Monday, October 26, 2009

1956 - The Ten Commandments

Braving Saturday night's miserable weather here in New York, Kat and I enjoyed a tasty meal in Little Italy before heading to an improv show. Not just any improv show, mind you. This one comprised of two stars of television's Whose Line Is It Anyway?, namely Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. As an improviser myself, I always feel a tinge of envy watching other performers bring the house down, and these two were certainly no exception. It was positively inspirational to be witness to their quick-witted minds. The highlight is their grand finale, a backwards alphabet scene. Not so spectacular, I hear you say, but before the scene begins, stage hands littered the floor with 100 mousetraps. The scene is then performed with Colin and Brad barefoot and wearing blindfolds. Nothing short of hilarious. They have an extensive list of tour dates around the country, so definitely check them out if they come to your town. Tour dates are on their website.

Sunday was a lazier day, despite the weather being much more agreeable. In the afternoon, we had the chance to watch the epic that is the next nominee from 1956's Best Picture race...

The Ten Commandments
Cecil B. DeMille
Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank
(based on three separate novels by J.H. Ingraham, A.E. Southon, Dorothy Clarke Wilson)
Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Special Effects

A film of literally Biblical proportions, The Ten Commandments oddly begins with the director himself delivering a personal introduction. Stepping out from behind a majestic curtain, Mr. DeMille, with no hint of irony, announces just how important the following presentation is. After his absurd yet sincere plea for his motion picture to be considered alongside the Bible itself, the opening credits continue the grandstanding before the film finally begins.

Little baby Moses is reluctantly abandoned by his mother, who fears for his safety when the Pharaoh decrees that all Hebrew babies shall be killed. With a stroke of luck, it is the Pharaoh's own daughter who discovers the child, taking him in as her own to live the life of an Egyptian prince. Thirty years later, Moses is being considered for the throne along with his cousin, Rameses, who feels a sense of entitlement on account of the fact he is the current Pharaoh's son. With the throne also comes the hand of the beautiful Nefretiri, who has already given her heart to Moses, more fodder for Rameses' dislike of him. Moses' successful construction of a new city, partly attributed to his respect for the Hebrew slaves, wins the favour of the Pharaoh. However, before he is offered the throne, his true identity as the son of Hebrew slaves is revealed, forcing him to be ejected from Egypt. After a chat with the Almighty himself, Moses realises his destiny as the man to free the Hebrew people from slavery.

I am compelled to admit that I had a little difficulty with The Ten Commandments. Although I found the monumentally epic nature of the film entertaining, I struggled to keep my personal views on religion at bay. Perhaps if it were any other story, I may not have cared so much, but I guess I took exception at DeMille's own claims of authenticity. In his defense, there is a great deal of attention to detail put in to the historical accuracy of the time period, but to claim to have any more than one source for the religious elements of the story is simply ludicrous. Plus, at the risk of offending any Biblical inerrantists, if this were any other story, we'd all be commenting on the film's plot holes.

Okay, now that I've got that out of the way, I freely confess that the film's enormity is very impressive. Being a Cecil B. DeMille picture, we are graced with several awe-inspiring sequences involving thousands of extras and grand locations. Some of the film was, in fact, shot in Egypt using colossal sets built into the sweeping desert landscapes. Even the Oscar-winning special effects, which are fairly unconvincing by today's standards, must have been astonishing to a 1950s audience.

There is no denying, of course, that the story is a classic one - a tale of good versus evil with heroes and villains galore. Moses is almost portrayed as an action hero, diving to save an old woman from a crushing block of stone or swooping in to protect young Midian women from Amalekite bullies. His perfectly windswept hair constantly appears as though he just stepped out of the salon. The stark white, not grey, beard of old Moses, however, is perhaps a little laughable. Nonetheless, his words - and everyone else's, for that matter - are very poetic. There's a classic lyrical quality to the dialogue that creates quite a distinguished feel.

Yul Brynner, in opposition to the pantomime quality he brought to The King and I, shows versatility here in an intensely restrained performance as Rameses. Still, the Academy chose to award him the Best Actor Oscar for playing a Siamese King, rather than an Egyptian Pharaoh. And that's Charlton Heston's own son playing the baby Moses.


  1. I only saw two of the five nominees during their theatrical run in 1956. One was The Ten Commandments. I think it was the first movie that I saw in one of the Manhattan movie palaces - The Criterion Theater. I know I said that I'd be evaluating all the films based on current viewings, but it's hard not to be influenced by my initial impressions, even at the age of 9 so many years ago. All my friends went to Catholic School and many were altar boys like myself. So, back then religious films were a big deal. We were awestruck by the spectacle of The Ten Commandments.

    Of course, today, despite its reverent intentions, it is hard not to notice some of the campy dialogue, or Debra Paget's quivering 'Marilyn Monroe' lips. It's still however quite lush and inspiring. The effects are dated, but the matte paintings and real sets hold up very well. I also have to tip my hat to DeMille. He didn't make a stodgy bore of a movie. The momentum is continuous and its 220 minutes go by rather quickly.

  2. Yes, I can't argue with that. There is a smooth momentum that keeps the film rolling along. I certainly wasn't looking at my watch at any point. Not a mean feat for a film of that length.

    Of course, nowadays, with the convenience of DVD, I am able to pause whenever I wish, a luxury the cinema does not afford. So I gave myself a few breaks, instead of the one intermission DeMille allows. No doubt, that helped to keep the film palatable.

  3. Hey, no mention of Anne Baxter??? She stole the show for me, although that transparent chemise probably had something do with it...;)