“The Ten Commandments” Remains the Definitive Film Adaptation of Exodus
Revisiting the Best Picture-winning Biblical Epic After 61 Years
★★★ | Garrett Foster
I’m not sure a single word can sum up a film like The Ten Commandments, but if there ever was one, “epic” comes to mind. That word has lost almost all of its meaning in today’s world; I heard it used yesterday to describe a new flavor of Doritos. Using “epic” in this context, however, I refer not to a new variety of cheddar, but rather to a movie with a large scale, a sweeping score, and colorful spectacle. By that oversimplified definition, The Ten Commandments is a great success.
The film is only loosely biblical and often borders on melodrama, but Cecil B. DeMille’s accomplishment is undeniable. He has created a work that is both magnificently grandiose and of monumental grandeur — and I can’t imagine a worthy adaptation of Exodus any other way. To take more artistic liberty would be to misconstrue Scripture for the sake of a movie, and to try to be more faithful to the source might be counterintuitive, highlighting the shortcomings of film’s (or any worldly thing’s) ability in portraying acts of God. The movie treads this line with surprising precision for a mainstream biblical epic, honoring the book of Exodus to a reasonable extent while recognizing that it shouldn’t take itself too seriously.
At three hours and forty minutes, DeMille's crowning achievement is one of considerable length — long enough to warrant an intermission, that is — but it’s also of a work of remarkable scope. Its title, for that matter, is not entirely accurate, despite its powerful resonance. The movie covers far more ground than the decreeing of the titular Ten Commandments, outlining the entire life of Moses (Charlton Heston) all the way from swaddled infant in the river to Israel’s deliverer from the enslaving bonds of Egypt.
Heston is ideally cast here, bringing a wise, grounded sensibility to Moses and convincingly playing him over most of his years on earth, from the strong and physically able adopted son of Pharoah to the bearded, staff-wielding leader of God’s people. Yul Brynner plays opposite him as Rameses II, jealous sibling of Moses who eventually takes control over Egypt as Pharoah. Brynner does the evil and shortsighted impulse characteristic of Rameses justice; his confident screen presence clashing with Heston’s charisma makes for a compelling sibling rivalry next to the central exodus story.
Among the notable minor characters, Anne Baxter shines brightest as Nefretiri, daughter of Pharoah who harbors an infatuation for Moses. Nefretiri is one of Baxter’s most famous performances, second only to her role as Eve Harrington in All About Eve, and it’s easy to see why. Her conniving, flirtatious on-screen presence stands out among a number of wooden performances around her, establishing Nefretiri as a major player in a story that would otherwise have her sidelined. It’s an interesting take on the character, but she is, in consequence, the source of much of the exaggerated melodrama that reigns for the first third of the movie.
That is my major issue with The Ten Commandments. Too often does it drift from its biblical focus to the campiness and melodrama characteristic of a school play, and too often are great chunks of celluloid dedicated to such silliness. The movie begins with a message from Cecil B. de Mille, during which he explains that this story he adapted from a handful of ancient texts “takes three hours and thirty-nine minutes to tell”. I have no issue with an extended runtime in movies; I wouldn’t have the Exodus story adapted to film any way else.
Still, it seems to me that DeMille could have achieved his purpose without a fifteen minute interlude in Moses’ journey to stop and tell the story of how seven young Bedouin girls drooled over his exhausted body in the wilderness. Such moments are funny, sure, but the epic tone (still not equating with chip flavors here) often becomes undercut with one-liners that don’t always land, even on their own merits. With the comic relief, a triviality is brought to a story that should feel anything but trivial.
But for the movie’s lapses in tone consistency, all of this is done in visually extravagant fashion. For the re-release I attended, the film had been restored in astonishing 6K; such was the joy of seeing it on the vastness of a theater screen. From vast desert landscapes to a blood-turned Nile, de Mille makes full use of his screen, bringing an enormity to each shot that makes even the corners of the frame feel grand. Occasionally over-the-top, too, but at no point over its extensive runtime does the movie bore. For what The Ten Commandments lacks in sincerity and genuine emotional pull, it makes up for in unadulterated theatric spectacle.
The highlight, of course, is the famous parting of the Red Sea sequence. Steven Spielberg has called the scene “the greatest special effect in the history of the movies”. Having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m not sure I can agree, but after observing The Ten Commandments on the silver screen, I’m inclined to give his claim some stake. The sequence is a remarkable technical achievement, especially considering 1956 technology, using two gargantuan water tanks flowing over a rippling image of water to create the illusion of a parting sea. If I were to ever list the all-time great movie-going spectacles, the parting Red Sea deserves a first ballot spot right alongside Kubrick’s docking bay sequence.
It’s rare you find a film that doesn’t benefit in some respect from being viewed on a big screen. An Adam Sandler comedy, perhaps, as its immensity might cause unneeded suffering to the audience. But when I think of movies so monumentally grand that their viewing experiences should be considered inseparable from the cinema, only a handful come to mind: Ben-Hur, 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, more recently Titanic, probably the Lord of the Rings trilogy…and The Ten Commandments, for sure.