The Ten Commandments (1956). Film review of the religious epic about the life of Moses.

image still ten commandments 1956 heston

Film review by Jason Day of The Ten Commandments, the religious epic about the life of Moses, produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.


image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

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After the Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke) decrees all first born sons of Jewish slaves be killed, Yochabel (Martha Scott) places her infant boy Moses in a basket and sends him down the Nile. Sethi’s sister Bithia (Nina Foch) finds him and raises him as her own, despite knowing his origins and that her brother could have her executed for treason. As an adult, Moses (Charlton Heston) lives in competitive conflict with his adoptive brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) and is tentatively acknowledged as Sethi’s heir, enraging the other man. After Sethi’s death, Rameses is made aware of Moses’ background and casts him out into the desert and then marrying Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) whom Moses is in love with. Moses battles hardship to ensure he can return to Egypt and try to release his fellow man from servitude.

Review, by Jason Dayimage poster ten commandments 1956

Never mind the quality, feel the length. (Jason Day aka ‘Reelreviewer’, 2017).

Epic films of the 50’s and 60’s would be so much shorter if they didn’t have overtures and entr’actes.

But oh for the days of old when a trip to the cinema would stretch into a whole afternoon or evening to see such mighty, mammoth, mega-movies.

Cecil B. DeMille, whatever criticism you throw at him (and there are plenty) at least knew how to give a paying audience their money’s worth. Here, audiences even have the pleasure of seeing the great man himself, as he introduces the movie in a portentous, school masterly manner. “The film is 3 hours 39 minutes. There will be an intermission” he says; thank heavens for the bladder prep., CB.

Given that he is most famous for his later period of filmmaking when he was master of the mighty historical or religious epic, it’s not so well known that DeMille was, for a brief period (1915-1918) one of the most exciting and technically innovative film director in America, if not the whole world.

His sombre, atmospheric and avant-garde productions such as The Cheat (1915), The Whispering Chorus and Old Wives For New (both 1918) prefigured film noir with their striking photography, tense acting and adult, sexually charged storylines.

Given that the sex was what drove most punters to movie houses, DeMille set about cranking that up in a series of titilating social sex comedies, most of which starred a very young Gloria Swanson and made her and DeMille box office champs.

After raking in the cash following hit after hit, he settled in to a steady stream of more pedestrian historical and religious epics for the rest of his directorial career, including two versions of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956).

The second one was the biggest movie he ever made: 3 hours 39 minutes long, 14,000 extras, 15,000 animals and a total international box office gross of more than $50m (more than $2bn in today’s money). It still ranks as one of the top ten highest earning movies of all time, when it’s earnings are adjusted for inflation.

Performance wise, the cast all slam their feet down hard on the artistic accelerator to deliver some prime cuts of ham.

Heston’s jaw-jutting and arms out wide stretching don’t quite get in the way of a deeply committed and sincere performance that also sees him double-up as the voice of God. His own infant son Fraser gets a look in, appearing as the baby Moses in the opening scenes.

Baxter, never a Hollywood star one would accuse of delicacy, nuance or subtlety is all lips, wide eyed frenzy and wantonly breathy delivery. She pants and over-rolls her mascara heavy eyes as a deliciously ripe Queen Nefretiri. This awful, overblown acting is entirely in keeping with the overall uneven performances and elephantine proportions of the production.

Almost as big as the sets he struts around is the mountainously muscled Brynner. 1956 was the year of Brynner cinema. He starred not only in this, but also opposite Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia and netted an Oscar for his immortal King of Siam in the magical The King and I. Here, he is fantastically peacockish, impudent and arrogant, preening and supremely sure of himself.

There is lip-smacking villainy from Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, who lust over pretty Debra Paget. The equally pretty John Derek is her future husband, Joshua.

There’s no denying DeMille’s skill as a storyteller, despite the sanctimonious, patronising tone of the film and his obstructive narration. He and his production team conjure up scenes that are still thrilling and commanding (the creepy death mist that seeps across Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the writing in fire of the titular decrees in stone and the earthquake that follows).

image still ten commandments moses heston

Holy Moses! Charlton Heston sermonises after receiving The Ten Commandments (1956).

DeMille may thrill with such big cinematic bang moments, but that doesn’t excuse how horribly long this movie is (he adds an extra hour and twenty minutes to the first version of this tale) and how frigid and dull it turns out to be.

Staging his scenes like static religious tableaux, his actors pose as if they are shop window dummies, the camera hardly moving, his cast of thousands passing around it in an eternal, choreographed aimlessness.

As a postscript, the Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter used to create lavish spoofs of Hollywood movies during his TV show in the 1970’s. The Ten Commandments became The Love of Moses and he mercilessly sent-up Baxter’s lubricious performance and the plummy, saucy dialogue in the script:

Nefretiri: My eyes are as green as the cedars of Lebanon, my skin as white as curd, my lips as red and moist as the pomegranate…

Moses: But Nefretiri…

Nefretiri: Don’t interrupt me when I’m stocktaking!

Cast & credits

Director: Cecil B. DeMille. 217mins. Motion Picture Associates/Paramount. (U)

Producer: Cecil B. DeMille.
Writers: AEneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Garris, Fredric M. Frank.
Camera: Loyal Griggs.
Music: Elmer Bernstein.
Sets: Albert Nozaki, Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler.

Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Olive Deering, Douglass Dumbrille, Henry Wilcoxon, H.B. Warner, Julia Faye.

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