yes: that Moses. You know, the one who parted the Red Seas, led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage, spoke to God through a burning bush, and delivered his ten commandments. Apparently, this Deliverer was also hot enough to turn on quivering Queen.
This moment encapsulates both the genius and the sheer open-mouthed weirdness of DeMille. Even the most cursory viewing of this director’s silent movie work reveals one of the great storytelling artists of his era. DeMille pioneered not just the movies, but the way in which the silent films could overwhelm his audience with a balance of sin, sex, and, on occasion, religious fervor. He pushed the art form forward right up until the day that Al Jolson’s enthusiastic “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” signaled the death of one art and the birth of another.
Artistically at least, no director was more harmed by the coming of sound. This cataclysm did no damage to DeMille’s box office potential. In fact, his sound films were even bigger and more financially successful than his silent ones. The problem was less about what he was putting on the screen and more about how he was putting it there. With each passing film, it became more and more apparent that DeMille’s aesthetic never advanced beyond the fluttering eyes and outstretched arms of silent movies.
DeMille’s final film as director, The Ten Commandments, stands as an oddly delightful proof of this calcification. As the quote above attests, the dialogue in his talkies should never have been said out loud. It should have been printed on an intertitle card. Compare this line to a similar one in DeMille’s silent classic King of Kings when the rapacious courtesan Mary Magdalene sets off to seduce Jesus with the command, “Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian king!” In the florid and unreal world of the silent film, this line could draw excitement. Imagine if this was said out loud. There wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house.
DeMille’s issues extended beyond dialogue. The silent film was built on pantomime, on a need to say twice as much with body language because it had to convey everything. DeMille’s performers were never allowed to get past gestures and posing. Keeping in mind that the 1950’s were the height of method acting, his direction permitted no naturalism. Our first sight of Nefertiri sees her flinging flowers in the path of a returning Moses. The tilt of her head, the stuttering toss of the flowers, and the orgasmic breathing will create the intended effect only when the sound is turned off.
Of course, this director’s firepower was never aimed at the details of storytelling. DeMille wanted to wow us and, by the standards of 1956, he did just that. The Ten Commandments moves from one gigantic set-piece to the next with maximum time taken to indulge the spectacle of each. To give you an idea of how he paces this movie, you only need to note the timing of his original 1925 version of the same tale. In the earlier movie, DeMille breaks the narrative into two intercut stories; the same tale of Moses as he presents in 1956, and a modern-day tale of a young man who meets a horrible fate when he breaks each commandment in sequence. To tell both narratives in 1925, DeMille took 136 minutes. His later version of only one of these stories is told in 220 minutes.
One of the more delightful aspects of The Ten Commandments is what it reveals about the maker. By “the maker,” I mean DeMille, not God, although this is not without some irony. DeMille was a famous autocrat. The director Henry Hathaway, then a lowly production assistant, worked on several DeMille silents yet only had one responsibility. He had to follow behind DeMille with a chair so that when the director started to sit he would always have something to land on. DeMille was not the possessor of a depleted ego. As proof of this, The Ten Commandments has not one, but two opening scenes. In the first, DeMille himself steps out from behind a curtain and tells us that we are about to witness a work of greatness that will stand as proof of God’s existence. This is immediately followed by an opening in which the voice of God tells us how he formed the world. The voice is that of DeMille. Your honor, I rest my case.
And yet, The Ten Commandments frequently makes an advantage of its anachronisms and displays of ego and hubris. For all its bizarre dialogue and forced attempts to equate religious belief with sexual desire, this movie has moments of sublime beauty. The best of these show the director appropriately processing the lessons of the silent era. The sequence when death falls from the sky on the first Passover is beautifully rendered and the joyous march from Egypt is staged and edited with a nearly Eisensteinian eye for detail. And no one ever lingered more lovingly over the hedonism of good old orgy than DeMille.
There are other pleasures – intentional and not – that make this something of a cracked cornucopia. Chief among these is the acting. Edward G. Robinson as the one evil Jew uses his sheer professionalism to power past his dialogue while Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh manages to give off the impression that he is in on the joke (even if we can’t be quite sure what that joke is). Everyone else, especially Heston and Baxter, seem to be constantly struggling to find a balance between acting and whatever it is that DeMille is asking them to do. This is one of those movies where we cheer when they get it right and cheer louder when they don’t.
Thanks to ABC, The Ten Commandments has become a Palm Sunday tradition where commercial breaks make the story of the Jews forty-year march to the Holy Land feel as though we are living it in real time. The choice of this movie for this date makes some sense since it also usually coincides with Passover. It is, after all, a story about the Jews told by a Christian director who is setting himself up as the one true god.
Oh, Cecil, Cecil. You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool.