A TV favorite around Easter/Passover, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is undoubtedly dated but still retains the sense of grandeur that made it such an epic experience in 1956. While not his best role, Charlton Heston is a formidable Moses, exuding heroic dignity in every scene, even when he’s supposedly at the end of his rope. The eloquent voiceover narration and the jaw-dropping production values add to the overall grandiosity of the film.
Its biggest “flaw,” so to speak, is the overacting, with characters frequently looking off into the distance while spouting poetic dialogue about love, faith, or beauty. While this is at times unintentionally hammy, the melodramatic parlance has an archaic quality that is still somehow credible in the film’s antiquated setting. The story itself is well-formed, instituting simple yet complex character relationships among all the pomp and pageantry. The interplay among Moses, Rameses, and Nefretiri has a Shakespearean element that grounds the film in real, if exaggerated, emotion.
Anne Baxter as Nefretiri is the worst offender as far as magnified theatrics go, though her smug confidence about the power of her beauty adds to the interpersonal tension of the second act, even if Moses dismisses it. Likewise, Yul Brynner is stiffly arrogant at first, sharing with Baxter one of cinema’s truly awkward kisses, yet he grows into the role of Rameses until his lofty refusal to “let the people go” establishes him as a great Pharaoh in “de Nile.” (Get it?) The rest of the cast is large and adequate, with Edward G. Robinson as the standout naysayer Dathan, who’s the kind of guy everyone wants to punch now and then.
While The Ten Commandments is not completely accurate in the Biblical sense, it takes the source material seriously, applying it to an overall message of freedom and faith. It even transforms some Hollywood additions into clever speculations, such as a scorned lover causing the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart and his reversal after releasing the Hebrews. Above all, the film achieves scenes of visual vastness, from the labors of the slaves to their emancipation and immense leave-taking. The cast of thousands is stunning, and scenes like the parting of the Red Sea still hold an impressive power that can bring some, like my VC, to tears of awe. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, not this long nor this extravagant, but The Ten Commandments stands as DeMille’s most successful accomplishment.
P.S. I don’t hold out much hope for Ridley Scott’s upcoming redux version Exodus: Gods and Kings, but we’ll see.
Best Biblical line: (Joshua) “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Best original line: (Moses) “There can be no freedom without the Law.”Rank: 53 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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