September 2, 2008
Issues Within DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments”
A note before you read: This was a paper I wrote for a class in college…so if my voice seems a little funny, I was probably trying to do my best to please my prof. and sound academic. I also was too lazy to go through and delete citations…the bibliography is on a separate disc drive, so if by some chance I need to dig up for anyone, just drop me line.
“Moses…Moses…” We hear it often throughout the Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The one who says it, and the voice intonation changes pretty much every time. Surprisingly, we don’t find a large, stadium sized crowd cheering the name as you might find at a football game. Surprising, because as much as that running back on the field who scored a touchdown is a hero to all of his fans, Moses is turned into a mighty hero before our eyes. But to what means and to what ends does this Moses we witness attain his heroic status? Henry Noerdlinger, who directed research for DeMille said, “…It is presented to the public in the hope that it may convince the movie goer that what he sees on the screen is as honest and accurate a reproduction of historical events as time and money and research could combine to produce”(online database). Despite DeMille’s claim to have made a very accurate film, and in several cases he does succeed, we still see a whole lot of film-friendly plot devices. The important fact is that DeMille goes along with the biblical tradition the best he can, but still uses the stories to narrate a tale that could connect with its contemporary audience..
Moses has become our hero, in a nationalistic sense. He might as well start up a large “USA!! USA!!” chant. From the very outset of the movie, DeMille sets the tone as to what his agenda is in this movie. His speech, once broken down, tells us what our eyes and ears are to be alert too over the next few hours. One of the questions posed at the beginning is, “whether man ought to be ruled by God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictators like Rameses.” We already know the answer to this, but the slightly more subtle use of “dictator” in this post-World War II generation brings about a new connotation. We just went from not liking an enemy we haven’t met to thinking of them as the most despicable evil to live. In case we didn’t get that this struggle rages on, DeMille reminds us that, “This same battle continues throughout the world today.”
In case we hadn’t been given enough to ponder about the type of Moses we are going to see in action, the movie actually starts. We’ve transitioned into hearing the words of the King James Bible, but not for long. Our story would be short and boring if we stuck with a version where thirty years of Moses’ life was omitted, and wandering around the wilderness for a majority of the movie. While such a premise might work for “Survivor 12: The Promised Land,” not so much for an epic movie.
As commentator Katherine Orrison , Author of “Written in Stone-Making Cecil B. Demile’s Epic, The Ten Commandments” notes on the DVD, Demille broke the story down into four sections. The first act is Moses Prince of Egypt, followed by Moses the Outlaw/Shephard, then Moses the Choosen Law Giver, and Moses the Patriarch of his People. Despite the obvious main character of each portion, Orrison also notes that it was of the utmost importance to DeMille that Heston never trump God. (Orrison, DVD commentary). While this is clearly a challenge, as we move through each act we shall be able to see DeMille attempted to make that happen.
As any good movie of this nature will do, we have re-occurring musical scores that will let us know who we are too be watching for, or who is in control of the scene. Every main character has atleast one, with some characters such as Moses getting multiple themes. Nothing out of the ordinary, but a nice touch to this rendering of the Moses story.
An ark brings baby Moses, played by Charlton Heston’s son to add to the realism, onto the scene. It is a classy maneuver to keep the theme up from the story of the flood, just so we know that the destiny of this child is to save his people. This important tie-in with other biblical stories is another reoccurring theme that DeMille did an excellent job of encompassing into his narrative.
Charlton Heston comes into the throne room, with riches from victories in far of lands. One must not look any farther then our political figures to see how Americans feel about their war heroes. Despite the celebratory feel of the scene, we actually miss out on some lost footage that DeMille cut. While there is a small bit of implication in the Ethiopian woman’s actions, DeMille originally had it filmed where it was quite obvious that this was Moses’ Ethiopian wife. Implication during the throne room scene with Moses Ethiopian wife. (Orrison, DVD commentary) Being as this is the 1950s, and having multiple lovers, of different ethnicities too just for kicks, is not going to fly with the stereotypical, American, nuclear family. So in this first real battle between historical accuracy and preserving the sanctity of our hero, our hero’s reputation wins. While other scenes had been filmed that kept such a plotline going, they were all cut.
It is again noteworthy to realize the deliberate choices DeMille has made here. In our first real scene with Moses, we see a young and gallant hero. Again, Orrison comments that DeMille was aware that Moses was supposed to have a stutter, even referencing the story he researched. The tradition was that Pharaoh feared the child would grow up to overthrow his kingdom from all the prophecy, so he gave the infant a choice between a hot coal and a ruby from Pharoah. He went for the hot coal, saving his life, but as he tried to put it in his mouth, thus his speech impediment (Orrison, DVD commentary). DeMille decided he couldn’t have his iconic hero stutter, so this point was tossed on the wayside for sake of cinema.
After being privileged to some of the filler between the Bible’s narratives, the drama behind Moses discovering his heritage certainly seemed to be a very movie-goer friendly version. He saves a random only woman slave only to find out later it happens to be his real mother. Nefertiti, scared of losing him tries to convince him that the power of the pharaoh is the only way to help the oppressed, but we start to see Moses getting the bigger picture now in the exchange. Nefertiti: “Cannot justice and truth be served better upon a throne where all men may benefit from your goodness and strength? Moses: “I do not know what power shapes me way, but my feet are set upon a road that I must follow.”
What follows is one of the better biblical connections we have come across yet. Moses, with his new identity and feeling a new calling starts back at the bottom not just as a slave…but as a mud creature. While its very easy too look too much into it, its too exciting to see Moses called a “man of the mud,” in a throwback to the creation story. Even Ramases II will refer to him as a “mud pit prophet.” It is now that everything will start to change. Moses refuses to sit by the wayside and let injustice happen, which eventually leads to his banishment from Egypt.
The scene at the well with the seven daughters DeMille has certainly made his own. Not only are they all just daydreaming of a studly man, Heston as Moses does one better then move the rock to feed their stock. He busts out his martial arts skills in an impressive display of staff whooping. Not exactly biblical, but nothing to get our britches in a bunch over. It is here that Moses settles into a new life and starts to reflect upon the nature of the God of the Hebrews.
When it came to the burning bush scene, it left a lot to be desired. A glowing halo around the bush was received as pretty pathetic by the Sunday School crowds DeMille aimed to please (Orrison, DVD commentary). It was also rather awkward that Moses somehow saw the burning bush from so far away without bionic vision. We don’t even get to see the LORD turn the staff into a snake, which was one of the more convincing parts of the biblical narrative. In all of this, credit must still be given where due. We miss one of the finer subtitles of the scene if we focus on all of the negative. Wanting to keep the tradition of God’s voice sounding like “the father of Moses,” they recorded Charleton Heston doing the lines of God, and then altered his voice to make it sound slightly older (Orrison, DVD commentary).
Once Moses has returned to Egypt and placed his demands on Ramases II, Nefertiti once again tries to take control of the situation. She quickly learns that Moses is not seducable for Moses is now more concerned of matters of the spirit. Nefertiri’s response is, “Beauty of the spirit will not free your people Moses You will come to me, or they will never leave Egypt.” Again, we see our hero coming through. This time, it is matters of honor in how he gets what he desires, as well as keeping the relationship with his wife and family. Yet, even that relationship will lose its luster later. One lost him when he went in search of God, one lost him when he found God. DeMille’s concern here is clearly showing that nothing, not even such values as family, will stand in the way of Moses, and thus give us a model to use in our daily lives or in fighting injustice.
For all of the film’s grandeur, we don’t get to see too many of the plagues. Sadly, cut from the final take was Nefertiti taking on the frogs within the palace (Orrison, DVD commentary). DeMille found the scene to be a bit too humorous, but by the same logic if there really was a biblical tradition of acting these plagues out like a children’s play, it is a shame that DeMille scrapped the comic relief!
When Pharaoh seems as though he is ready to give in, his heart is always hardened. While the Bible is not explicit as the reason, DeMille has decided to portray it by playing off the love triangle Rameses II, Nefertiti and Moses. Nefertiti seems to know just how to push the right buttons. Rameses fears the laughter his empire would endure were he to let the slaves run free. An interesting interpretation, that not only allows us to get sucked into the movie’s tension, but also quells questions a person might ask about why God would harden someone’s heart just to toy with them.
One the most classic and probably most recognizable scene from the movie is the parting of the Red Sea, and with good reason. DeMille did an excellent job of incorporating biblical features of the narrative as opposed to getting carried away with his miracle working. For example, DeMille wants to make sure he stays true to what is said about all of Pharoah’s army dieing. So once the army enters the sea, even Pharaoh’s own charioteer hops out to join in the fray, leaving a very lonely and mostly dry Pharaoh to return home. We do see bits added, but nothing tasteless. As Moses walks through the sea, he is seen carrying a little girl in his arms, just to hit the point home that Moses is the best.
If that’s a subtle nod to the Bible, it doesn’t have anything on the scene on Mount Sinia where Moses actually gets the ten commandments. DeMille wanted to use real granite from Sinia for the stone tablet to make everything completely legitimate (Orrison, DVD commentary). While this was going on, DeMille filmed the scene at the base of the mountain so that it would have an “orgy” like atmosphere without actually doing anything on camera that kids shouldn’t see. He wanted it to be so precise, in fact, that he made sure me each of the extras were met individually so they would all knew exactly what DeMille wanted them to do.
In the closing scene, Moses hands over the five books traditionally attributed to his authorship. While there will always be new discoveries as our historical criticism improves and there are many theories that are more popular then that, given the era and the tradition behind it, DeMille is justified in his enactment. Also, in order to keep God at the focus and keep Moses secondary, DeMille elected to keep God’s returning of Moses to heaven rather undramatic. So right up until the end, Moses is a top-notch hero, for we don’t even see what it is he did to keep him out of the promised land.
After having dealt with the individual events in the movie, it is important to take note of some of the over-arching themes. To the Egyptians, Pharaoh is god. To hear him say, “So let it be written, so let it be done,” is very reminiscent of God speaking the world we know into being. However, this notion of “who is God” gets challenged. The battle is set within the first five minutes, as God has made the light, and Ramases I has sent forth a decree to slaughter the newborn Hebrews. Moses plays the key role for both sides. Moses was an answered prayer to Bithiah, and when Moses was on the pharaoh track, his deity-ness was obvious. Even Ramases I once said to Moses, “Who is this fair young God that comes to the house of the Pharaoh.” Ironically, he then became God’s chosen, sent forth to proclaim the name of the LORD… “I am.” He even starts to head in that direction as the slaves rest one out of every seven days, they called it the day of Moses. Sure enough, Moses gets the final “So let it be written, so let it be done,” over Ramases II. But in the end, it is appropriately Yahweh who gets the very final “line” of the entire movie as it fades to black.
For all of the things DeMille researched about, he did manage one very classy accident. Moses blanket was actually the Levite tribes color, but the costume designer had just thought it looked good (Orrison, DVD commentary). The cloth is vitally important, as Moses sticks with it and thus that identity. He used it when he got kicked out of Egypt, as a Shepard, when he went to challenge Pharoah, when he got the commandments. Likewise, the staff Moses receives from Ramases to rule over
On a whole, despite there being numerous scenes where people suffer, die, or are harshly beaten, the violence mostly happens off camera. Were this movie to be remade (and scarily enough, the Hallmark Channel is as a mini-series) I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of changes be that it would be utterly brutal. Present day America seems to enjoy their heroes like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, not just the underdog, but bloodstained from struggles. One must not look any farther than Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion of the Christ” to recognize that as part of our image of “accuracy” we want to see just how gory and nasty things were.
Would Moses had approved of this script? I speculate Moses would have a good laugh at us for thinking over two billion people gathered around a lake to drink or marched around everywhere in formation. In the context of that, what’s a little cinematic flare? As Moses parts from us, he tells us to, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” a direct connection to the liberty bell. If the original Hebrew was used to help people understand their history and their mission while in exile, DeMille is using the same story in English to tell us what we have been called to do. We must stand up to oppressive rule, and fight for our rites with God on our side. Now that’s a message Moses can get right on board with.