Not the tablets – the movie.
As with “It’s a Wonderful Life” around Christmas and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” around Thanksgiving, Cecil B. DeMille’s bloated epic “The Ten Commandments” appears perennially like a stinky weed every Passover season (although most viewers being Christian mis-associate it with Easter). And each time it arrives (as it did this past weekend) I find myself watching an hour or so of its four hour plus lifespan, marveling at its leaden pace and wooden dialog, agreeing with Time Magazine’s assessment that the film is “in some respects the most vulgar movie ever made.”
DeMille first produced and directed “The Ten Commandments” in 1923 as a silent film rendered in two parts: the Exodus story and God’s delivery of the two tablets to Moses. He returned to the same story told essentially the same way in 1956 with the version everyone knows: Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Ramses, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, and Yvonne DeCarlo (aka. Lily Munster) as Sephora. At 73 years old, DeMille spared no expense on his remake, taking years to complete the film, and in one famous sequence, featuring 15,000 extras and 12,000 animals. And although the film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, it snagged only one – the second tier award for Best Special Effects. Still, “The Ten Commandments” made serious money and ranks in the top ten all-time grossing films. Yet Cecil was disappointed – the expected accolades for his 70th, and ultimately last movie, came up short.
Today, it seems almost comical that the film was at the time reasonably well-reviewed, and that the phony-looking effects were Oscar-worthy. In fact, the more I watch it the more I hate it. Here’s why:
1. Every Voice-Over starts with “And”
“The Ten Commandments” feels like two movies glued together with the second part rushed to get to the finish line. Hence the overuse of voice-overs to explain actions rather than shots and cuts. VO’s are a sure sign of laziness and inferior movie-making – and “The Ten Commandments” is chock-full of them. Furthermore, it seems every time the baritone narrator opens his mouth, the first word out is “and.” “And God smote this…. And God sayeth that…. And Moses didst perform the nasty….” Over-done and poorly at that.
2. Stilted dialog
DeMille worked with writers on the script starting in 1954, a full two years before the film was released, and yet the dialog doth sucketh. I presume that in an attempt to render English into Biblical-sounding cadence, the writers felt it necessary to make the lines over-wrought with gravity. So much so that it hurts the ears. For example:
Nefretiri: I could never love you.
Rameses: Does that matter? You will be my wife. You will come to me whenever I call you, and I will enjoy that very much. Whether you enjoy it or not is your own affair. But I think you will…
And one of my favorites. After a young boy marvels at the sight of the parted Red Sea, a grizzly old blind man utters: “God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils.” Luckily for the fleeing Jews, God doesn’t get the flu, else they might have crossed the sea knee-deep in mucus.
3. Edward G Robinson as Dathan
Although Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg into a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family, he seems oddly miscast as Dathan in “The Ten Commandments.” Yes, Dathan was a Jew who opposed Moses, but Robinson plays him the same way he’d play a Prohibition-era tough-guy. He doesn’t call Moses a dirty rat, but his demeanor is closer to that of Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo” than that of a desert-backwater Israelite tramping the sands of 2,000 BC.
(Side note: Leading up to “The Ten Commandments,” Robinson had been unable to get good parts. After being cast for the movie, Robinson wrote, “Cecil B. DeMille returned me to films. Cecil B. DeMille restored my self-respect.”)
4. Moses turns his staff into a snake – and so does Pharoah’s magicians
Moses demands that Pharoah let his people go, lest he suffer the wrath of God. Unpersuaded by idle threats, Pharoah declines. In an attempt to demonstrate the power of the Almighty, Moses throws down his staff which morphs into a cobra. The courtesans find this stunt quite alarming, but when Pharoah’s magicians duplicate the trick, Moses’ stature seems disappointingly diminished. OK, Moses’ cobra killed the magician’s snakes – but so what. No wonder Pharoah told Moses to hit the road.
5. The column of fire as Deus ex Machina
God leads Moses and the Jews out of Egyptian bondage – straight to the banks of the Red Sea with no way to get out. The fleeing souls are poised to become fodder for Pharoah’s gaining troops. Panic (and the first of much irritating bitching aimed at Moses) ensues. Just as Pharoah’s troops prepare for the slaughter, God installs a huge pillar of fire to block their advance. That the actual “God” pulled this lame stunt, the pillar of fire scene could be considered the biggest Deus ex Machina of all time.
6. God closes the water after Egyptians enter Red Sea
Man, that’s just mean. Unless God ran out of fuel to keep the pillar of fire going, he should have closed the sea after the last Jew crossed instead of waiting like a sadistic mad-scientist for the Egyptians to plod into the murk. Unless He really hated the Egyptians – which begs the question: why let them reign over the “Chosen People” for thousands of years. Unless He really hated the Jews, too. Jeez.
7. Vincent Price as Baka
Baka is Pharoah’s master builder, and as such oversees the development of some fairly challenging structures. Under tremendous pressure to meet tight schedules, Baka can’t worry about workplace safety. He needs thousands of slaves to make bricks by hand and transport multi-ton blocks of stone. And if he loses a few hundred in the course of standing up an obelisk, so be it. In short, Baka is a prick. But casting horror-show veteran Vincent Price turns Baka into a creep as well. I can’t help thinking about a man with the head of a fly whenever Price is on screen.
8. Those ungrateful slaves
Reluctant Moses takes on the challenge of leading his people to freedom – and after siccing some insidious plagues upon the Egyptians, he succeeds. But is that good enough? Nooooooo. Every stumble on the path to the Promised Land is met with whining and moaning. For forty effing years! I have to believe Moses once or twice wished he’d stayed a Prince bedding Nefretiri instead of becoming the unappreciated leader of a bunch of ragged, ungrateful complainers. Best of all – Moses never gets to the Promised Land. He gets a tantalizing glimpse of it in the distance, then croaks.
9. His followers his break balls, so Moses breaks the tablets
Apparently the slaves just wanted to get out of Dodge. They had no interest in hanging around for Moses to lay some new laws on them – especially ones that dictate all the things they can’t do. Holding two stone tablets, Moses comes down the mountain into a 1950’s Hollywood version of an orgy. He scorns his fickle followers only to be mocked by Dathan and the pulsing crowd. Dathan challenges Moses – “Did you carve those tablets to become a prince over us?” – pushing Moses over the edge. But you have to admit – it’s a valid question. Moses flings the tablets at a huge golden calf which explodes in a fireball. The tablets are destroyed, and yes, Moses carves a new set – which seems to validate Dathan’s suspicions. (By the way: where does a pack of dirty, shekel-less slaves conjure up enough gold to make a scale-model of a calf?)
10. Central casting has no ethnic people
Other than the exotic-looking Yul Brynner (actually Russian), no one in the cast resembles someone who might have lived in ancient Egypt (with the exception of albinos). I know the film was made in the 1950s, but to my knowledge, like Moses, Abraham Lincoln let the people go almost a century prior.