Filmsite Movie Review
The Ten Commandments (1956)
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The Ten Commandments (1956) was Cecil B. DeMille's most spectacular and unequalled historical epic and also his last film (his 70th). The 3 hour, 40 minute film (divided into two parts with an intermission) was the highest-earning live-action film of the decade of the 1950s until Ben-Hur (1959) toppled it. It was a remake of DeMille's own 1923 silent film of the same name, with its scope narrowed to focus on the previous film's prologue to solely concentrate on the character of Moses. Throughout the film, director DeMille also served as the film's voice-over narrator.

The film's title was mostly a misnomer, since the central subject was not The Ten Commandments, which appeared only in the film's concluding 20 minutes. The Ten Commandments was noted for great fire and brimstone scenes (with remarkable special effects) and its huge cast of characters, with a very appropriate tagline: "THE GREATEST EPIC OF ALL!"

The mid-1950s film - DeMille's first widescreen film and his most expensive production, was also his greatest financial success. It became a major blockbuster at $65.5 million (on a budget of $13.3 million, making it the most expensive film made-to-date), and as of 2022, it was the # 6 film of all-time in terms of gross (domestic) revenue when adjusted by inflation. Until The Passion of the Christ (2004), it was the highest-grossing religious epic in history. It was re-released three main times: in 1966, 1972, and 1989. For many decades, the epic has been regularly broadcast on the ABC-TV network at Passover and Easter time.

There were multiple sources for the film, including the Book of Exodus (the "Holy Scriptures"), extra-Biblical sources, and three novels: PRINCE OF EGYPT (1949) by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Pillar of Fire (1859) by Rev. J. H. Ingraham, and On Eagle's Wings (1937) by A. E. Southon. The film was notably remade twice: The Prince of Egypt (1998) (animated) and director Ridley Scott's: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).

Although the film tauted that it had made tremendous efforts to maintain historical accuracy, many viewed the film's veracity as somewhat dubious, for example:

  • the fact that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt during the period of pyramid-building has not been substantiated by archaeological evidence; both Sethi and Rameses II were not pyramid-builders
  • Moses' romantic relationship with Nefretiri (who was never mentioned in the Bible) was dubious
  • an inaccurate claim was made by Moses that Pharaoh Sethi was victorious at Kadesh against the Amorites, although the battle was actually fought by Rameses II - against the Hittites
  • the film created fictitious characters, such as Baka and Dathan, or characters with modified Biblical names
  • the Parting of the Red Sea was not instantaneous - according to the Biblical account, a strong East Wind took all night to part the waters (Exodus 14:21)

Other examples are found in the textual analysis below. The film itself often reverted to melodramatic style, with great character actors adopting static and unnatural attitudes, postures and gestures.

The central role of Moses was assigned to Charlton Heston, who went on to appear in many other Biblical or historical epics, such as The Buccaneer (1958), Ben-Hur (1959), El-Cid (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Khartoum (1966), and Antony and Cleopatra (1972). Heston's portrayal of Moses as an eloquent orator and speaker was not true to the Biblical account (Exodus 4:10), that stated how Moses was not eloquent ("slow of speech, and...a slow tongue") and often spoke through his brother Aaron.

Much of the film was shot on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood, CA, but some of the film's segments were shot on-location in Egypt (including Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula), specifically the Mount Sinai, Exodus, and Red Sea sequences. It was estimated that almost 10,000 extras, and 5,000 head of livestock were employed just during the major Exodus sequence alone - magnificently filmed and topped with a fantastic aerial view.

The extensive special-effects for the film included rear-projection, traveling matte paintings, and blue-screen composite shots. Animations were used for the Pillar of Fire sequence, the Finger of God writing the commandments, the Burning Bush scene, and other effects. The complex one million-dollar tremendous special-effects devised for the 'Parting of the Red Sea' sequence (that took 18 months of preparation) were created with two giant water tanks (covering a huge area comprising two studio backlots). Water pouring out of the U-shaped 'dump tanks' was played in reverse in order to create the illusion of the sea's parting. In addition, the sandy bottom of the sea and images of the sky (visualized by matte paintings) were combined with the rest of the footage.

This commanding film was the epic account of the liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage by Egyptian prince Moses (Charlton Heston). He was born a Hebrew slave, and saved from an edict issued by Egypt's Pharaoh Rameses I (Ian Keith) to kill all newborn Hebrew males, by his mother Yoshabel (Martha Scott) who set him adrift, with help from Moses' sister Miriam (Olive Deering). Found in the Nile River as an infant in a reed basket, he was saved by the Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch), a childless widow. Moses ("The Prince of Egypt") was then raised as an adopted foster son by Bithiah's brother, royal Egyptian Pharaoh Sethi I (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), in approximately the 13th Century BC. Appointed as an army general and chief supervisory architect, Moses helped in the construction of the giant pyramids for Sethi's Jubilee, fell in love with Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), and was hated by his half-brother - Sethi's natural son, Rameses (Yul Brynner). Once it was discovered that he was born an Israelite through Bithiah's traitorous servant Memnet (Judith Anderson) who had kept Moses' Levite swaddling clothes, Moses was banished by Rameses. [Note: Some experts believed that the Pharaoh of Exodus was not Rameses II, but Thutmose III (also spelled Thothmes III), who ruled about one or two centuries before Rameses II.] Moses returned to Egypt years later (after marrying and bearing a son) to free the slaves. He learned of his destiny to confront the Pharaoh and lead the Israelites in the spectacular Burning Bush scene on Mt. Sinai, when God instructed him to return to Egypt.

During a series of confrontations with his nemesis Pharaoh Rameses II, Moses challenged the ruler with many deadly plagues, including only three that were visualized: turning the Nile blood red, fiery hail, and the death of the firstborn with a greenish smoke. [Note: The Biblical account of a plague of frogs was filmed, but not used, since DeMille judged that it might be wrongly viewed as humorous. Other plagues were only mentioned in the dialogue: lice, flies, sickness, boils, and three days of darkness. There were 10 plagues in the Bible: water turning to blood, frogs, lice (or gnats), wild animals or flies, pestilence of livestock, boils, thunderstorms of hail and fire, locusts, darkness for three days, and the death of firstborn children.]

When the Pharaoh finally relented, Moses viewed the mass of Hebrews waiting to leave Egypt and exclaimed in the enormous crowd scene: "There are so many, so many." As the Hebrews reached the Red Sea, the Pharaoh had decided to pursue them by chariot. One of the most miraculous visual effects scenes in film history was the parting of the Red Sea, prefaced by Moses' statement: "The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand." An old man commented: "God opens the sea with a blast of His nostrils!" Other memorable scenes were dramatically enacted at Mt. Sinai including the creation and delivery of the Ten Commandments to Moses by the finger of God, and the orgiastic scene of the Hebrews worshipping the idolatrous Golden Calf during Moses' absence. The film concluded with the Hebrew peoples wandering in the desert wilderness for 40 years, and their approach to the Promised Land across the River Jordan, although Moses stayed behind to ascend Mt. Nebo alone.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) presented the film with seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography (Loyal Griggs), Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Color Costume Design (Edith Head), Best Sound Recording, and Best Film Editing, and it won only a single Academy Award - Best Special Effects (John Fulton). The scanty and revealing costumes, considered somewhat scandalous in 1956, were actually very modest compared to the actual minimal clothing that most Ancient Egyptians wore due to the heat.

Plot Synopsis


Opening Introductory Prologue:

In the opening, producer-director Cecil B. DeMille directly addressed the film audience (after emerging from behind an ornate gold and gray theatrical stage curtain), and called his introduction "an unusual procedure speaking to you before the picture begins." He also attempted to describe "an unusual subject: the story of the birth of freedom" found in "the story of Moses." DeMille first stated how the Biblical account of Moses had not provided any detail of the earliest three decades of Moses' life, forcing the film's scripters to turn to other non-canonical sources, including ancient historians, such as Philo and Josephus, and Midrash writings (a collection of ancient Rabbinic interpretations of scripture).

He then described the picture's theme, based upon divine inspiration from 3,000 years earlier - in fact, DeMille was making a semi-political and propagandistic statement referring to the present time's Cold War Era pitting the Soviets (the Egyptians) against the freedom-loving Americans (the Hebrews):

The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God's law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely-inspired story created 3,000 years ago: the five books of Moses.

[Note: The "five books of Moses" refers to the Pentateuch (and to the Jewish Torah) - in other words, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).]

Credits Sequence and Brief Opening Narration:

During the title credits sequence, the traditional Paramount Pictures' logo (a jagged mountain) was transformed and stylized, to approximate the angular shape of the granite summit of Mount Sinai turned red by the cloudy sky. One title screen noted that the film's screenwriters used material that was "compiled from many sources and contains material from three novels" (as noted in the "Background" above), and also wrote their script “in accordance with the ancient texts of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, The Midrash and The Holy Scriptures."

DeMille's voice-over narration briefly mentioned God's creation (in the Book of Genesis), and then how the "children of Israel" became enslaved by the Egyptians:

(voice-over) And man was given dominion over all things upon this Earth, and the power to choose between good and evil, but each sought to do his own will because he knew not the light of God's law. Man took dominion over man. The conquered were made to serve the conqueror. The weak were made to serve the strong. And freedom was gone from the world. So did the Egyptians cause the children of Israel to serve with rigor. Their lives were made bitter with hard bondage, and their cry came up unto God and God heard them.


The Legend of a Rising Star (or "Deliverer"), and Hebrew Moses' Birth and Rescue:

In ancient times, Moses was thought to have been conceived by his Hebrew parents, Amram and Yochabel, as God's answer to their chains and bondage: ("The seed of a man upon whose mind and heart would be written God's law and God's commandments. One man to stand alone against an Empire"). The Egyptian astrologers saw "an evil star" and worried that there was a Hebrew prophecy of a deliverer, not in foreign lands, but within Egypt's borders and in "the heart of Egypt," who was amongst "the Hebrew slaves in the land of Goshen." Egypt's fearful Pharaoh Rameses I (Ian Keith) issued an edit to kill all newborn male Hebrew babies ("Since this deliverer is among their newborn, only their newborn need die").

Fearing for her young infant son's life, Yochabel (Martha Scott), with assistance from her young daughter Miriam (Babette Bain as youth) watching from the Nile River reeds, deposited her baby (Fraser C. Heston) in an ark of bulrushes. The drifting basket was found by the Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch), a childless widow. Bithiah thought that her prayers had been answered: ("The answer to my prayers...I prayed for a son"). The only other royal personage to witness Bithiah's rescue of the child was her treacherous servant Memnet (Judith Anderson), who recognized that the swaddling cloth around the child indicated its Hebrew origin: ("It is the Levite cloth of a Hebrew slave"). Bithiah ordered her servant to obey her: "I am the Pharaoh's daughter, and this is my son. He shall be reared in my house as the Prince of the Two Lands." Although Memnet resisted: "I will not see you make this son of slaves a Prince of Egypt," Bithiah's wishes were followed when Memnet was sworn to keep silent - with the threat of mortal punishment: ("The day you break that oath will be the last your eyes shall ever see"), and the reed-ark was sunk. Bithiah prophesied that the newly-named Moses drawn from the water would become a powerful leader:

You will see him walk with his head among the eagles. And you will serve him as you serve me...You will be the glory of Egypt, my son. Mighty in words and deeds. Kings shall bow before you. Your name will live when the pyramids are dust. And - because I drew you from the water, you shall be called Moses.

[Note: the Hebrew name "Moshe" derived from the Hebrew word "Mashu", meaning "to draw."] Memnet secretly hid the Levite cloth under her garments.

Enmity Between Prince Rameses and Prince of Egypt Moses:

Thirty years in the future, Egypt was ruled by royal Pharaoh Sethi I (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Bithiah's brother, who had adopted Moses as his foster son. Seething jealousy arose within Sethi's natural son, Rameses (Yul Brynner), stimulated even further by Prince Moses' triumphant return as an Army General ("Commander of the Southern Host") from the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. He was received and beloved by the ruling Pharaoh and the people for his victories - for conquering and dominating "the pride" of Ethiopian's Nubian peoples. The envious Rameses immediately noticed there might be rivalry for the throne, or as Sethi remarked, brother against brother:

Rameses: It would not be the first time that fame has turned a prince against his Pharaoh.
Sethi: Or that envy has turned a brother against his brother.

Another point of contention between Princes Moses and Rameses was the love of Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), who was destined to be wed to Sethi's heir apparent to the throne - whether it was Moses or Rameses was still to be determined. Sethi declared to Rameses that his 'natural-born' advantage wouldn't automatically make him the next ruler: "The man best able to rule Egypt will follow me." Sethi set the two brothers against each other when he mentioned: "I sent Moses to destroy a city. He returns in triumph. I sent you to build a city. Where is it?" Rameses threatened that Moses was only his "pretended brother" who would never acquire the crown - or Nefretiri.

Moses as the Prince of Egypt was brought to the palace court with great ceremony to be praised by the Pharaoh for his ingenious winning strategy against the Ethiopians: "We have heard how you took ibis from the Nile to destroy the venomous serpents used against you when you laid siege to the city of Saba."

[Note: This military strategy was described by historian Josephus. However, the film made a factual error when Moses greeted Sethi with a Roman salute (moving his right fist to his left shoulder).]

Pharaoh Sethi was congratulatory that Moses had conquered the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and wisely formed a close alliance with the conquered country's King and "sister" (or daughter) Princess Tharbis (Esther Brown) rather than subjugating them, to help create a protected buffer-zone with their new ally on their southern border. There was a brief reference to the Princess, who offered as a symbol of their friendship, a valuable "green stone" from the Ethiopian mountains as a gift to Moses - "for he is kind, as well as wise."

[Note: This was a veiled reference to something mentioned in Numbers 12:1 that Moses had married a Kushite/Cushite (Ethiopian), who was specifically named by historian Josephus as Princess Tharbis. Ancient Egyptians referred to black Africans to their south as 'Kushu or Kush.' It was possible that Moses was involved in a romantic relationship with Tharbis that helped him to peacefully conquer the country during Moses' siege of Meroe (Saba), the capital city of the Ethiopians. Theorists have deduced that Tharbis, the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, fell in love with Moses. She asked Moses to marry her, and Moses agreed on the condition that she delivered the Ethiopians into his hand.]

Moses also announced Ethiopia's "handsome" tribute -- "20 full barges of such wealth as you see here. Logs of ebony and trees of myrrh, all for your new treasure city."

On the other hand, Sethi mentioned how he was disappointed in Rameses' work: "Unfortunately, I have no new treasure city." Rameses had failed to complete the city's construction - causing further strife between the two princes. Rameses made excuses and blamed delays in the project on the stubborn, "stiff-necked" Hebrew slaves who regularly spoke of their deliverance from bondage, and he only promised more harsh treatment for the slaves. Then, Rameses spitefully dared Moses to do better. To reward and challenge Moses, Sethi put him in charge of managing the building project ("You build my city"), and finishing the construction of the Treasure City area for Sethi's upcoming Jubilee that had been botched by Rameses. [Note: Historically, the two treasure cities were presumably Pithom and Ramases (Avaris).]

The scene concluded with instructions for both of them to go to Goshen - the location of the treasure city, and where the Hebrews were enslaved. Moses would be in charge of construction, and Rameses was commissioned to find the Hebrews' Deliverer:

Sethi (to Rameses): Learn if this deliverer be a myth or a man. If a myth, bring him to me in a bottle. If a man, bring him to me in chains.
Rameses: So let it be written, so let it be done.

Afterwards, Princess Nefretiri expressed how determined she was to marry Moses, rather than Rameses - whom she detested: "I shall marry a Pharaoh - you." She was worried that if Moses failed in building the treasure city, he would be relegated to some "desert province" and she would be compelled to marry Rameses. She urged Moses: "Build a city for him, and Sethi will deny you nothing."

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