THE TEN COMMANDMENTS—–“Moses, come quickly! There’s a man among the sheep!” The fellow found in the flock turns out to be John Derek: just one of a Biblical number of laughs that keep this gargantuan camp-classic endurable over the three hours & forty minutes it takes for producer-director Cecil B. DeMille to anvil-drop its sermon.
Every time the sheer tonnage of $13,283,000 worth of straight-faced bad taste gets to be too much piety to gargle, some riotous passage of dialogue and junior high–pageant-level performance comes along and wakes you up with a chuckle. *
The Pharaoh of pop-kitsch spectacles going back to Hollywood antiquity, Cecil B. DeMille had reinvigorated the historical epic format with his 1949 smash Samson And Delilah. As sincere about religion as he was canny about mass-public taste, he tasked a quartet of writers to meld three books, acres of research and some liberal adaptation of “Scripture” to remake his hit 1923 silent to suit the Eisenhower Age, subtly melding a VistaVision sense of god-fearing Americanism into a 3,300 year old myth (subtle in DeMille’s case being demure as a catapult).
For the broad shoulders of Moses, he relied on Charlton Heston, who’d held together DeMille’s circus dazzler The Greatest Show On Earth. Rawboned, glowering and intense, the 31-year old Heston had logged a dozen dramas in the interim. As his counterpart, ‘Ramses’, the choice fell onto 34-year-old Yul Brynner, with only one film credit back in 1949. Faced with going half-clothed for much of his part, the dynamic 5’8″ Brynner worked out to muscle up so the rangy 6’3″ Chuck wouldn’t over-power him. The buff look helped him with his commanding mien in The King And I, which won him an Oscar that same year. Also the leading man of a 3rd big 1956 hit, Anastasia, the exotic Yul raked in accolades.
Dominating the mob, Heston and Brynner manage to carry off their end of 220 minutes of towering babble with something close to posterity-clawed dignity, each bearing the physical presence, B.C.-scale projection and sheer Manly confidence to give their windy pronouncements enough bared-chest-power to transcend the hapless, hard-breathing dopiness around them.
Vying for smiles and grimaces are talented actors who carve hunks of cheese like they were auditioning for the actual Old Testament: people with proven skill like Edward G. Robinson, Cedric Hardwicke, Judith Anderson and Martha Scott. Yvonne De Carlo and Debra Paget are poised & posed to look ravishing in Technicolor, while Vincent Price at least seems to calculate his contribution with a fitting hint of malicious mirth. Best/Worst is Anne Baxter as ‘Nefreteri’: one of the all-time whoop-ups, so Godawful she makes Susan Hayward’s same-year hysterical gamut in The Conqueror seem inspired. But then, it would take a more sober religious scholar than I to discern what she–or anyone–could do with mouthfuls of chalk like “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”
Backed up with a bombastic music score and cubits of process photography in & on one lavish set after another, five percent was lensed on location in Egypt, the rest at Paramount’s stages in Hollywood and assorted Californian desert posts. Seventy-four individuals were tasked with makeup and hair chores (including Max Factor himself), and eighty-eight assistant directors of one level or another helped coax, goad and browbeat the thousands of players and their swarming critters.
The legendary Parting of the Red Sea sequence is still an impressive ‘be ye awed’ showstopper: it netted the Special Effects department the film’s one Oscar of its seven nominations. It’s a wee hokey and obvious, but pretty cool: back when, it was quite the gee-whizzer. 360,000 gallons of effects-magicked water make even snarling disdainers sit up and gape. ** Another awesome shot takes in the swarm of chariots unleashed in pursuit of the Hebrews. It’s much better than the mawkish Exodus panoply, packed with 8,000+ extras in gaudy costumes: supposed to be uplifting, this exposition-laden parade is corny as all get-out. Altogether 17,000 Egyptians and Americans picked up checks for various crowd-milling: heaving on ropes to erect monuments, having some kind of jump up & down-to-simulate -abandon desert orgy, thronging about in general discontent with scads of sheep, camels, goats and geese—5,000 animals were herded about in between the interminable gabbing.
“So it shall be written. So it shall be done.”
With Nina Foch, John Carradine, Eduard Franz, Douglas Dumbrille, Lawrence Dobkin, Henry Wilcoxon, Frank DeKova, H.B. Warner. Seek in the teeming mass and you will find Woody Strode, Michael Ansara, Mike Connors, Clint Walker, Henry Brandon, Herb Alpert and Robert Vaughan. Also given a prominent credit is Abbas El Boughdadly, an Egyptian polo player who managed Middle East shipping for Onassis. Hired to train Egyptian Army horsemen to play charioteers, he caused a bit of a stir when DeMille’s teen-aged granddaughter fell for him. They married during the production.
Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack is portentous but dull—and dull at volume: it’s the least effective score of this type from its era, a surprise coming from a champ like Bernstein (as it was, just warming up, early in his long, stellar career).
* Family scrolls record my first exposure to burning bushes and churning chariots was in a drive-in, circa 1958, one of approximately one-third of the entire US population who saw the film during its inaugural run. Commanding #1 for ’56, its worldwide gross of more than $196,000,000 is, with adjustment for inflation, one of the most lucrative film fables of all time. I was sleeping in the back seat of our ’57 Dodge Lancer during my drive-in baptism. The next time I caught it was the 1972 re-release. At 17, stoned (when marijuana was fun), with a couple of hippyite pals, the doofy dialogue was just too much–-our continual titters finally getting us shushed by a fed-up matron (she probably thought Che Guevara bought our tickets). Ensuing looks have just congealed my teenage scorn. I think it’s The Worst of the Biblical epics.
I’m not religious, but harbor enough spiritual lean to be moved by aspects of those grandiose pictures that sweep up emotion—prominent examples of their allure would be the lovely and majestic music scores provided by the likes of Miklos Rozsa and Alfred Newman, the staggering spectacle scenes and so on. I love Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur—and it helps that they’re very well written, directed and acted. DeMille’s sincere but garish and goofy titan plays like something from the 1920s. It remains puzzling that it’s given a pass by so many reviewers, the same people who gleefully beat up on The Greatest Story Ever Told, and I confess perplexity at some smart friends—dare we say sophisticated, even?—who dutifully plug this in for the family (to fall asleep by?) at Easter/Passover or keep it in their video collection—as insurance in case Jesus actually shows up? Okay, I’m a heretic. The pit awaits. I’m assuming some of those orgy dames will be there…
** TTC‘s Oscar gimme for Special Effects was up against Forbidden Planet—lo! what but a Hittite’s chance did even the mighty Krell stand against the combined wrath of Jehovah and Cecil Blount? Other nominations cast upon the showbiz community’s philistine brows were for Best Picture (OMG), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing and Sound. Winner Around The World In 80 Days was a much more fun way to loll away three hours; nominees The King And I, Friendly Persuasion, War and Peace and Giant were likewise easily superior. The Searchers, the best movie of 1956, didn’t rate a single nod.
DeMille’s last, greatest wallow almost killed him: filming the Exodus sequence on location in Egypt, after climbing a 107-foot ladder onto one of the giant sets in order to observe the horde of extras, the 73-year-old whipcracker had a major heart attack. Somehow, in true show-must-go-on tradition, he managed not only to climb down, but was back on the set two days later: shades of Teddy Roosevelt. He also tackled speaking the narration (or rather, the ‘intoning thereof’), remarkably long-winded and stuffed with terrible lines. He was impressed enough with Charlton and Yul to cast them in the 1958 remake of The Buccaneer, but his declining health had him turn producing over to friend Henry Wilcoxon and direction to son-in-law Anthony Quinn. The movie flopped and a crushed DeMille went to his afterlife reward on Jan. 21, 1959. As the God’s would have it, that year Brynner scored another Biblical hit with the DeMille-like nonsense of Solomon And Sheba and Heston triumphed in the mighty Ben-Hur, everything a 3.5 hour Biblical epic should be.
Befitting the hoopla around what was then the costliest film ever made, one promotional tie-in (commandment #11) resulted in placing throughout the United States several thousand six-foot granite monoliths, inscribed with 1 thru 10, a joint effort of DeMille and the National Fraternal Order of the Eagles. Starting in 2001 (a religious oddity?), numerous cities have sued to have them removed for violating the separation of church and state.
Leave it to immortal prophet for our own misruled, flood-beset times, George of Carlin: “When they were making this shit up, why did they pick 10? Why not 9 or 11? I’ll tell you why- because 10 sounds official. Ten sounds important! Ten is the basis for the decimal system, it’s a decade, it’s a psychologically satisfying number (the top ten, the ten most wanted, the ten best dressed). So having ten commandments was really a marketing decision!”
Snootiness aside, DeMille—beyond his out-sized showmanship, and the archaic screenplay and steering of this colossus—must be given credit for some salutary humanistic gestures. Arch-conservative though he was, by hiring him for the key villain role, he basically re-instated the graylisted Edward G. Robinson, who acknowledged “Cecil B. DeMille returned me to films. Cecil B. DeMille restored my self-respect.” And, he did something novel among that colorful, ruthless pirate breed of studio moguls: he made fair with some of the reapings. His percentage of the profits went to the DeMille Trust, established for “charitable, religious and educational purposes.” Further, he assigned 25% of his take to 100 key employees who worked on the movie–grips and stagehands. Some had toiled for him for a decade or two: they received an annual stipend from the film’s largess. The profit speaks….