The Ten Commandments Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Ten Commandments Review
    And lo! It came to pass that another epic motion picture monolith came unto this humble reviewer. And he did bow down before it, forsaking all other DVDs for a period of several days and several nights.

    As I've stated elsewhere, I am not religious in any way, shape or form - so do not look for any such leanings in my interpretation of Cecil B. DeMille's twin productions of The Ten Commandments - the celebrated 1956 version featuring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses, and his own original silent version from 1923. All I know about this Biblical story is what I learned a really long time ago in primary school, and what I have seen in DeMille's lavish films. So, there will be no theological slant to this review - just a great big look at the films themselves as the pieces of cinematic entertainment that they are.

    Spread over the first two discs is the 1956 Oscar-winning version (it nabbed the statuette for Best Special Effects, as well as being nominated for six others.) In glorious Technicolour and VistaVision, DeMille attempted to bring the story he held so dear into vibrant life for a whole new generation of movie-goers, inserting much more of the tale of Moses than he had previously revealed with his earlier version. In short, we meet Moses as he is plucked from the rushes alongside the River Nile and brought to Egypt, where he is raised as a prince - and grows into the iconic beefcake that is Charlton Heston - overseeing the momentous construction of the city of Seti, falling out with Yul Brynner's mighty Pharaoh Rameses, committing murder and being cast out into the desert where he will blunder into a burning bush and hear the voice of God instructing him to lead His Chosen People, the Israelites, out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Cue such Dear Diary moments as the Angel Of Death passing over the city and slaying all who breathe its foul pestilence, the turning of the River Nile's waters into blood, the Exodus of the Hebrews, the quintessential Parting of the Red Sea and, of course, the delivery of the Ten Commandments unto Moses atop Mount Sinai. Talk about an eventful life. But, as overwrought, as holy and as righteous as the Bible probably makes all this sound, DeMille quite neatly turns the whole thing into a rich, full-bodied, but essentially fun marathon of political and emotional skulduggery, colourful pomp and pageantry, showboating special effects and wily powerplay between the leads. Put simply, The Ten Commandments, 1956-style, is wonderful Saturday afternoon entertainment, and not at all the over-ripe and portentous religious lecture that many people nowadays who haven't already seen it, may suspect.

    “The power of your God is a cheap magician's trick.”

    DeMille was a showman - of that there can be no doubt. But he was also a very firm believer in this story, and his conviction shines through every scene, blazing his vision across the screen like he is creating his own gospel right before our eyes. However, before you start thinking that The Ten Commandments is a heavy, and deadly-dull, serious piece of Bible-bashing, let me assure you that he deals his cards across this epic tableau with an emphasis on hokum and melodrama, rather than the sombre majesty of the Almighty. He may appear in a rare introduction to preface his film with a little historical scene-setting, and then go on to narrate portions of the story with words from the Bible, but the movie, itself, seems to prefer just to revel in spectacle, ceremony and witty banter, the political and sensual machinations as rife within the palace of Pharaoh as if Shakespeare, himself, had penned the saga.

    The score by Elmer Bernstein is not one of his most memorable. Occasionally, it doesn't even seem to fit the visuals, sounding a little too upbeat for the Biblical trend-setter that DeMille was fine-tooling. Perhaps Bernstein could see the Hollywood sap rising to the forefront, coalescing the film into high melodrama, instead of the sermon to the masses that had been originally envisaged by its creator. But the thing to grasp here, is that this fifties take - that's the scripting, the acting and the score combined - is not actually a failing at all. Not in my good book, anyway. Somehow, this fast-paced, breezy adaptation is more accessible than the other alternative of a much more deeply profound and ultimately boring rendition of The Ten Commandments, which this could so easily have become. Personally, I find this colourful romp an altogether different, fresher and far more entertaining variation of the stale overtones of the religious Word-made-cinema. The performances are good, not great, but good enough to propel the film with a feisty sense of fun, containing just the right amount of ham and fruity delivery to have its entire cast - of seventy speaking parts, I might add - clearly relishing their place in DeMille's grand scheme.

    “Come to me no more, Moses. For, on the day you see my face again, you shall surely die.”

    Brynner and Heston, both in their early thirties here, imbue their characters with posturing panache, emoting every single line like there's no tomorrow. The pair have justifiably become legendary with roles such as these, both carving out a screen presence that is mythical, towering far above their real earthbound talents which, while still estimable, fall far short of the mark in reality. But playing Big Roles such as this creates Big Stars. I've discussed Heston, his abilities and his shortcomings, quite comprehensively in reviews for El Cid and Ben Hur, and much the same can be said about his portrayal of Moses. His noble stoicism, cultivated from his turn in DeMille's own The Greatest Show On Earth, suitably equips him for the momentous task of becoming God's heroic messenger, his demeanour one of solid commitment and worthy sacrifice. Yet even Brynner, fresh from the Broadway adaptation of The King And I, seeks to encapsulate his character of the harsh and bloody-minded Pharaoh with little more than a wrathful pout, a dominating poise and a growled intonation. Neither actor possesses any true warmth or humanity when placed in front of a camera. But then again, maybe that simply isn't necessary when portraying such larger than life characters as Moses and Rameses. What's required is presence - expressions chiselled from stone, eyes of fire, commanding voices and hands-on-hips stances. It's pure pantomime, folks. Under another's direction, it would run the risk of becoming out-and-out farce. Yet here, with such a single-minded and driven captain as DeMille at the helm, well ... it works. Without delving into the psychology of the two warring personalities - let's face it, the era's style was just one of brooding intensity to convey inner turmoil - DeMille unleashes his double-broadside with tremendously calamitous face-offs, wrathful threats and egotistical showboating. The more that Pharaoh laughs in the face of God's Acts, the more Moses seems to grow in stature. When the ultimate stalemate - plague begetting plague - becomes the final devastating straw, breaking Pharaoh's resolve until he caves in and allows his slaves to leave with Moses, retribution follows so swiftly that his character's mood barely slips a gear, Brynner's soul-withering gaze never once betraying anything other implacable, cold rage, even when his only son lies dead in his arms.

    “The fate of Israel is not in your hands, Nefretiri.”

    “Oh, isn't it? Who else can soften Pharaoh's heart ... or harden it?”

    Brynner was destined to reign as king, sovereign or leader forever more. A later piratical turn as a sadistic buccaneer chieftain in The Light At The Edge Of The World opposite Kirk Douglas, would reveal his staunch imperious-ness, and even the renegade android gunslinger in Westworld possessed an icy dominance over all it surveyed - itself a steely-eyed homage to The Magnificent Seven's own indomitable leader, Chris Adams. As Pharaoh, he is powerful and intimidating, but nowhere near as vile as he could have been. His command over Anne Baxter's luscious-but-manipulative Nefretiri has hints of cruel sexual pleasure, though. One scene, in which he gleefully informs her that he will take her and love her as he would a beast, courted controversy in the States, and was often removed from TV broadcasts of the film. Yet, what Brynner is content to unleash with just that penetrating stare and a growled proclamation, he lacks in actual physical menace. Having such a broad and muscular actor (and he never once worked out, either) should have fed Rameses with a stark visual aggression, and I think that it is, perhaps, a misstep that both Brynner and DeMille seemed determined to hold him in check.

    “These tablets of stone ...”

    “The writing of God. His Ten Commandments.”

    Heston, again rough-hewn and forged from selfless devotion to a path from which he cannot deviate, also forsakes the impressive brawn that he carries, fashioning a hero that would come to typify most of his later performances and, indeed, his complete screen persona. Detailing the early days of Moses is a neat addition that DeMille pitches into his remake (the original virtually commences with the plagues that beset Pharaoh, Moses having already wandered the desert and heard the voice of God), and we see him as a proud man, an Egyptian prince unafraid to reveal his conviction, strength and charity even at the expense of ridicule from his peers. At the time of the film's release, it must have been invigorating to see such an archetypal Biblical figure as Moses played by a man-of-action - to see him leap to the aid of a stricken old woman about to be crushed by one of those immense building blocks with which Pharaoh is constructing his beloved new city, or to rescue a maiden from the lecherous clutches of Vincent Price's leering architect, Baka - a wonderful turn, by the way, from the Crown Prince Of Ham. The later sequences of him challenging Rameses, parting the Red Sea and bringing down the law unto the orgiastic masses at the foot of Mount Sinai are, of course, statuesque images faithfully recreated from many captivating works of art from throughout history - but, despite such audacious visual framing, these pivotal set-pieces still seem a little less dramatic than they ought to be. But perhaps this is all down to the much-trumpeted special effects that I'm afraid do little to set the world on fire. Yes, I know John Fulton received an Oscar for them, and they are pretty lively for the age of the film, but their power is severely compromised by the glaringly obvious matte-lines that surround them like gleaming halos. Now, I will admit that this is a personal thing, but with all the money lavished upon this “be-all-and-end-all” production, the often shocking use of superimposed visual effects - the staff becoming a snake, the curtain-pull reveal of the vast city, the sea-parting or the burning bush, and the many shots of characters standing before impressive backdrops - really conspire to take me back out of the film every time they are onscreen. Even making allowances for the makers' primitive technical abilities does little to ease the disappointment and letdown whenever these grand slam moments arrive. Opting to animate certain key effects - the pillar of fire that holds back Pharaoh's chariots, the visions of God - lessens the drama considerably. The parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent chase through the chasm created between the churning walls of water may be extremely famous, but to me it just looks like a cartoon. Even Harryhausen's films from the same era were leagues ahead of this stuff. And the strange thing is that most of these effects were actually done better in DeMille's own earlier picture, where they seemed far more grand and elaborate. Bigger, and more accomplished, somehow. The Breath Of Pestilence that passes over the city, though, is a tremendously well-done piece of work. Check out that sickly green fog reaching down from the sky with wispy, claw-like tendrils. This, at least, is a truly astonishing image.

    “He has forgotten both of us. You lost him when he went to seek his God. I lost him when he found his God.”

    Another element that bothers me about this production is the visual result of the much-ballyhooed location-hopping. Combining footage shot on the Paramount Lot in Hollywood with actual location work done in Egypt was an un-paralleled achievement at the time, but the seams are all too easy to see, especially during many camera-angle changes during the same scene - Moses being banished to the desert, for instance. It's so obvious that we are swapping from a set to a real desert that all power is drained from the spectacle. I know it's me being picky, but these shots just look too clumsy. But the film regains a lot of its stature with its magical roster of supporting cast. Just cast your eyes over this little lot - John Carradine, Clint Walker, Edward G. Robinson bringing his mobster's mug to the party as the sly, two-faced Dathan, the gorgeous (though big-footed - listen to the commentary!) Debra Paget as the slave-girl Lilia, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and even Mrs Munster, herself, Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses' wife, Sephora. It's a glorious line-up, to be sure, but my favourite just has to be Anne Baxter, who steals every scene she is in, with an intoxicating combination of stunning looks, Machiavellian scheming and painfully exhibited tragedy. The acting is little imposed and theatrical, but all of them seem to having the time of their lives. Only John Derek, as the Hebrew warrior Joshua, seems ill-at-ease, coming across as the Orlando Bloom of his day - an emotionally empty pretty-boy who was actually being groomed for bigger things ... that, sadly, never came to pass.

    It's all great, spirited fun. But I still feel that it lacks the clout to be a true classic.

    So It Was Written.

    So Shall It Be Done.

    The 1923 version, which presides over the third disc, clocks in at 136 mins and is presented in its original full-screen 1.33:1 aspect, with 15 chapters. Now, this telling of the tale is radically different from DeMille's own remake in that, once Moses has delivered the Ten Commandments to the Chosen People, the story then catapults itself into the present day - well, the present day of the era in which the film was made, circa 1923, that is. All the Biblical side of things that come before this time-shift are wonderfully evoked, with a cast of thousands and sets that DeMille would painstakingly recreate for his later edition. With the much older Theodore Roberts giving Moses a very Ron Moody-ish Fagin look and Charles DeRoche essaying Rameses, we have the familiar tale severely cut down, with the Exodus now occurring about 21 minutes in - a huge narrative edit that DeMille would rectify with Chuck - and the whole shebang becoming quite swift and energetic. The Big Moments are all present and correct, with the Pharaoh's loss of his own son containing more poignancy and heartbreak than that achieved by Yul Brynner, and the subsequent pursuing of the Israelites by his army of chariots much better realised. Here, we have no matte-shots and location-hopping (as it was all Californian white sands this time out) and simply hundreds of chariots. And all those that overturn in the soft sand and roll down the dunes - they are real accidents happening onscreen, not choreographed for the camera.

    The Parting of the Red Sea, which was absolutely astonishing and groundbreaking (or should that be water-breaking?) back in 1923 still looks quite clever now, although it is fairly obvious how it was done. The pillar of fire that halts Pharaoh's men is actually much better than the ropey animated flickering seen in the '56 version. Here we have a literal curtain of flame soaring upward. The appearance of God when he delivers his Big Ten to Moses atop Mount Sinai, whilst his people cavort in a pre-Hays Code orgy down below is also quite splendid - real wrath and thunder, with a ball of billowing fire and swirling clouds. Mind you, the neon signposting of each Commandment in the sky is a tad hokey, I'm afraid.

    “If I believed in God - I'd ask Him to bless you.”

    The modern element of this version is a complete revelation (no pun intended there, folks). DeMille utilises parallel desires, beliefs (or the lack thereof) and motivations from the ancients but plays them out via a brotherly feud over a woman by the two McTavish boys, John - the pious and God-fearing one, and Danny, the egotistical, envious and dark-hearted one. The scene is set for some hedonistic dancing, a little bit of debauchery, false idolatry and all of that malarkey that played so much havoc with the ancients, DeMille attempting to show us the relevance of the Ten Commandments even in our modern lives.

    “Laugh at the Ten Commandments all you want, Danny ... but they pack an awful wallop!”

    If Richard Dix as John has a Gabriel Byrne look about him, then Rod LaRocque, as the nefarious Danny, has a cruel Tom Berenger thing going on. It's all very spirited and quite compelling, to be honest. There's murder, falling masonry, paranoia, even leprosy and a wild climax with a speedboat battling a stormy sea. In fact, DeMille shows more cinematic creativity with this silent version than he does with the entire mega-budget remake. And check out a later death scene that has a female victim pull down a curtain from its rail - Hitchcock certainly paid a visual reference to it with Janet Leigh's notorious murder in Psycho. Great fun. But beware the new score by Gaylord Carter that plays over the film - it is shockingly bad church organ music that comes over very loud and will definitely make your neighbours think that you've been converted to Creationism. Or something similar.

    So, once again, as with the silent version of Ben-Hur, I found myself quite surprised by how good these really vintage features can be. Sure the acting is prone to exaggeration, but that is because the performers were meant to convey their emotions with such flourish in order to get the message across without the benefit of words. But, I think you'll find that the performances from Rod LaRocque and Richard Dix are actually surprisingly contemporary and naturalistic. Anyway, give this version a try. It really is a lot better than you may have once suspected.

    The Rundown

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