My, how times have changed! Back in the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s riotously flatulent Exodus epic, a filmmaker with delusions of Godliness could be counted on to be benign. The Ten Commandments is a film that’s ripped out of the Old Testament, but (final Mt. Sinai bacchanal sequence aside) feels like the grandest archetypal mid-American Sunday School pageant ever produced (which for all intents and purposes is to say it’s a product of the post-Resurrection take on the events surrounding the creation of Moses’s oppressive law). Watching the showcase, which reverently documents Moses (Charlton Heston, in the role he believes he was born to play) and his calling to free Egypt’s Jew slaves from the hand of the tyrant Pharaoh, you can practically smell the potluck crock-pots simmering away in the church kitchenette. In stark contrast, and by most accounts, Mel Gibson’s ode to the key event of the New Testament fairly reeks of the retrograde brimstone characteristic of the Bible’s earlier, far more vengeance-oriented sections. Of course, I simplify sacred matters wildly, but so does DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster (also his final film). And thank the Lord for that. If you’re going to mount a nearly four-hour long production based on an ancient text, this is the way to do it—with an abundance of ornate sets and costumes, kitchy special effects, and a mind-blowingly stentorian cast backed up with literally thousands of extras. In the early history of narrative films, DeMille was always a cinematic shaman whose relationship with religious morality was primarily as an 11th-hour trump card which allowed him to film suggested orgies and Roman atrocities only to still lay down cheap redemption to send audiences out of theaters with their composure (and moral preconceptions) still intact. The Ten Commandments is hardly different from this model, but DeMille’s pre-code films got away with a lot more than Hollywood typically allowed in the 1950s. Which makes DeMille’s decision to cast the hysterically campy Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter in the crucial roles of the Pharaoh and his wife Nefretiri (who spends the entire film in a dizzy heat over Moses’s barrel-chest) an inspiration, whether intentional or simply by God’s fate. While Brynner’s huffy priss stops short of the obligatory homoeroticism that seems the mark of so many ‘50s historical spectacles (not to worry, John Derek’s wide-eyed, mouth-agape, head-tilted-back-as-he-grasps-Charlton’s-biceps performance, as Joshua, picks up the slack), Baxter’s performance rides high in the annals of camp. She leads with her chest, she bares her teeth in fits of jealous passion, she uses drapery and bejeweled accessories as her own personal weapons of seduction. Shit, the screenwriters almost didn’t even need to do her the favor of supplying such immortal lines of dialogue as “Oh Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” She (and she alone) carries the film through its somewhat tepid first few hours before DeMille the ringmaster starts firing on all cylinders, culminating in the sweeping melodrama, the go-for-broke majesty of the deservedly iconic Red Sea parting.
- Cecil B. DeMille
- Debra Paget, John Derek, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine (and the lady who screams, "The chariots! Aaah! Run for your lives!")
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