Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 3 hours 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Written by: Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss & Fredric M. Frank
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott & Vincent Price
Whether through acclaimed animation (PRINCE OF EGYPT) or a recently panned epic by a big name director (EXODUS), the story of Moses has potential to be entertaining for believers and non-believers alike. The most famous cinematic telling of the well-known tale is Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (his 1923 silent film). This biblical epic is notable for being the most expensive movie of its time (13 million) and being the second-highest grossing film of the 1950’s. While the lengthy running time might test bladders (there is a welcome intermission halfway through), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is worth watching for its sheer spectacle alone.
In ancient Egypt, there are rumblings of a Deliverer who will free the Hebrew slaves. Upset by this news, the Pharaoh orders all firstborn Hebrew infants to be killed…but a young baby secretly floats down the Nile. Rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, this Hebrew is named Moses and grows up alongside Ramses as Egyptian. When the truth comes out about Moses’s real heritage, he is banished to the brutal wilderness. Years pass and after an enlightening conversation with God, Moses returns as a Deliverer to free his people from bondage. As you might imagine, Ramses isn’t exactly thrilled to oblige.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is set on a huge scale and still holds up as an impressive feat today. Cecil B. DeMille certainly had a vision and executed it in grand fashion. The more elaborate effects are obviously animation mixed in with the live-action footage (though the parting of the Red Sea was executed fantastically through other practical means and layering). The animated effects make for a few unintentional chuckles today, but look great for their time period. The sheer practical nature of this production is awe-inspiring as the sets are massive and extras are everywhere, along with lots of real animals caught in the chaotic fray.
My one complaint with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS comes in the screenplay skipping over a majority of the Ten Plagues. When watching a Moses story, this is usually the most intense and effects heavy part. While three plagues are kept very much intact on-screen (water into blood, thunderstorm of hail and fire, and the death of the firstborn), the rest are vaguely mentioned in throwaway exposition dialogue. Color me a spoiled brat, but I really was looking forward to seeing these plagues in this film (especially with the massive production values). Instead, the script makes the most of the tenth plague and Passover (also an essential, important part of the story). The death gas hovering through Egypt is a legitimately creepy sequence, with stellar sound design adding the pain and sorrow of the whole situation.
While I’ve been going on and on about the effects and scale of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, I have yet to mention the performances. Charlton Heston is well cast as Moses. Heston’s performance has an instant charisma that would make the character likable…even if he wasn’t the biblical savior towards thousands of slaves. However, some of his dialogue can be a bit too melodramatic and cheesy (there are many blatantly over-the-top speeches about injustice). As Ramses, Yul Brynner is a blast. He’s cold and calculating from the get-go, constantly delivering the iconic line “So let it be written. So let it be done.”
As evil as Ramses is, I actually found the bigger antagonist to be his wife: Nefretiri (played wonderfully by Anne Baxter). This character was once deeply in love with Moses and displays a darker side early on, but commits her villainy in roundabout disguised ways. I truly enjoyed Baxter’s performance as the equivalent of a biblical femme fatale for Ramses (this description is especially accurate during last hour). Seeing as there’s so much going on, Yvonne De Carlo isn’t given much to do as Moses’s wife, Sephora. It also bears mentioning that Vincent Price makes a memorable appearance as a sinister master builder (or as Moses calls him: the master butcher).
I really appreciated that TEN COMMANDMENTS took creative liberties with its old-as-time material and managed to bring even more emotion to the familiar narrative. A sub-plot involving the strained relationship between a stonecutter, named Joshua, and a water giver, named Lilia, is especially well-done. Their story occasionally pops in and out as the bigger narrative moves forward. Also, moments between the Pharaoh and Moses are believable as a loving father and son. The scene in which the heartbroken Pharaoh learns the truth is very emotional to watch as the sadness between the characters feels genuine.
You don’t necessarily need to be a believer to appreciate and enjoy THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The film is epic in size and scale, making it something truly special to behold. There was plenty of care and detail put into the sets, costumes, effects, and writing. I appreciated that the film wasn’t just a retelling of the well-known Bible story and took creative liberties as a Hollywood blockbuster too. Though Heston’s dialogue can be cheesy and I really wish that more time had been spent on the plagues, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is a classic that has held up and easily stands as one of the best biblical epics of all-time!