Cecil B. De Mille sure knew how to put on a show. He really was the master of the big screen epic. When DeMille released a new film, audiences of the time knew full well what they were in for: large scale sets, a truly epic story, larger than life characters, and so many memorable moments. His films were what going to the cinema was supposed to be all about. You went to the cinema to be entertained and wowed. DeMille put a great deal of work into ensuring that his audiences got plenty of wow factor and entertainment.
De Mille’s films were big events, and many of them went on to become classics that are still discussed today, several decades after DeMille’s death. I think that The Ten Commandments (which would sadly be his last film) is one of the very best films that he ever made.
I also think that this particular film is a good place to begin if you are trying to get into DeMille’s work. This film shows you just what he was all about as a filmmaker. I really think he managed to perfectly blend together an intimate human story against a truly epic and stunning visual backdrop.
De Mille’s final film has also become the film for which he has become best remembered for. The film is a partial remake of his own 1923 film of the same name. The Silent version told two stories. The first is a depiction of the biblical events, including the famous parting of the Red Sea. The second is a story set in more modern times and it concerns two brothers and their respective views on the commandments.
However, for his later remake, DeMille decided to focus entirely upon the Biblical story. He shot on location out in Egypt (employing hundreds of extras to star in the mass crowd sequences)and on soundstages. His film recreates Ancient Egypt for us in great detail.
I also love how he shows us the great contrast between the rich and the poor of the time in the film. We see the gruelling life of the slaves, toiling under the boiling sun for hours on end covered in mud and sand.
We also get to see the luxury and beauty of the royal household. The royals living there are indifferent to the plight of their slaves. To them these people are not people at all, they are simply strong backs and hands to do their bidding.
The special effects by John P. Fulton are extraordinary and they have stood the test of time well. I especially love the creepy shot of the plague drifting through the streets. The parting of the Red Sea is also a truly masterful achievement.
The film tells the life of Moses. The newborn baby Moses (played by Charton Heston’s newborn son, Fraser) is placed in a basket by his mother (Martha Scott) and floats off down the River Nile in order to escape the murderous soldiers of the Pharaoh.
The soldiers are killing all first born sons in an effort to stop a prophecy about a deliverer for the Jewish slaves. The basket drifts into the water gardens of the royal palace and is discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter Princess Bithiah(Nina Foch). The Princess is childless, so she keeps baby Moses and passes him off as her own child.
Years later we see the now grown Prince Moses (Charlton Heston)as a strong and beloved warrior. He is the favourite of the current Pharaoh, Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke) who is Bithiah’s brother. This favouritism annoys Sethi’s son Rameses (Yul Brynner)and he hates Moses.
These two men become rivals for the crown of Egypt and also for the hand in marriage of Princess Nefreteri (Anne Baxter). The Princess is a beautiful, scheming and very vain woman, but she genuinely loves Moses and doesn’t want to be married to Rameses.
I really love how Anne plays this role, she chews the scenery up and ends up stealing all the scenes she is in. Anne also gets the most beautiful dresses to wear throughout the film.
Everything soon changes when Moses learns the truth about his heritage. He is banished by Sethi(a decision that breaks the older mans heart)and is sent by Rameses out into the desert. Instead of dying he survives his trek and meets a tribesman and his daughters.
Moses is taken in by them and he later marries the oldest daughter, Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo). Years pass and the couple have a son. One day Moses sees a strange light on top of the mountain next to where he lives.
Climbing the slopes of the mountain he discovers God, who appears to him as a burning bush and speaks with the voice of Moses’s long dead father (Charlton Heston’s voice deepened). When Moses comes down from the mountain he is a very changed man. He now looks much older and has the appearance of one who is in some way removed from the life around him.
Moses must now travel to the capital of Egypt and show the power of God to Rameses who has now succeeded his father as Pharaoh. Rameses is now married to Nefreteri and they have a son. Rameses refuses to accept what Moses is telling him. He thinks that things like making snakes appear or turning water to blood are nothing more than magic tricks. When the plagues arrive in Egypt and his son dies he sets out with his armies to destroy Moses.
This leads to the famous exodus sequence and the parting of the Red Sea. These two sequences remain extremely impressive when viewed today. I own this film on Blu-ray and the effects and the sharp picture quality really do look fantastic. There are a few scenes where the effects don’t look so good(you can see the lines between the imposed backdrop and the actors for example,) but these two sequences have stood the test of time really well.
I am not a religious person, but I really do enjoy watching this film and its depiction of slaves being set free and given a good life. I have no idea whether the events depicted here are accurate or not according to Bible, but I do find the film to be hugely enjoyable and impressive regardless of whether or not it really happened.
A few complaints coming up. I wish that the storyline focusing on the heroic stone cutter Joshua (John Derek)and the gentle and humble water girl Lilia (Debra Paget)had been given a greater focus. If only there had been a few more scenes before she is taken away from him so that we could really feel a greater connection to them and their relationship. Derek and Paget make the most of their roles, but I just wish they had been given larger roles.
I also think that many of the supporting cast sadly don’t really get much substance to their roles. The actors all shine in their scenes, but many characters are not as developed as they should be.
I feel that Moses and Sephora’s relationship is also very rushed, I think there should have been many more scenes between them depicting their growing feelings for one another.
The film also features two very bizarre casting choices. Vincent Price as the master builder, Baka. Price certainly oozes malevolence but he just comes across as being out of place in this film for some reason. I am a huge fan of Price but I am quite bemused by him appearing in this.
Moving from Price onto the second piece of strange casting in the film. Just who was responsible for putting my boy Eddie G in this film as Dathan? He was one of the finest actors of his generation, and he is a great favourite of mine, but this was not a role or film genre that he was suited to at all. His casting leaves me scratching my head.
Quibbles aside this is a very enjoyable film. It is one I would dearly love to see on the big screen as it was intended to be seen. Have any of you seen it at the cinema? If so, please share your experiences of what that was like.
Upon release the film quickly became one of the most financially successful films at the box office. I hope that made DeMille happy because you can see on screen how much work went into this film. De Mille suffered a massive heart attack during filming but like the pro he was, he was back on set not long after suffering it to continue working. He would suffer from problems with his heart for the rest of his life. De Mille died in 1959.
My favourite performances in the film come from Yul Brynner (sexy and strong as the crown prince). Nina Foch as the loving Bithia. Martha Scott as Yochabel, the real mother to Moses. Anne Baxter as the beautiful Nefretri. Cedric Hardwicke as the stern but fair Sethi. Debra Paget as Lilia. Yvonne De Carlo as the humble and kind Sephora. I also enjoy seeing De Mille himself in the opening introducing the film.
I also really like Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses. Heston has never been an actor I’ve liked very much. This film and The Big Country are really the only films I have ever actually liked him in. I love how he conveys through his body language and expressions his transformation from Egyptian prince, to thoughtful and other worldly messenger of God. There is an authority and strength about him in the scene where Moses comes down from the mountain, and you more than believe then that he has undergone a real change. A very impressive performance.
My favourite scenes are the following. Rameses kissing Nefretiri and telling her she will be his wife. Moses seeing God and coming back down from the mountain. Sephora telling Moses that all that her (poor)family have he is more than welcome to. Moses’s staff becoming a cobra. Bithiah finding Moses in the basket. Nefretiri arriving at the mudpits to find Moses. The exodus and parting of the Red Sea. Rameses and Nefretiri’s reactions after the death of their son. Sethi’s deathbed scene. The plague drifting through the streets. Moses’s adoptive and birth mother pleading with one another over his future.
I also have to praise the music by Elmer Bernstein. He replaced Victor Young as composer after Young became ill. I love the score because it’s larger than life, just like the film is. It is a dramatic, sweeping and memorable score.
What are your thoughts on this film?