THE TEN COMMANDMENTS And The Death Of Epics

Bilbo ain’t got nothing on Moses.

Movies aren’t events like they once were. Nowadays, an “event movie” tends to mean the return of a beloved franchise, or a team-up of talent or characters, or a movie that ushers in a gimmick like Avatar or The Hobbit. There are no epics anymore; no films that take up the entirety of your night, that span epochs in their narratives and inspire total awe in audiences.

The Ten Commandments is one of those films. It’s a proper Biblical epic, with an orchestral overture, entr’acte, and exit music, and a personal onscreen introduction from Cecil B. DeMille. Not only does it tell the story of Exodus, but it fills in the missing gaps in Moses’ story that the Bible’s editors considered too hot to print. It’s a full twenty minutes before our Moses, Charlton Heston, appears onscreen, and a good four hours before the final titles roll, when you take intermission into account. Cecil B. DeMille knows you're in for the long haul, and exploits that.

There’s not even an attempt to tell the story efficiently or economically. It’s like watching a stage production, with every story and character beat spelled out in dialogue, only with considerably more spectacle than your local rep theatre can muster. Not even the expository dialogue is enough, either, as DeMille himself narrates several montages. The feeling is like seeing the most expensive Nativity play ever produced (only covering a different story).

The acting is theatrical and mannered, helped along by the stagey blocking and compositions that DeMille puts together. One reason is that for such a sweeping epic, it’s surprisingly stagebound, relying on composite shots to place its movie stars into locations. The rare points (mostly in the final act, the actual Exodus) where the camera ventures onto location, joined by hundreds of extras, are breathtakingly beautiful, if only for being more natural-looking than the carefully-controlled, harsh studio lighting of the rest of the film. Some scenes feature Heston on location talking to another actor in the studio. On Blu-Ray, that kind of thing is super jarring.

Also jarring is the dated casting. A remake of an adaptation (also by DeMille) of one of the oldest and most oft-told stories, made in the Fifties, it’s horrifically whitewashed - although Vincent Price as an ancient Egyptian creeper is the nexus of brilliant casting and awful casting. Only Touch of Evil deployed Charlton Heston more bizarrely. I’d say films made pre-Civil-Rights feel like they’re from another universe, but then again, Exodus: Gods and Kings exists, was made in 2014, and contains just as many honkies.

What great honkies, though! Heston brings his full commanding voice to the role of Moses, creating an iconic portrayal of the character through a spectacular and fearsome grey mane of hair. The best performance belongs to Yul Brynner (who was absolutely crushing it in 1956, with The King and I and Anastasia coming out the same year) as Rameses II, exuding just the right amount of menace with heaping portions of pride. But the most entertaining actor in the film is Anne Baxter as Nefertiri. Sassy and emotive, she overplays her role, performing (or being directed to perform) demonstratively, as if she’s in a daytime melodrama. It might not be “good” acting, but damn if it’s not a joy to watch.

And the story is really good! On an emotional level, the Rameses/Moses rivalry is powerful, and on a larger scale, the Exodus itself has echoes throughout history. But while the story is a strong one, The Ten Commandments is so caught up in its own importance, it often forgets to be human. There’s a weird, play-acting fetishism to both the historical and religious elements here, speaking to both the world’s obsession with ancient Egypt and America’s obsession with religion.

Fittingly, then, The Ten Commandments is also one the dick-waviest pictures ever made. The most expensive movie ever made at the time, It just has to be bigger, bigger, bigger, whether it’s its gargantuan length, its enormous A-list cast, or the sheer scale of its action. The fire-and-brimstone fury-of-God stuff turns the movie into a supernatural horror flick at times. When Moses/God turns the river to blood, the production uses the full brunt of the Technicolour process; special effects are similarly used to smite the Hieronymus Bosch-like orgy of pre-Commandment revelry at the end. It’s horrifying! And surprisingly, the Parting of the Red Sea sequence still commands awe today, its dated visual effects still giving a sense of scale that no amount of CGI can muster.

Maybe the idea of epics is getting passe because they’re so commonplace. Half the movies on at any given multiplex at any given date nowadays deliver spectacle beyond DeMille’s wildest dreams. As a result, we’re harder to impress than we used to be. Even the descriptor “epic” is so overused it’s lost all its meaning. It’s worth noting that the major spectacles of The Ten Commandments all take place within the film’s third act. The first two or three hours are all character and story stuff, set against the literal backdrop of ancient Egypt. That’d be unthinkable today.

The most surprising thing about The Ten Commandments (this being my first viewing) is how enduringly entertaining it is. Between the histrionic performances, the hard-to-fuck-up story, and the grand sense of showmanship, it’s easy to see how it’s still the seventh-highest-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). A religious epic, a special-effects epic, and a soap epic, it was perfectly placed to make shit-tons of money in the largely Christian United States of the 1950s. And that it did.

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