For Passover: Why I Worship “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

Since 1973, the arrival of Passover/ Good Friday/ Easter has meant an annual television screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. That initial showing on ABC was a huge television event. I was a very religious kid, from a traditional family, and my parents had been fans of the film upon its initial release, so I watched that first screening, and every subsequent one, every year for at least a decade. Its annual advent was like that of The Wizard of Oz and all the Christmas specials, a highly anticipated holiday experience, and as we wrote here and here, it became one of my favorite movies. I recently came across the TV Guide item hyping that original screening , prompting this post:

I was watching Bombshell,the documentary about Heddy Lamarr last night, and in it Peter Bogdanovich, with reference to DeMille and Samson and Delilah (1949), quoted Howard Hawks: “He was so bad, he was almost good.” Well now. I expressed my thoughts on that glib, superficial formulation recently in this post.  The People love this movie. It remains the seventh highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the top film of its year, and second most successful of the decade. And this with a four hour long running time! DeMille was one of the principal founders of Hollywood; he’d been there since before the beginning, and had cooked up some of its hugest and most notorious blockbusters. The Ten Commandments was the culminating event of his career. He threw everything he knew how into the picture. In the 1950s Hollywood was churning out large-scale spectacles of the sort that had not been common since the silent days of the 1920s. DeMille knew his beans in that department. He had been responsible for several of those epics, including the original 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. Now there was gorgeous Technicolor and Cinemascope to enhance the spectacle. And such spectacle! Not unprecedented, but getting mighty close to the top of the rankings. The proverbial cast of thousands (14,000 to be exact, in the crowd scenes). Location shooting in Egypt. Massive sets. Oscar winning special effects. All in the service of one of the most important, best known stories of all time.

That said, a fifth of the way through the 21st century, I can take nothing for granted. Though the sixth word in this post is “Passover”, and the title of the film is what it is, dare I assume everyone knows what I’m talking about? I dare not. Therefore: The Ten Commandments is the story of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, chronicling the life of the Hebrew leader and prophet Moses, depicting his discovery as a foundling, his upbringing in the household of the Egyptian Pharaoh, his discovery of his Jewish identity, his leading of the Hebrew slaves out of bondage, and his bringing of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) down to his people from the summit of Mt. Sinai, where he communed with God. The saga is central to all three Abrahamic religions. As a Christian kid, the narrative got constant reinforcement in my life, in Sunday school, in my own repeated readings of the Bible, and in sundry other odd places (e.g., my dad’s old Classics Illustrated comic book version, which had also come out in 1956. Boy, I wish I still had that!)

Okay, I’m pretty sure I’m looking at Anne Baxter’s nipple

DeMille was half Jewish and half Episcopalian. This movie is expertly crafted to appeal to both Jews and Christians, and does — or did, at any rate. But DeMille wouldn’t be DeMille if he didn’t cast a wider net than even that. Mingled with the pieties and the pose of import (DeMille narrates the film himself, as though he himself were the voice of God) is more than a little sensuous hedonism. DeMille is one of the masters of cinematic exploitation, telling a presumably moral story, but throwing in lots of thrills and sex and eye candy and hocus pocus so as to never lose the audience. Moses and Joshua (Moses’ right hand man, for you heathens) and their arch enemy Rameses are played by the buff, macho, and frequently shirtless Charlton Heston, John Derek and Yul Brynner, respectively. I seem to recall that one or all of them get into some fistfights in there — I don’t remember anything like that happening in Exodus! Meanwhile, for the heterosexual males like me there was the smoldering, husky voiced Anne Baxter as Egyptian temptress Nefretiri, as well as Yvonne de Carlo and Debra Paget as the wives of Moses and Joshua. Va va voom! And there are countless scenes of jaw-dropping riches and luxury, costumed finery. Gold lamé! About a decade after films like this were popular they came to be regarded as kitsch and camp for this reason, fodder for guys likes Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch. (See here for an interesting looking book I just came across that connects Biblical Epics to queer aesthetics).

I’ve long contended that Irwin Allen (another Golden Idol of mine) was one of DeMille’s principal acolytes as a producer, taking from the master the twin pillars of spectacular disasters rendered with cutting edge special effects and casts full of stars ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. For the former we have the Ten Plagues (e.g., hail that turns to fire; and the Nile turning to blood); as well as the Burning Bush, the lightning that etches the stone tablets, and above all the uncanny, unforgettable parting of the Red Sea. As for the stars: keep an eye peeled for Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Judith Anderson, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Douglas Dumbrille, and — wait for it — Frank De Kova from F Troop! It’s kind of a kitsch SuperNova.

At any rate, The Ten Commandments remains of one of my favorite films, and will always be a principal foundation of my personal aesthetic. Nowadays, I watch it on a sort of dual-leveled basis, with appreciation for both the angelic and demonic elements that went into its making. As they have done for 45 years, ABC is showing it on Easter Eve this year. But of course, ABC still shows commercials so you might want to wait for the next TCM screening, stream it on Amazon Prime, or get the DVD. Sure, Moses knew a few magic tricks. On the other hand I (who used to have to wait for yearly airings of this film) regard the ability to watch The Ten Commandments any time, anywhere I like as its own minor miracle.