DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Ten Commandments

Thursday 24 March 2011

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956) dir. Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Bynner, Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, John Derek


By Alan Bacchus

Is there any point in 'critiquing' this film, since it's already permanently inked into pop culture and cinema history? After all, like It's a Wonderful Life is to Christmas, The Ten Commandments is to Easter/Passover. It would be easy to completely dismiss this film as a terribly dated, overly preachy and simplistic treatment of the Moses story, which, to fresh eyes, it might seem. Watching all three-and-a-half hours of it straight, it's hard to avoid squirming in my seat, checking my iPhone and finding other things to pass the time in between the slow parts. And yet there is something special and magical about this film that renders it relevant in today's overly stimulated post-modern cultural landscape.

The story, which has been the foundation of archetypal storytelling for centuries, is told with a clear, unclouded simplicity. Sometimes we desire our characters to tell it to us straight. And this is what we get from Cecil B. DeMille's second crack at this story (the first being his silent film from 1926). Before we even get to the story and after a bit of Elmer Bernstein's grand score in the overture, the head of Paramount Studios introduces the film to tell us about the importance of the picture and the source texts used to create the narrative. Already we're intrigued and on the edge of our seats. Then we're shown the early events in Moses' life, including The Pharaoh's decree to murder the newborn children of every Jewish household in order to kill the prophesized 'saviour' of the Jews from living. We see Moses being put in the basket by his mother and being found and taken in by Egyptian royalty.

The most interesting part of the film is the chapter of Moses' life in which he was the 'Prince of Egypt' engaged in a heated rivalry with his brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) to be the heir to the Pharaoh's throne. We know Moses will be the saviour of the Jews and so his actions as the enemy of his own people are wonderfully intriguing and filled with all kinds of internal conflict and subtext. Ok, sure the subtext is hit squarely on our heads with little to confuse us, but the drama of, say, Moses saving his mother from being crushed by the giant rock being driven by the autocratic Egyptian slave driver is highly dramatic and resonant. The same goes for Moses' conversion back to Judaism, forgoing his place in royalty for his birthright home as a Jew. The internal conflict is not lost on us, and as dramatized by DeMille, Heston, et al, we can feel all the archetypal significance of this decision.

Where the film loses momentum is during the events after Moses' conversion when he seems to instantly become a deified hero channelling the word of the Lord. As such, Moses becomes castrated and devoid of any significant internal conflict or flavour. The events in the second half of the picture simply recount the roll call of Biblical events we expect to see: the ten plagues, Passover, the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. By the end, the dialogue sounds like pure scripture lifted directly from the Bible and preached to us like a sermon.

But it's in this latter half where we get the spectacle of Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary cinematic showman—light on character but heavy on spectacle. DeMille was in his 70s when he made The Ten Commandments and sadly the film looks 20 years out of date. DeMille's insistence on strict studio-created locations, both interior and exterior, can't compete with the film's epic contemporaries. We can look past the theatrical staging of the dialogue scenes, especially the wooden 'period' dialogue (something no one, not even Kubrick, could crack), but the action scenes and moments of grandeur are ineffectually aided by rudimentary blue screen work. Of course, we have to remember it was 1956, and this film was one of the first to use this kind of compositing, which differed from the in-camera use of rear projection. But here the optical process work is so distractingly garish, it's hard to forgive.

That said, the parting of the Red Sea sequence is still a thrilling set piece built up and teased to us with great skill by DeMille. The ominous grey cloud cover that envelopes the land before Moses channels the power of God and parts the waters is the best special effect in the film.

On Blu-ray, we also get an added sense of scope not present in non-theatrical presentations of the film. It's impossible not to be mesmerized by the bold colours that pop out at us, the crisp sound of Elmer Bernstein's score and the restored 5.1 HD sound restoration.

The Ten Commandments is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

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