Classic Movie Review:
The Ten Commandments (1956)
By Josh Spiegel
April 10, 2009

Wave your hands in the air like you don't care!

With Easter coming on Sunday, Passover already here, and everyone in such a festive mood, are you ready to sit through a 220-minute epic about the life and times of Moses, the most famous man to part the Red Sea? Make that the only man to part the Red Sea, but you get my drift. Yes, I'm talking about the 1956 religious classic The Ten Commandments.

Epics are very rare these days; in fact, the last major series of epic films came from Peter Jackson's adaptation of the Lord of the Rings book series. Before that came the 1997 box office champ Titanic. Despite those incredibly popular films, the epic is not a normal movie Hollywood makes anymore, mostly because the cost would be ridiculous and most people are hard-pressed to sit still through a movie that goes longer than three hours. Back in the first golden age of cinema, however, epics were almost a dime a dozen. So, in theory, having a bombastic director like Cecil B. De Mille and an equally fiery star like Charlton Heston is a great pairing for a wide-ranging story like The Ten Commandments. In theory, though, lots of things should work, like the New York Mets' bullpen or a fourth Indiana Jones movie. The Ten Commandments, while aiming very high, fell kind of short for me.

And, yes, I'm one of the presumably few who've never sat down for this religious drama over many Easters. Oh, I've tried; I clearly remember sitting down when ABC showed Ten Commandments one April long ago. Unfortunately, I tuned out just around the time the opening credits ended. That sounds a bit impatient on my part, but in sitting down to watch the movie, I discovered that ten minutes had elapsed by the end of those credits, what with the overture, a three-minute introduction by De Mille himself, and the long, long opening credits.

What happens after those credits is, by and large, somewhat impressive and just a bit too much. Even though Ten Commandments is over 50 years old, it's hard to argue about the awe-inspiring special effects, especially during the climactic parting of the Red Sea. Yes, it's obvious that Heston isn't actually anywhere near those parted waters, but this sequence is arguably one of the milestones in film technology. Also worth noting are the sumptuous sets and costumes, the scope of some of the film's extras-encompassing sequences (seriously, there are either millions of people in this movie or lots and lots of props), and the overall flamboyant nature of the entire proceedings.

All of this is my kind way of saying that I really didn't enjoy The Ten Commandments. Part of it's simple: I'm just not a very religious-minded person. Also, this is the type of movie that a person sees usually because they want to, are shown it in school, or are made to see it by family. Unlike most modern films, The Ten Commandments isn't a movie that you see at the multiplex because it's just been too long since you saw one of those good old-fashioned epics. An epic like this just doesn't work very well, specifically in the acting and directing style. For De Mille, more is more. Not only do we need more actors, we need more from the actors. Almost everyone in this movie gives the most over-the-top performance possible. Only Heston and Yul Brynner (as the Pharaoh Rameses II) pull off being so theatrical in their gesturing, posturing, and line delivery. Other actors, such as John Derek, Anne Baxter, and Edward G. Robinson, don't fare so well and are fairly laughable in their various portrayals.

Also, in general, the script focuses far too much on Moses before he becomes the leader of the Hebrew nation as opposed to when he leads his people through Egypt by setting plagues on the Egyptians, parts a sea, brings down those titular commandments and even has to deal with an uprising among his people. Yet, we get more from his life as an Egyptian, his ill-fated romance with Nefretiri (Baxter, an Academy Award winner who plays her femme fatale character too cartoonishly to be believed), and his sibling rivalry with Rameses II. Though the way that Moses is before he realizes his true destiny is certainly integral to his character and the story as a whole, spending over two hours on that and leaving only 90 minutes to the key parts of the tale, the parts that are probably the most recognizable aspect of The Ten Commandments, is somewhat foolhardy and left me cold.

That love story is another problem in general. We're meant to believe that Moses and Nefretiri, before Moses finds out he's one of the Hebrew people, are star-crossed lovers, meant to be forever and ever. Once Moses abandons his old life, it doesn't take him long to find a wife, a Hebrew woman (Yvonne DeCarlo), and even a son. Not only is far more time spent with Moses and Nefretiri, but the second love story isn't given any time to breathe; we're meant to assume that Moses married this woman and that's about all. Moreover, Nefretiri's so driven to jealousy by this common shepherdess that she incurs Rameses II to keep pushing the Egyptian forces forward against the power of God. Too bad we don't get a real picture of what makes this common shepherdess so much better than Nefretiri; true, she's an Egyptian, but she offers to love Moses whether he's a Hebrew or not.

Another major plot problem I had involved the final sequence, where most of the Hebrew ex-slaves end up being wooed over by Dathan (Robinson), an ex-slave driver who's made the exodus from Egypt to the promised land. Dathan doesn't trust Moses and tells the Hebrews that they should worship a new god, a calf made of solid gold. The Hebrews fall for this plan and end up being royally screwed over by God, who makes them walk in the desert for 40 years because of their betrayal. Here's the major problem: if you were a slave who was recently freed, and the man who freed you parted the biggest body of water you'd ever seen for somewhere close to an hour, would you immediately doubt him and scorn his God? I mean, I can't speak for you out there in reader-land, but I'd be faithful to the guy who had the power to get me free and vanquish the Egyptians.

Also, why would the Hebrews let one of the most heinous slave drivers come with them? Edward G. Robinson is certainly an appropriate casting choice to be a villain, but as free and open as the Hebrews are, I don't know why they'd let Dathan come with them; moreover, I don't know why Dathan would want to come at all. His appearance felt very much like a reason to have a final conflict (and I say all of this with the express confession that I've never read the Bible, so for all I know, Dathan - or a character very much like him - is in this story).

The best part of the movie is Heston himself. Though I'm no great believer in his acting skills, his performance as Moses is honest and true, even if it's also crazily over-the-top at times. He may read most...okay, all of his lines at the top of his voice, even when calm is called for, but the man knows how to control the screen with his charisma alone. For those of you out there who've yet to see The Ten Commandments, he's the best reason to do so. I can't say that I liked this movie, but it has its merits and I can now proudly say I've seen this Biblical epic, with the metaphorical scars to prove it. Now, I'm off to worship Mooby the golden calf. Anyone want to join me?