by Greg Wright
Not even controversy could keep Noah, released on home video last week, from sinking at the box office. Still, the buzz is now mounting about Ridley Scott’s Exodus:Gods and Kings, due this December and starring Batman… uh, Christian Bale… as Moses.
Kinda makes you nostalgic for the “golden age” of Hollywood biblical epics, doesn’t it?
Cecil B. DeMille was disappointed that The Ten Commandments—a monumentally personal work of passion, even hubris—only won one Oscar, for special effects. In restrospect, this is one of those Academy decisions that seems justified. Though well-received critically and popularly at the time of its release in 1956, this is not one of those films whose reputations build over time.
A four-hour-plus extravaganza, once you include the overture, intermission, and exit theme, the movie is essentially two separate films with very distinct flavors appended to one another by the intermission. This is not surprising, I suppose, given that DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments also employed a two-picture structure; but it’s also not overly satisfying.
The “first” film tells the story of Moses’ ascendancy to power, from a refugee Hebrew child to favored “son” of Pharaoh, through his discovery of his Hebrew heritage, and into his exile in Midian—culminating with his encounter with God in the burning bush on Mount Sinai. As DeMille explains the film’s prologue, this portion of the film includes a great deal of non-biblical historical research and pure narrative speculation, given that the Bible is pretty silent on what happened during the first thirty or so years of Moses’ life. This half is also the most interesting and creative, frankly, given that it actually tells a “story.”
The “second” film, following the intermission, is a Reader’s Digest account of Moses’ return to Egypt, the plagues, the Exodus, the giving of the law (and rebellion) at Mount Sinai, the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites’ arriving at the Promised Land, and Moses’ “death.” It contains the bulk of the film’s special effects, including the summarized and abbreviated plagues, the pillar of fire, the crossing of the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s army, the writing of the tablets of the law by the finger of God, and the Earth’s swallowing of Korah, Dathan, and their followers after the forging of the Golden Calf. This is the showy stuff, and also the stuff that stands up the least to the test of time, despite the tremendous job Paramount has done is restoring the film for High Def re-release. In many ways, the effects look poorer the clearer they are.
But the second half struggles most because it doesn’t tell a proper story—despite DeMille’s assertions, right enough, that you don’t have to look far in the Bible for drama. Instead, the second half of The Ten Commandments is overly reliant on narration voiceover and cinematic time-compression, rather than structuring the tale in such a way that audiences can follow things on their own. It doesn’t help that, once Moses becomes a prophet, he also loses a big chunk of his humanity. When his wife, Sephora, remarks that she lost a husband when God gained a prophet, we know all too well what she means. Moses becomes so heavenly minded and so imperious that he’s just not much fun to be around any more, in spite of’s broad-shouldered efforts.
And it’s too bad the second half of the film plays out this way, too, because it’s still plenty compelling; it just could have been so much better.
For my money, though, the spectacle of the first half of the film more than makes up for whatever shortcomings its screenplay and execution might have. DeMille’s vision of a nation-building Egypt is hard to beat, even by Avatar, and the stars all deliver the goods in the rather campy, stage-bound fashion of many films of the period. Heston would get better in Ben-Hur, of course, and Yul Brynner, fine as is he is here as Rameses, would never top The King and I. Opposite the leading men, Anne Baxter hams it up as the “throne princess” Nefretiri—angling for Moses as Pharaoh, but doomed to wed Rameses—and Yvonne De Carlo (yes, Lily Munster) gives maybe the most realistic performance in the film as Sephora. Megawatt stars like Edward G. Robinson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame Judith Anderson, John Carradine, and Vincent Price all get plenty to do, while John Derek (later Bo’s husband) delivers a career-defining take on Joshua. DeMille cast well, and directed well. Even H.B. Warner makes a brief memorable appearance, as he was himself near death, quoting Psalm 22 instead of the scripted lines he couldn’t remember.
When it’s all said and done, though (and there’s a lot of saying and doing), the most remarkable thing about The Ten Commandments today is its unabashed embrace of the Bible. Everything about the picture reminds us that we live in a very different country than we did fifty-odd years ago. Even if a James Cameron (or a Mel Gibson?) wanted to make a staunchly biblical movie like this today, on a Titanic or Avatar-sized budget, it’s hard to conceive any studio giving such a project a greenlight.
This is sad, of course. There should be no reason films reflecting a devout view of sacred scriptures—whether Christian, Muslim, Mormon, or otherwise—shouldn’t get greenlit, providing they are entertaining enough and are likely to reach a wide enough audience.
I fear we have entered not an age of tolerance, but an age of radical intolerance. It’s tragic, too, because The Ten Commandments might be the most educational film I’ve seen when it comes to depicting honest and loving relations between Jews and Muslims—the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. Seriously.
The Ten Commandments is rated G. What?!?!?! Can that possibly be? With whippings, murder, all manner of lascivious behavior, slaughter of thousands, and Bible-quoting galore? Yes, it can possibly be. And should be. We’ve gotten to be so overly sensitive about ratings these days, and so permissive at the same time. This would likely get a PG-13 today, at a minimum, for violence and thematic material… the same rating as Norbit. Go figure.