Original release: October 5th, stuff 1956
Running time: 220 minutes
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writers: Æneas MacKenzie, capsule Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank
Cast: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget
We all have a set of principles we’re governed by. Maybe they’re enforced by our employers, teachers, parents, and partners or even by ourselves, but they ensure we stay on the straight and narrow and not get ourselves into too much trouble. Yet there are another set of principles we’re all familiar with, whether we acknowledged them consciously or not, that have been handed down to us throughout the ages. The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, are a set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship and they’ve play a fundamental role in Judaism and Christianity.
Having grown up attending Catholic schools, these Ten Commandments were drilled into us from an early age, but it wasn’t until I watched Cecil B. DeMille’s adaptation of it in the early 80s that I came to really appreciate them. As I sat together with my parents one Sunday afternoon as it rained outside, the religious epic that played out before my eyes was brought to life in magnificent splendor.
Based on Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Pillar of Fire by J.H. Ingraham and On Eagle’s Wings by A.E. Southon, DeMille’s Ten Commandments is set against the backdrop of ancient Egypt where Rameses has ordered the death of all firstborn Hebrew males, but an infant manages to escape when his mother places him in a basket and sets him adrift on the Nile. He’s rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter and she raises him as her own, calling him Moses.
Moses grows up to be a victorious general and falls in love with Nefretiri, but one day he intervenes to save an elderly woman who’d fallen while greasing the ground for a pillar of stone to move easier. Moses doesn’t know it’s his birth mother, Yochabel. He also meets a stonecutter named Joshua, who tells him of the Hebrew God and from this he starts to bring about change in the treatment of the slaves who’ve been put to work to build Egypt’s mammoth monuments.
This of course creates friction between him and Prince Rameses II who then charges him with planning an insurrection, pointing out that the slaves are calling Moses the “Deliverer” of prophecy. We know there’ll come a point when Moses learns of his Hebrew heritage, and after finding Yochabel again, she confirms that not only is he Hebrew, but he’s her son. From there the next part of the story deal with how it comes to pass that Moses is banished to the desert where he settles in Midian as a shepherd and marries Sephora.
But that’s not the end of The Ten Commandments, not by a longshot. It’s while he’s at Midian he sees the burning bush on the summit of Mount Sinai and hears the voice of God who instructs him to return to Egypt and free His chosen people. Moses does as he’s instructed, but not without the Pharaoh challenging him at every opportunity. Even the slaves doubt Moses will be able to free them and at one point they’re prepared to stone him death. When Egypt is beset by divine plagues, including the one that kills all of the firstborn of Egypt, Rameses finally gives in and tells Moses to take his people, and cattle, and go.
As the former slaves make their exodus from Egypt the Pharaoh rounds up his army and pursues them to the shore of the Red Sea where they have nowhere to run. It’s then that Moses shows them the power of God. Held back by a pillar of fire, Moses uses his mighty staff to part the sea, allowing for his people to pass safely. Back then it was one of the most beautiful scenes I’d ever seen and it lived up to my mother’s promise that I would witness something amazing if I kept watching instead of wanting to go out and play, despite the rain. Today, it’s still as beautiful to watch as we become invested in the lives of these characters and believe in the story that’s unfolding.
Though it’s more of an Easter film, The Ten Commandments, along with Ben-Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961) and Samson and Delilah (1949) are the film we always revisit with the family during the festive season. Gathered together, despite our various religious differences, we can all agree that some, if not all, of these ten verses are still true today. Honour thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. And thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Who among us would disagree?
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .