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With: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Woody Strode
Written by: Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank, 'based upon the Holy Scriptures and other Ancient and Modern Writings'
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 220
Date: 10/05/1956

The Ten Commandments (1956)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Days of Signs and Moses

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Perhaps Anne Baxter's line, "Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!" best describes the whole of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1953), the director's last and most spectacular film in a career full of spectaculars.

Running nearly four hours, The Ten Commandments -- a remake of DeMille's own 1923 silent film -- depicts the story of Moses (Charlton Heston) and his charge to free the Israelites from the evil Pharaoh (Yul Brynner).

As if knowing he was going out on a high note, DeMille decided to pull out all the stops. He appears on a stage at the beginning of the film and discusses how the film came about and the sources he and his screenwriters used to adapt the story.

The film proceeds, not in Cinemascope as one would guess, but in standard 1-to-1.85 widescreen. DeMille and other directors from the old school sneered at Cinemascope, saying that it was too hard to stage and too hard to watch. Fritz Lang famously called it "good for only snakes and funerals," though he was actually only reading Jean-Luc Godard's dialogue in Contempt.

Nevertheless, DeMille's film fairly bursts with color and hugeness, even when the characters sit around on one set and talk at one another -- which happens a lot.

Of course, the parting of the Red Sea scene still sends chills up the spine, especially as the characters march across on dry land, gazing up in fear and wonder at the high walls of suspended water, their faces bathed in a cool light and a heavenly breeze. But many other scenes impress as well, such as when the Hebrew slaves erect a tall stone tower using a complex system of pulleys and weights.

But rarely does anything match the climactic "orgy" sequence at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses is up top for 40 days and 40 nights collecting the Ten Commandments. The screen is filled with whirling, dancing, cavorting bodies, each wearing bright, broad colors. The women flail their long, voluptuous hair around, and wine spatters from oversized carafes. I'm sure it had the opposite of its intended affect when Moses finally descends and calls them all sinners. In that one scene he smacks of a holier-than-thou televangelist scolding his flock and asking for money.

Otherwise, Heston is surprisingly powerful in the role. Most critics are fond of saying that the wooden Heston was only good in one film, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), but his rich voice actually sounds good bellowing out the famous line, "Let my people go!"

Edward G. Robinson makes a good, squirmy Dathan, the traitorous Hebrew who bowed lower than the others in order to win a position of favor among the Egyptians. And Debra Paget is stunning as his illicit and unwilling bride.

"B" movie actors John Carradine and Vincent Price also turn up, lending The Ten Commandments a welcome air of camp.

Best of all is Anne Baxter, though, who deftly combines her sweetness from The Magnificent Ambersons and her vindictiveness from All About Eve into Nefretiri, the princess/queen in love with Moses and canny enough to do something about it. Kittenish and snaky at the same time, she delivers her lines through an alluring smile while wearing a stunning array of lovely costumes and a Betty Page-type hairdo.

DeMille was not director enough to pay attention to any small details; he jumps from big scene to big scene with rarely so much as a close-up. But he did it with an earnest enthusiasm that set him apart from all other makers of epic pageants. Looking at anything from Gone with the Wind to The Sound of Music, Titanic and Gladiator, it's difficult, ultimately, to understand why anyone would want to bother with them. But with The Ten Commandments, one can sense DeMille's presence off to the side, watching, surveying, crafting like a proud father.

Paramount's double-disc DVD set is a spectacular worthy of the film itself. The transfer is truly stunning, with every bold color popping in all the right places. Katherine Orrison, author of "Written in Stone: The Making of Cecil B. DeMille's Epic," provides a running commentary track, an epic achievement in itself. The disc also includes a new six-part documentary, trailers for the 1956, 1966 and 1989 releases and optional subtitles. I suspect that families will want to run this DVD every Easter or Passover instead of watching the constantly interrupted, pan-and-scan version on television.

A year later, for the 50th Anniversary, Paramount re-issued this same two-disc set, but with a bonus third disc added, containing DeMille's 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. Quite a bit different, the film's first third contains a condensed version of events (the Parting of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf, etc.) before moving on to a modern story about a Godless building contractor who gets rich by avoiding the Ten Commandments but later pays for his misdeeds. It's quite a bit heavier-handed than the new version, but it's not without its charms.

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