Oscar Vault Monday – The Ten Commandments, 1956 (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
So I have watched this film every year around Passover for as long as I can remember. I love it dearly. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at the Castro Theatre here in San Francisco yesterday in gorgeous restoration (it’s a shame my DVD screencaps below aren’t from the restoration; they pale in comparison to what I saw projected yesterday). The Ten Commandments was the highest grossing film of 1956 and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning one: Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Director, Best Color Costume Design, Best Special Effects (won) and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and winner Around the World in Eighty Days.
I love that movie poster above. It makes Moses look like such a badass. This was DeMille’s second take on the story, having filmed a silent version in 1923. For this version DeMille commissioned extensive research and used sources well beyond the Bible, from ancient historians to contemporary (at the time) archaeological findings. He also had one of the largest sets ever constructed for the production, much of which was actually filmed in Egypt.
I was going to write a good deal about DeMille’s introduction and what I think it means, but I have decided to refrain as my reading of it seems to be conflicting with certain historical facts. Though, I stand by my hypothesis that there’s deeper meaning in the speech than maybe even DeMille was aware of when he delivered it. The introduction reminded me of a John Ford film I watched recently, 1947’s The Fugitive, which had a similar opening preface, which I think was included for similar reasons. Regardless, be sure to watch the film with DeMille’s opening and see what you think it means and get backt to me.
This opening shot reminds me of a similar shot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, also featuring slaves building a city for a privileged upper class. Cinematographer Loyal Griggs was also the man who shot George Stevens’s Shane. I’d also like to point out that the editor of this nearly four-hour epic was none other than Ms. Anne Bauchens. Though this was her last film, she worked on over 60 pictures since 1915 and won an Oscar for her work on DeMille’s North West Mounted Police; she’d received four Oscar nominations in her career, all for work on DeMille’s pictures.
I’d hate to think there are people out there who don’t know the story of Moses just from a cultural/historical context. But if you don’t, the basic story is that at the time of his birth the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt for nearly 400 years. There was talk that a deliverer was born, so the Pharaoh had all newborn boys killed. Moses’s mother Yoshebel (Martha Scott) put her son in a reed basket and sent him down the Nile for protection. There he drifted into the wading pool of the Pharoah’s daughter Bithia (Nina Foch), who was mourning the death of her husband. Thinking her dead husband asked the Nile gods to send her a son, she takes the baby, naming him Moses (drawn from the water). In this telling of the story her servant Memnet (Judith Anderson) objects to a Hebrew slave being raised by royals, but Bithia warns her into silence, saying if she ever mentions it again, it will be her last breath.
The story then jumps to 30 years later, with grown Moses being the favorite of the new Pharoah Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), whose son Rameses (Yul Brynner) hates. The two are in line for the throne and for the hand of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), who must marry the next Pharaoh. Hardwicke is quite wonderful as Seti, adding warmth and humor to what could have been a very soulless character. His love for both Nefretiri and Moses shines through the chemistry of the three actors.
After being sent to conquer Ethiopia and instead bringing them as allies, Moses takes over building Seti’s treasure city because Rameses has failed (he’s cruel and whiney). One day an old woman (Moses’s mother!) is almost crushed between two rocks and Moses saves her, which causes controversy as Moses’s use of compassion is foreign to both the Egyptians and their slaves. Martha Scott is so wonderful as Yoshebel, speaking volumes with her eyes. Scott was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for 1940’s Our Town.
Eventually Moses learns the truth and must talk to his mother, which results in extremely tender scene about filial love and adoption. Heston is just as great in these subtle scenes as he is when he’s in booming epic mode. Nina Foch was nominated for Best Supporting Actress a few years earlier for 1954’s Executive Suite.
There’s a lot of crazy sex stuff in this movie that I definitely noticed as a child but didn’t really know how to process. Watching it as an adult it’s even more apparent what is going on and now that I can process it, it’s strange to think what kind of effect it must have had on me as a child. The sexual tension between Baxter in Brynner is intense and bizarre because it’s built on animosity. The scene where Rameses tells Nefretiri that when she is his wife he’s gonna enjoy having her come to him (read: sleep with him) whenever he wants and that it’s up to her whether she’ll enjoy it (but she probably will). How on Earth did they get that past the censors?!
Speaking of Anne Baxter, let’s look at her gorgeous costumes. There are several credited designers on the film (including Edith Head), though the Oscar that year went to The King and I. Baxter wears the shit out of her gowns and I must say, they are even more breathtaking on the big screen. Actually, Baxter’s entire performance comes across way less camp and actually quite subtle when you see her on the big screen. Baxter won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1946’s The Razor’s Edge and was nominated for Best Actress for 1950’s Best Picture winner All About Eve.
I have had a crush on John Derek as Joshua for basically my whole life, but I will get to that in a second. Let’s talk about Debra Paget and her character Lilia. She’s a water girl and she’s having a secret romance with Joshua (I’m still a little confused as to why it was secret, but that’s neither here nor there). She’s beautiful and thus she is an object of desire for several men. She winds up being taken by the master builder Baka (Vincent Price), who dresses her up nice and basically is going to use her as a concubine until he’s sick of her and then get rid of her. Eventually both Joshua and Moses come to her rescue and Baka is killed. Later she is taken by Dathan, a slave who rises to Governor eventually, in trade for Joshua’s life. Lilia becomes an outcast and is shamed. But Joshua’s love for her never falters. I always loved that. There’s some interesting things said about women as property in this film and both Lilia and Nefertiri are examples of this, though one is forced through her beauty into objectivity and the other is raised to be nothing but an object for the Pharaoh to possess.
Oh, Joshua! Joshua! How can you not go weak in the knees at the sight of John Derek?! He is just so hunky. Derek’s an interesting fellow, you should look him up. As Joshua, he is sort of a mirror for Moses. He’s got passion and he wants to resist, but he’s not the deliverer. However, it is Joshua who makes Moses realize his own potential and eventually, it is Joshua who takes over leading their people when they finally come into the promised land of milk and honey.
Edward G. Robinson often cites DeMille as helping reinvigorate his career after nearly being blacklisted. He was mostly in small bit parts until DeMille cast him as the scheming Dathan. I can’t imagine a better performer for this role. Other than this film, Robinson is probably best known for his performances in such crime and noir films as Little Caesar, The Stranger, Key Largo and Double Indemnity. He reteamed with Heston in 1973’s Soylent Green, which wound up being the actor’s last role.
I just had to post this little piece of dialogue. I had never noticed it before yesterday and my word is it racy!
Like I mentioned earlier, there is some interesting discussion about adoption and motherhood, and the scene between Moses’s two mothers makes me cry every time. These two women are at the top of their game in this film. This is mirrored in the second half of them film, when Nefretiri and Sephora (Moses’s wife, more on her later) discuss their sons and their relationships with Moses.
Like I mentioned earlier, this film was mostly shot in Egypt and there are some seasons of such breathtaking beauty, it’s a shame most people only see this film on their televisions. I haven’t mentioned Heston’s Oscar history yet. He received his one and only competitive nomination – and win – for 1959’s Ben-Hur (which also must be seen on the big screen!), though he did also receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1978.
Speaking of Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), she’s the one woman in the film that is not an object. She even tells her sisters that she refuses to be on display like caravan wares. So, of course, she is the only woman for Moses. There’s a bit of a Madonna/whore dichotomy with Sephora in regards to the other women in the film, except that she is discarded by Moses just like the other women in his life once he begins his path as deliverer. De Carlo, if you will remember, famously played Lily Munster in the 1960s.
I always liked how they did the burning bush when Moses goes up to talk with God on Mount Sinai. This screenshot doesn’t to the artistry half justice.
Did I tell you this movie is nearly 4 hours long? We’re only at the halfway point. I miss Entr’Actes and Intermissions in films. They’re great. This is a good time to mention that Elmer Bernstein did the music for this film and it is one of my favorite scores ever. He would go on to receive 14 Oscar nominations, though his only win was for 1967’s Throughly Modern Millie.
As I said earlier, the only Oscar this film won was for its special visual effects. Seeing them on the big screen was really awe-inspiring. I know many a modern audience member probably groans and complains about the “bad” special effects and that is just so disrespectful and ignorant. The things that they did with rear-projection and other photographic techniques is just mind-boggling for the time.
The film boasts some really great supporting work from the likes of Vincent Price and Dame Judith Anderson (watch them sizzle in Laura, plz), John Carradine as Moses’s brother Aaron. Woody Strode has a non-speaking role as the King of Ethiopia and apparently Herb Alpert (san the Tijuana Brass) and Robert Vaughn appeared as extras.
I wish they had done more with the plagues, but I do love the sequence with the water turning to blood. I’m sure you could read somewhere about how they did it, but I don’t want to know. It still leaves me in awe, going, “How’d they do that?!” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I haven’t talked much about Yul Brynner as Rameses yet. He’s so great in this film. He’s such a pompous ass, but Brynner is so damn handsome and charming, that it’s hard to hate him. 1956 really was the year of Brynner, he brought his performance of King Mongkut in The King and I from Broadway (over the years he played the role of 4,000 times) to the big screen and won the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts. He also co-starred with Best Actress winner Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia. If you ever get a chance, look up Brynner’s work as a photographer. He was a genius in more than one way.
Let’s get back to Joshua. He is a hunk, as we have established, and he also loved Lilia like woah. So when Rameses brings the death of the first-borns plague on Egypt, he puts lamb’s blood on Lilia and Dathan’s door to save her life, despite Dathan’s insistence that he not. I always found that awfully romantic. Ahhhhh Joshua, love me too!
Speaking of the plague, look at that hand of God! It’s so great. This whole Passover sequence is devastating. There’s these heart-wrenching cries of death constantly in the background. It makes me shiver just thinking about it. Also, let’s talk about that depth of field in that bottom screenshot as Joshua’s opens the door to show them the death that is passing them by. So good.
Still not sure why Rameses doesn’t die (wasn’t he a first-born?!), but the death of his commander’s son really gets me. Pentaur is played by longtime DeMille collaborator Henry Wilcoxon. I’d never really noticed how heartbreaking his character is throughout the film. He’s always sticking by Rameses, despite often knowing how wrong his master is. But then his eldest son dies and he still doesn’t waiver. Later, he leads the charioteer into the Red Sea, chasing after the freed slaves, while Rameses stays behind. He parishes for his Pharaoh, and you can’t help but pity his blind loyalty.
This is another scene I just had to talk about, but wish I had a video instead of screencaps. It’s this really fluid scene that starts out with Moses and Rameses, as the Pharoah finally decides to let his people go. Rameses disappears from the frame when the camera follows Moses as he leaves. Nefretiri shows up in the background with the body of her dead son, as Moses exist the frame. The camera then follows her as she brings the body to Ramses. It’s so beautifully orchestrated and Baxter’s death walk is so wonderful, it’s impossible to see just how great it is in a dinky screen. Also these screencaps are much darker than the film actually is supposed to be, ruining the effect of Nefretiri’s dark blue gown in contrast to her background and Rameses’s black mourning robe.
Which bring us to the exodus. I cry every time I see this scene and I cried so hard while watching it on the big screen. I can’t imagine the time and effort it would take to orchestrate something of this magnitude. All those extras, all those costumes. It’s insane. There’s all these really great little moments, like the camel eating someone’s cherries, the little girl and her ducks, the donkey who won’t move. So many great pieces to create the whole.
More amazing special effects during the Red Sea sequence. This ain’t no C.G.I. brothers and sisters and it still looks pretty fabulous sixty years later. Although it took an entire team to do all the special effects in this film, the Oscar went to John P. Fulton who had previously won an Academy Award for his work on 1945’s Wonder Man. He is credited with “special photographic effects” on 250 films.
The orgy sequence is pretty intense. If you look closely, I include a screencap of a woman riding a man as if her were a horse. That’s not even the most graphic thing happening when you look closely. This orgy is perfectly contrasted with shots of Moses receiving the word of God, as it’s written on the stone that will later be the tablets that contain the titular ten commandments. I’m not even going to get into a theological discussion of the oder of those commandments, but I will say it is pretty head-scratching. I love how the writing of God is contrasted with him smiting the people who had an orgy. It’s the whole creation and destruction being on and the same kind of thing.
So, for those of you who don’t know the end of the story, as punishment for their orgy, the Hebrews had to wander in the desert for forty years until the made it to the promised land of milk and honey (on the river Jordan). This ending is a little hokey, but it’s also really beautifully photographed. Throughout the first part of the film, whenever Pharaoh has a proclamation he states, “So it is written, so shall it be done.” This is appropriated and used in the final shot of the film with the tablets containing the commandments. There’s a lot more in this film than I have written about her – like I said, it’s nearly 4 hours! – but I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the film and if you haven’t seen it, I hope you give it chance. There’s much more in it than its often given credit.
Posted on March 25, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1956, Anne Baxter, Cecil B. DeMille, Cedric Hardwicke, Charlton Heston, Debra Paget, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Wilcoxon, John Carradine, John Derek, Judith Anderson, Martha Scott, Nina Foch, The Ten Commandments, Vincent Price, Woody Strode, Yul Brynner, Yvonne De Carlo. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.