The Ten Commandments (1956)

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This isn’t related to the previous review of Angels and Demons and should in no way be taken as an outbreak of religious mania on my part. It just so happened that the 1956 version of Cecil B DeMille’s biblical epic The Ten Commandments came out on Blu-ray last week, and I was able to get my hands on a copy to see for the first time what it is about this film that gets it regarded as one of the major classics of cinema.

In all honest, the main reason is the name attached to it: Cecil B DeMille was one of the last and possibly the most famous in his day of the original school of great film directors; and this was his final outing. He even makes an appearance in it: the Blu-ray preserves his four minute piece to camera introducing the film, and then De Mille takes on the role of narrator during the film itself.

De Mille had made a silent version of The Ten Commandments in the early days of his career in 1923, but that had been a very different film, containing a modern morality framing story in which a man falls into sin and has to relearn the laws of God by recalling the tale of Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The 1956 version discards the modern aspect and is all Moses, all the time: from the moment that the infant child is cast into the waters of the Nile to escape a cull of male Hebrew babies, then found and taken in by an Egyptian princess, right through to his death from old age, we’re standing right by Moses throughout.

De Mille always had a tendency to epic portentousness at the best of times, and this seems to have been exacerbated by his reverence to the Holy source material here and he duly reaches new (and often absurd) heights. This is not a film that’s going to question anything in the Bible, but instead shows it with slavish devotion without a hint of scepticism or cynicism. All this really does is show that the original authors of the Holy Scriptures were no screen writers and that their plot and character development are significantly below what we as modern audiences expect.

The problems with the script are made much worse by De Mille’s directing style with is slow and ponderous during the ‘dramatic’ scenes. De Mille seems to have choreographed these scenes to the last detail, telling actors: stand here; draw a breath at this point; glance away at this moment; lunge forward after that line. It couldn’t be less naturalistic if it tried, but that’s likely because De Mille wants the whole thing to look grand and momentous. ‘Natural’ doesn’t enter in to it in his mind. Unfortunately the effect to modern eyes lurches to within just a step or two of outright laugh-out-loud self-parody.

Fortunately in other parts of the film, there’s a good deal more life an vibrancy to the scene: the undoubted strengths of the movie are when it goes on location in Egypt (and also in the deserts and scrubland outside California) and utilises a cast of literally thousands to shock and awe us with the spectacle. This impressive display is carried though to the fantastic sets and costumes, and to the cast list which is still impressive enough to make you gasp even in 2013: from Charlton Heston as Moses to Yul Bryner as his arch foe Rameses II, there’s also Edward G Robinson, Cedric Hardwicke, Anne Baxter, John Carradine, Judith Anderson, Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek and Debra Paget. Vincent Price is unmistakable in a comparatively minor role, and Woody Strode gets a one scene walk-on as the King of Ethiopia.

But despite these undoubted strengths, it’s hard to see why this film persists as being an all-time great of cinema. It styles itself as “the Academy Award Winning Classic” but in fact won only one of the seven mainly technical Oscars for which it was nominated – the special effects, which frankly have dated very badly. Whether the ‘invisible’ effects such as background mattes or the most centre-stage obvious FX for the various miracles Moses is called upon to enact in the course of the film, there’s little here that isn’t distinctly quaint to modern eyes.

The running time of the film (including the original road show music-only overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music sequences that I always love to see retained in a home entertainment release) is 220 minutes, and it feels every minute of it. The first half is very slow and drags out an extended version of Moses’ early years based on the accounts of contemporary writings and books by 20th century religious theorists. Over the first hour, Moses is presented as the heir apparent to succeed Seti I and in love with pharaoh’s daughter Nefretiri, only to renounce it all voluntarily when he learns his real Hebrew roots – rather than, say, keeping quiet until he becomes pharaoh so that he can free the Jewish slaves which might have been the brighter idea all round. Instead he gets exiled, and after a spot of shepherding the first half of the film climaxes with Moses receiving a burning bush briefing from God on Mount Sinai.

It’s not as if the film really needs all this extra padding, which not only makes the first half slow moving but also makes the second half surprisingly rushed. You’d think that the various plagues that Moses calls down on Egypt would all be major moments, but two are dashed through, several just mentioned in passing, and only the final plague (the deaths of first born sons of Egypt) has real dramatic weight while portraying the traumatic night of the first Passover in solemn detail.

The titular Ten Commandments themselves only arrive in just the last twenty minutes of the film; and after they put in their appearances the film promptly decides it’s had enough and wraps up indecently quickly, glossing over forty years with a spoken narrative aside by De Mille. Unfortunately the final scenes are undermined by Heston appearing in a comedy white fright wig and cotton wool beard to designate his now extreme old age, but this effect is less believable than your local shopping mall Father Christmas and pretty much renders the climax of the scene into a moment of sniggers rather than of the intended reverential awe.

Ultimately you can certainly still see why the film would have gone down well with the middle-America of Eisenhower’s mid-50s United States. It remakes the Exodus story into a parable of modern America’s rise from its dark time of slavery to becoming the beacon of freedom around the world that it saw itself in those simpler times, and as such will still appeal to people with old-fashioned taste and beliefs for whom the modern world is just too dark, complex and decadent to be tolerated or saved from itself.

Your personal reaction to The Ten Commandments might well say more about your relationship with and belief in Scripture than it does your sensibilities as a modern cineaste; however, for all its shortcomings, you have to admire the movie as a piece of epic film craft the likes of which hasn’t existed now for the better part of five decades. And the true marvel of The Ten Commandments for me is the Blu-ray that the film is now available on: this version is absolutely spectacular, a modern technological miracle and a true work of devotion by the restoration team who have cleaned up all dirt and damage and revived the colours to literally divine hues. There is a contrast and depth to the picture on display here that would still put many a modern film to shame, and it stands as a monument for what can be achieved in the presentation of classic films for 21st century audiences.

It’s genuinely worth seeing for that alone. Its undoubted other faults and failings can surely be overlooked and forgiven.

The Blu-ray version was released in the UK on February 4. It contains some trailers and an excellent audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, who wrote the ‘making of’ book about the film. However, you’ll need the earlier pre-restoration three-disc DVD boxset if you also want the 1923 version and the six-part ‘making of’ documentary as special features.

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