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He spurned me like a strumpet in the street.

The Ten Commandments
(1956)

(SPOILERS) Stodge of biblical proportions. Sometimes during The Ten Commandments, you’ll feel like you’re spending those forty interminable years in the wilderness yourself (luckily consisting of no more than a line of narration in this four-hour epic). The common response to Cecil B DeMille’s final grand spectacle is that it’s overblown, old-style entertainment, worthwhile in spite of its delusions of importance and reverence. Unfortunately, however, the movie is more often dramatically stolid, even to the extent of presenting literal tableaux, and sometimes with accompanying narration at that. The picture obviously did the trick – audiences flocked to it in droves – but this is far from nimble storytelling.

This version is still preferable to Sir Ridders atheistic but reluctantly veering towards miracles in the end Exodus: Gods and Kings a few years back. Although, that picture had (relative) brevity in its favour. While DeMille is much more reverent – as well as creative with his sources, spreading his net much wider than the “Holy Scriptures” – I was most struck how, rather than presenting the trials and tribulations of Chuck Heston’s reluctant prophet Moses, the director is far more engaged by the pharaonic dynasty, always eager to cut back to whatever it is Set I (Cedric Hardwicke), Rameses II (Yul Brynner) or Nefertiti (Anne Baxter) are up to. Even when Ramases’ hopes are finally dashed and Moses and co are safely on the other side of the Red Sea, Cecil can’t resist returning to the disconsolate and divided Rameses and Nefertiti in the throne room.

DeMille had been at this a long time (more than forty years, just not so much in the Hollywood wilderness), and he knew his way around a Bible story (his first run at The Ten Commandments was thirty-three years earlier). Unfortunately, if he had an idiosyncratic take on being a devout Episcopalian – he ran several mistresses, was a pre-Tarantino foot fetishist and was possessed by violent predilections – The Ten Commandments is nevertheless enormously portentous and consumed with self-worth. And simultaneously, for all the pomp, curiously plain and lacking in atmosphere. DeMille hits The Bible with the bullet of thudding literalism, such that even during the plagues – very truncated and disappointingly so, both given the budget and it being the real meat of the deal – the apocalyptic crescendo is reduced to some offscreen wailing as the Angel of Death passes by (I liked the sinister smoke creeping across the floor of the palace, however).

The visual effects stand up reasonably well. At times, in conjunction with the Technicolor lighting, they can be quite impressive: There are grand clouds in perma-residence on Mount Sinai, and the parting of the Red Sea remains a set-piece triumph. But there are also acres of blue screen (Moses pulls back a curtain to reveal the building work going on beyond it). And while the sets are obviously vast, the awe is somewhat reined in when they’re evidently in a studio/on the lot.

This kind of material, by nature of its remit, demands two complementary elements to etch itself in the memory. The set piece (see the Ben-Hur chariot race) and the eccentric performance. Stick Peter Ustinov in a sword-and-sandals romp, and you’re away. There’s no one quite on his level here. Heston is fine in a macho-oakish way, delivering the cod-Biblical lines with exactly the unnuanced didacticism you’d expect. He sports increasingly natty coiffuring as Moses greys and wigs out, though. Brynner is suitably antagonist but also as one-note as Moses, which makes for a rather hollow centre to a rather hollow picture (not that Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton were remotely preferable. At least these two seem like adults and carry a modicum of mock-period-friendly gravitas).

There’s not much to be said for Debra Paget (Lilia), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora) and John Derek (Joshua) either. Vincent Price is memorably nefarious until Moses runs him through. Edward G Robinson, as Egyptian collaborator and troublemaker Dathan, gets to be provocative (he’s having a particularly good time when we get to the golden calf, having happened upon a leopard skin during their travels). Joshua has much more screen time than Aaron, who was also dealt short shrift in Gods and Kings. He’s played by John Carradine, though; as a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis and one of the Bundy Drive Boys, what with the alleged satanic acts they got up to, it’s possibly for the best he wasn’t front and centre as a representative of God. Hardwicke does his best as Seti I, but the dialogue only occasionally rises to the task at hand.

The main plaudits are reserved for Baxter’s Nefertiti. And not just for her surprisingly prevalent nipples. Baxter won an Oscar for The Razor’s Edge, but she’d made the biggest splash as the titular All About Eve. There, she was picked for her resemblance to Claudette Colbert (originally cast in the Bette Davis role). Colbert had played for DeMille, of course, in The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra, and it would be surprising if the director hadn’t had the same resemblance in mind when he plumbed for Baxter here. She’s wonderfully scheming and minxish throughout, making up somewhat for the inertia of the men either side, both spurning the fellow she fancies (Moses) and deriding the chap with whom she abides (Rameses).

There’s nary a sniff of the commandments until the last quarter of an hour, probably because they sound impressive but aren’t that interesting visually, even when inscribed by God (we’re spared Moses chiselling out the second set). It goes without saying that you wouldn’t really get away with this laborious approach again. A fair few tried it, but there needed to be something extra to ensure audiences’ changing appetites were whetted. The chariot race in Ben-Hur can still stand proudly against any modern-day visceral action sequence (many would argue the rest of the movie can be happily skipped), while Spartacus had Stanley Kubrick as an increasingly dissatisfied director for hire yet bringing the material a level of variation in theme and content often missed with such a canvas.

I don’t know how possible it is to make a decent Biblical epic. Another atheist, Darren Aronofsky, failed with Noah but scattered in a few interesting ideas. Mel had a mega hit with his torture-porn take The Passion of the Christ. I suspect you need an angle, but you can’t be going around insulting your core audience either. Ridders didn’t understand that with Exodus: Gods and Kings. DeMille, who explicitly linked the captivity and Egyptian tyranny to the scourge of communism and “the awful experience of totalitarianism, both fascist and communist”, did, but his passion for The Ten Commandments' spectacle and scale was far greater than his acumen for telling a gripping story.


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