I realized I was pretty tough yesterday on the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Despite the datedness of the film by 2023 standards, it was a very big film at its release and had an effect on my thoughts about religion.
It is an epic religious drama Paramount film that was produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille. It was made for big screens, shot in VistaVision with color by Technicolor.
It is not based on the Bible, though it uses passages from it, especially the Book of Exodus. The screenplay used versions of the story found in the novels Prince of Egypt Pillar of Fire and On Eagle’s Wings. It is a dramatized version of the story of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince who ultimately delivers the enslaved Hebrews.
Charlton Heston is Moses, Yul Brynner is the Pharoh Rameses, and there are plenty of other Hollywood stars playing these Middle Eastern figures.
This is actually Cecil B. DeMille remaking his silent film of the same name as a big-budget sound film. They filmed in Egypt and the Sinai. It had one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture, and thousands of players and crew.
At the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made. It paid off grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box office during its initial release, making it the most successful film of 1956 and the second-highest-grossing film of the decade. According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the eighth most successful film of all time when the box office gross is adjusted for inflation.
In 1957, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but only won Best Visual Effects.
I have still vivid memory of the scene where Moses’ staff becomes a cobra. I also recall my childhood confusion when Ramses’ priests are able to do the same “magic trick.” Of course, Moses’ snake satisfyingly devours the two others.
The most well-known scene in the film is when Moses parts the Red Sea. In its time, that was an awesome special effect. I have a much more powerful memory of that scene. My family was driving home from the Jersey Shore one summer night when I was very young and the film was playing at the Amboys drive-in which was close to the Garden State Parkway. You could always see the giant screen from your car. (Probably that caused a few accidents over the years.) As we passed, Moses parted the sea. Very impressive.
The Ten Commandments is broadcast at Passover in the United States on the ABC Television Network. Watching it again this year, I had many of the same feelings as when I saw it as a boy. So much cruelty by Ramses and by God. So many people die. These Bible stories made me doubt that this God was a good one. Certainly not a kind one.
As a child, I wondered how much of this story was true. Did God really allow Moses to turn the Nile River into blood? Enraged at the plagues, Rameses orders that all first-born male Hebrews will die. That seems believable. But God’s “cloud of death” instead kills all the first-born of Egypt, including the child of Rameses and Nefretiri. That, I doubted. Did the Red Sea part so the Hebrews could cross and escape Ramses soldiers? And did God drown all the soldiers who followed them across? So much death.
Paramount Pictures poster – Link