De ti budOver the Easter I have been watching ”The Ten Commandments”, Cecil B. DeMille epic movie about the exodus of Egypt. It is entirely fitting that I should watch this in Easter since this is the backstory of the Jewish equivalent Pessach (or Passover), the event Jesus was attending during the events of Easter. Due to a quirk of the Jewish calendar one out of four years the events are a month offset and 2016 is such a year. So, in an ordinary year this would have been an entirely fitting movie for the holiday.
As readers of this blog will probably know my wife is Jewish and we are currently living in Israel. That means that I have some firsthand experience on the importance this story has on Jewish tradition. During the Seder (the premier dinner of Pessach) the Haggadah is read aloud and that is exactly the story covered by “The Ten Commandments”. It is a lengthy affair and the tone is not so different from the movie.
Add to this the role of the Exodus in Christian tradition (and probably also Islamic) and we are talking a big culture defining story.
The producers of “The Ten Commandments” (which includes Cecil B. DeMille himself) seemed well aware of this and as a result poured enormous resources into it. With a budget of a staggering 13 million dollars it features sets not seen since Griffith “Intolerance” and a cast to rival any contender, even by today’s standards. Technically this is a masterpiece and the format is “Gone With the Wind” grand. Somewhere between the lavishness of the production and the subject matter it managed to become one of the greatest box office hits in movie history, only exceeded by a handful of movies, depending on how you calculate it.
Watching it, especially with unreligious eyes, there is a strange dichotomy in the production. There is no denying the grandness of the spectacle, but the direction and to some extent the story is strangely primitive. Most scenes use a very static camera, the scenes are tableau-like stages and in most scenes only the one who talks is moving. Nobody talks at the same time and everybody proclaims rather than just talk. In this sense “The Ten Commandments” looks more like theater than a movie and it gives the movie a very artificial feel. I found myself often laughing from scenes that were definitely not meant to be funny, but was rendered so by this odd style. The schism between advanced sets and primitive direction is most likely a result of DeMille himself. He was one of the great pioneers of the moving picture and much of what he did was back in the silent era. I take it as a hint of his inability to adapt to the development of movies that this is the only one of his movies that made it to the list. Based on directional skill alone it does not deserve its place.
The other problem, that of the story, may relate more to the subject matter and how this is more of a legend than a historic account. As everything religious this is a story that seeks to teach its audience lessons of life and morality. The characters are iconic and they do not need to have normal human traits. Add to this the obvious political or missionary intents of DeMille and the symbolism becomes far more important than naturalism. From my point of view however I find it hugely annoying when people act illogically or outright stupid in order to make a religious or political point. Obviously a lot of the script is written up front, but with the liberty given a movie rendition I am surprised at some of the choices made. This is most pronounced with the Moses character himself, played by Charlton Heston. He is some sort of a genius, accomplishing monumental tasks, yet he seems to make very odd decisions at critical points. The most grotesque being his decision to work the mud pits as a slave when he realizes he is born of a Hebrew mother. If he is suddenly so upset about the slavery issue, why not take the throne practically given to him and just declare their release? What exactly does he think he can achieve from the mud pits? If the objective is to give him integrity it is clearly at the expense of brains.
Yul Brynner’s Rameses is much neater cut, but he is also a victim of odd decisions. I can understand that he wants to avoid creating a martyr, but Moses, the leader of the rebellion, can come and go at his court at will and only when it is too late does Rameses try to restrain him. Any normal tyrant would have him in irons the moment he made a public presence.
The movie is full of smaller and larger examples of these oddities and they do have the effect of distancing me from the characters. That I on a personal level does not buy into the religious elements does not really help me a lot either and there is a lot to stomach. On the other hand if you want to understand particularly Jewish culture this is an excellent guidebook, especially on the diaspora and the sense of nation.
With a massive cast like this however it cannot go entirely wrong. Yul Brynner is pretty awesome and so is Edward G. Robinson as the voice of failure and betrayal among the Israelites. These two are in fact so good that there were times I was rooting for the bad guys rather than the good. Anne Baxter as Nefretiri is also a character far more developed and with more human traits with her equivalents on the Hebrew side, Sephora (Yvonnne De Carlo) and Lilia (Debra Paget). She is also the voice of reason and common sense that challenges Moses and has the unfortunate effect of making Moses look like something in between an idiot and a mad zealot.
In fairness I should mention that many of the problems pointed out are if not resolved then at least taking backseat in the second half of the movie where the spectacle takes over and dazzles even a hardened viewer like myself. The night of the destroyer and the crossing of the Red Sea are both so spectacularly done that they are in fact worth the entire movie.
“The Ten Commandments” is a movie that is both toe-cringing and exciting, educational and religious indoctrination. It is not a movie to be rated by normal standards and at the end of the day probably a movie more to be respected than liked. As an end to 1956 I can definitely say that the year goes out with a bang.