Nobody in Cinema history ever did Biblical epics quite like legendary producer/director Cecil B. DeMille. The very mention of his name triggers expectations of grandeur, massive crowd scenes and spectacle beyond belief. Probably his ‘biggie’ was ‘The Ten Commandments’ released in 1956 and now out on American Region free Blu-ray. This one had everything – the river Nile turning red with blood, the Night of the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea and the carving of the Ten Commandments in stone by the Hand of God. Who else but Cecil B.DeMille could pull this off? Well, God presumably.
This movie is the epitome of old Hollywood that boasted ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ and the most glorious of glorious Technicolor. More than that, ‘The Ten Commandments’ was shot in VistaVision, Paramount’s high resolution film process that achieved a significant increase in picture quality by pumping the 35mm film sideways through the camera gate.
This was also a movie that tested the bladders of the cinema going public for it weighed in with a posterior numbing 3 hours and 40 minutes running time. Goodness knows how many reels of film this took up in the projection booth. Thankfully now it fits on to just two (count ‘em) Blu-ray discs with its Overture, Intermission, Entr’acte and Exit music still intact. You also get a great sense of occasion as a 75 year old Cecil B. DeMille wanders out in front of the curtains wearing a suit to introduce his epic to the audience. This is an Epic with a capital ‘E’.
Mr DeMille points out that there is a 30 year gap in the life of Moses as recorded in the Bible, so they had to piece it together from various other writings of the period. As the movie plays you do get the feeling that, at some points, you are watching the Gospel according to Cecil. One occasion that springs to mind is where Moses is found in the wilderness by a bunch of very nubile looking Shepherdesses, just after they’d been bemoaning the lack of men in their lives. I had a dread that they were about to launch into the ‘I’m Gonna wash that man right outta my hair’ number from ‘South Pacific’.
Anyone who attended Sunday School (you didn’t? – well read on) will know the story of the Hebrew child cast adrift on the Nile in a basket by his Mother - to avoid him being killed in line with the Pharaoh’s edict. The infant Moses was then discovered in the bulrushes and brought up in the royal household. Upon discovering his true origins, Moses joined his Hebrew brothers and later led them out into the wilderness – leaving behind the slavery that they had always known. In order to gain their release, God let loose various pestilences upon the Egyptians – resulting in the death of the Pharaoh’s son. As the Pharaoh and his army pursued Moses and the tribes, all seemed lost when they were hemmed in by the Red Sea. With a little divine help, the Red Seas parted to allow the Children of Israel to escape while pouring back in on the following Egyptian army. Moses later went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments carved into two stone tablets by God, then returned to find his own people worshipping graven idols. After regaining command, he led his people to the promised land. So that’s the massive story in a nutshell – what about the movie?
Upon its release, ‘The Ten Commandments’ became the highest grossing religious epic ever made and it retained that title for 48 years, until it was overtaken by ‘The Passion of the Christ’ in 2004. The style of the storytelling is somewhat slower than the pace of many modern films and I do wonder if today’s cinema going public with a demographic of 16-21 year olds would sit through it. Whereas in the 1950’s people were astounded by the spectacle involved, the current generation has become accustomed to jaw dropping events occurring on an almost daily basis thanks to the invention of CGI.
‘The Ten Commandments’ won its only Oscar for Best Special Effects (although nominated in another 6 areas) and they now look quite dated thanks to the advances in technology. There was obviously no CGI back in 1956, so the effects were produced by ingenuity in trick photography and optical printing in the film Lab. The parting of the Red Sea was created by pouring 30,000 gallons of water into a tank and then running the film backwards, while ‘matting’ it in with the shots of the crowds. ‘Matting’ meant literally painting out the parts of a scene you didn’t want, frame by frame on the film and then sandwiching the two component parts together in an optical printer to produce one composite scene. This resulted in an increase in film grain as well as fine black lines around people’s heads – so the final shot was not perfect but the best available and usually referred to as a ‘travelling matte’. The hail that rained down upon Egypt was actually popcorn painted white which fell and bounced like the real thing – but did not injure the actors. Animation was used to create the pillar of fire that held back Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea as well as the Hand of God. This was probably the least convincing Special Effect in the movie as it looked more like the work of the hand of a Disney animator than some input from on high.
But what of the cast? Oh come on! It’s legendary. Chuck Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine ... It’s a film buff’s delight that beats train spotting hands down. It’s also interesting to note that Mr DeMille originally wanted William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy himself) to play the part of Moses but Boyd had to turn it down due to his commitment to the popular TV series featuring the Western character.
The score for the movie was written by Elmer Bernstein and remains one of the most memorable themes ever written. You only have to hear it to be transported back to Biblical times as it conveys a great reverence, respect and sense of scale.
‘The Ten Commandments’ was the last film directed and produced by Cecil B. DeMille as he suffered a heart attack on set while climbing 130 feet to check a camera. His health precluded further big screen work and he died in 1959. Despite his contribution to the Cinema and the Biblical epic genre, he only ever received one Oscar for ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
‘The Ten Commandments’ has undergone a meticulous restoration and the film now looks better than ever before on Blu-ray. If you’re serious about movies, then this is one you really need to add to your collection. If nothing else, it’s a milestone in the development of Special Effects.
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