Monday, April 17, 2017

The Ten Commandments (Motion Picture Associates/Paramount, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After a Bible discussion at Unity Fellowship Church in which, among other things, Charles and I had participated in a brief conversation about what’s gone wrong with most movies based on Bible stories, I decided to get out our DVD of one of the most intriguing and perfectly wrong-headed Bible movies ever made: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. One of the most famous atheists of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote a book called Beyond Good and Evil; any fair assessment of the 1956 DeMille Ten Commandments might well be called “Beyond Good and Bad.” It’s virtually impossible to judge this movie by normal cinematic criteria of excellence (or the lack thereof) because it is so much itself, so much governed by its own artistic code, it seems to exist in a movie netherworld, a perfect expression of a basically corrupt artistic (and commercial) impulse. When Cecil B. DeMille emerged as a director in the late 1910’s, he was considered one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, and a lot of aspiring directors — including Erich von Stroheim, Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang — looked up to him. Watching his silent films like Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1920), one can see why: early DeMille combined a fine aesthetic eye with a strong sense of drama. Indeed, if you want a shock run The Affairs of Anatol and Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), back to back — and note that though the films are strikingly similar in plot and theme (both are based on stories by turn-of-the-last-century Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler), DeMille’s movie is far more sophisticated artistically, culturally and even morally. Then, after the William Desmond Taylor and Fatty Arbuckle scandals of 1922 rocked the film industry and started the calls for censorship that would result in the promulgation of the Production Code in 1930 and its full-out enforcement four years later, DeMille realized that the movies he’d made his reputation on — full-out tales of sexual decadence among the 1 percent, who in his films (designed by his openly Gay art director, Mitchell Leisen) bathed in tubs the size of Olympic swimming pools — were becoming more dubious both politically and commercially. 

So he discovered the Bible. In 1923 he made a silent version of The Ten Commandments that ran 2 ½ hours, and for its first hour it told the story of Moses and the Exodus while for the rest of its running time it presented a freshly minted (by DeMille’s long-time screenwriter, Jeanie MacPherson) tale of business, political and sexual corruption in modern-day San Francisco that was supposed to illustrate the enduring importance of the Ten Commandments as rules to live by. The film was a huge box-office hit, and four years later (temporarily separated from his long-time home at Paramount, a studio DeMille and his original business partner Jesse Lasky had helped found, and working independently) DeMille followed it up with a biopic of Jesus, The King of Kings, that was the first film he made based entirely on a Bible story. DeMille would turn to the Bible and to faith in general for material again and again, including making The Crusades (1935) — a surprisingly fair-minded presentation that treated Islam quite fairly instead of turning the Crusades into the “Christians good, Muslims bad” parable one would have expected from that time and that director (I’ve long suspected that Dudley Nichols, who co-wrote The Crusades and is a surprising writer to see on a DeMille movie, was responsible for its intellectual and religious sophistication) — and the ghastly Samson and Delilah (1949), starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, of which Groucho Marx famously said he wouldn’t watch it because “I never see movies in which the man’s tits are bigger than the woman’s.” Old and conscious that his time on Earth was limited, after he finally won a competitive Academy Award for his Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus film The Greatest Show On Earth (1953), DeMille went to his bosses at Paramount (he’d returned there in 1932 for the blockbuster hit The Sign of the Cross and never worked anywhere else again) and got them to green-light a full-out Biblical remake of The Ten Commandments. 

The finished film lasted three hours and 40 minutes — making it seem, quite frankly, more an endurance test than an entertainment — it was shot in three-strip Technicolor (one of the last gasps of the process that was being replaced by Eastmancolor and monopack Technicolor) and Paramount’s patented wide-screen process VistaVision (which rejected the anamorphic “squeeze” principle of CinemaScope — a lens that distorted the image so a wide frame would fit on ordinary 35 mm film, and a compensating decoder lens on the projector that undistorted it again — and instead shot on 35 mm film but turned the image sideways so it could be wider without the distortion of CinemaScope) — and DeMille extensively ballyhooed the fact that he was shooting the film on location in Egypt. He had gone to Egypt’s new revolutionary government, headed by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, with some trepidation — Egypt was already turning to the Soviet Union for funding the Aswan High Dam after the U.S. had refused to do so — and had prepared an elaborate presentation to convince Nasser to allow him to work in Egypt. Nasser and the other generals in his government who met with DeMille startled him by telling him up-front that as kids they had so enjoyed The Crusades, and in particular its fair-minded treatment of Islam, that as far as they were concerned DeMille could go anywhere and shoot anything he wanted in their country. At that, only 5 percent of the finished film was shot in Egypt; the rest was done on Hollywood soundstages with some of the most obvious painted backdrops and process screens in history — and though audiences in 1956 raved about the special effects, they seem dated and tacky today (especially the parting of the Red Sea, in which the waters recede to the sides of the screen and form solid-looking walls flanking a virtually dry sea bed), despite the participation of master effects technician John P. Fulton (who 23 years earlier had figured out how to make Claude Rains invisible) as well as Farciot Edouart, Paramount’s usual effects head. (I remember that when I first saw the 1923 silent version I was struck by how much more convincingly DeMille and his effects person then, Roy Pomeroy, had parted the Red Sea than DeMille, Edouart, Fulton et al. did it 33 years later.)  

The Ten Commandments achieves a sort of perfect tackiness throughout all three hours and 40 minutes. DeMille’s direction is surprisingly static, letting his splendiferous sets and cast of thousands (literally — back then a “cast of thousands” actually meant having to hire, pay and feed that many extras instead of creating them digitally à la Titanic and Gladiator) tell his story for him; more than any other director I can think of, DeMille’s command of storytelling and the grammar of film actually declined as he got older. The script is written by committee — Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky, Jr. (son of DeMille’s first business partner in films), Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank — and draws on a multitude of sources, including The Holy Scriptures as well as the works of other ancient historians like Philo and Josephus (needed, DeMille explains in an extraordinary prologue he delivers in front of a drawn curtain as well as supplying an omniscient voice-over narration at particular junctures in the film itself, to fill in the missing parts of Moses’ story from the Book of Exodus, which jumps from Moses the baby in the bulrushes to Moses as a young man in the Egyptian court who’s suddenly “outed” as a Hebrew) and at least three modern books DeMille had obviously bought so he could give their authors money and credit and thereby avoid plagiarism suits: Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt, J. H. Ingraham’s Pillar of Fire, and A. E. Southon’s On Eagle’s Wing. The dialogue achieves a near-perfect balance of quasi-Biblical tonalities and Hollywood sillinesses, and the script as a whole is content to dramatize the most superficial aspects of the story and avoid any real attempt to probe What Made Moses Run. It also doesn’t help that the cinematography by Loyal Griggs makes the entire movie look like those heavily saturated, tackily designed color postcards of Biblical themes intensely believing Christians used to post to their walls (and for all I know still do).

As it comes out in this film, Moses’ tale is essentially a coming-out story, in which the baby Moses (Fraser Heston, Charlton Heston’s son, in what his dad said in his published journals was his first and last acting credit) is set adrift by his Jewish parents and found in a basket by the Egyptian princess Bithiah (Nina Foch), who’s just lost her husband and accepts the presentation of a baby as if he has impregnated her and fathered her son from the afterlife. Moses grows up in the Egyptian court as the heir apparent and favorite of Pharoah Seti (sometimes spelled “Sethi” in the documentation on the film), played in his usual droll manner by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, thereby pissing off Seti’s son Rameses (Yul Brynner, who was still acting on Broadway in The King and I when The Ten Commandments was filmed — he had to do all his work on the Egyptian locations in one day so he could fly back and meet his stage commitments — and would make The King and I as his next film). The gimmick is that Seti is going to name either Rameses or Moses as his heir, which will mean not only becoming Pharoah but also getting to marry Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter — virtually all the actors seem to be locked in a competition to show who can be least convincing as a Biblical-era Egyptian or Jew, but Baxter wins hands down; it also doesn’t help that she and Nina Foch look the same age on screen even though they’re supposed to be of different generations), who’s got the hots for Moses and has no idea he’s really a Hebrew until Bithiah’s slave Memnet (Judith Anderson) “outs” him by showing the piece of red-and-white Levite cloth he was wrapped in back in the basket 30 years earlier. Bithiah kills Memnet for revealing the secret, but the damage has been done, and Moses leaves the Egyptian court and is consigned to slavery along with the rest of the Jews in Egypt — including his real mother Yochabel (Martha Scott), whom he previously saved from being crushed to death on one of Pharoah’s big construction projects without having any idea who she was; his brother Aaron (John Carradine); his friend and eventual heir Joshua (John Derek); and Joshua’s girlfriend Lilia (Debra Paget).

They’re being pushed to complete the Pharoah’s grand city by master builder Daka (Vincent Price, who actually turns in one of the best performances in the film even though he responds to the script’s silliness by camping it up big-time the way he did in a lot of his later horror films — it’s a real shame he gets killed an hour in) and the Jewish overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson, who’d been blacklisted for his Left-wing politics until DeMille, one of the most well-known Right-wingers in Hollywood, got him taken off the blacklist so he could appear in The Ten Commandments), who parlays his knowledge of who and what Moses really is into a lavish mansion, the job as Daka’s replacement and Lidia as his sex slave. Charlton Heston plays Moses as a grim monomaniac; he’s not a good enough actor to suggest any moments of doubt or torment — not that the script supplies him any such opportunities — instead he goes through the whole movie with a fanatical devotion to his Cause and an intolerance for dissent that rather plays against the film’s theme (expressed by DeMille in his prologue, which makes it clear he saw The Ten Commandments as a Cold War parable of resistance to Communism) of liberty vs. tyranny. The film also comes to a dead stop for various production numbers — it seems that just about any time DeMille can find an excuse to have scantily clad girls dance (or something like it) before the giant VistaVision cameras, he does — and of course he makes the most of the opportunity the Golden Calf sequence presents for the film’s biggest and tackiest orgy. (Of course DeMille was still working under the Production Code — indeed, one of the attractions of The Ten Commandments as a subject matter for him, in 1956 as well as 1923, was the opportunity to present spectacular sinning and then punish it on screen — though the Paramount Home Video DVD contains a “G” rating, obviously from a theatrical reissue in the early days of the rating system that replaced the yes-or-no Production Code; today, as Charles pointed out, the sex and violence in this movie would probably get it a PG, or even a PG-13.)

Oddly, the film turns considerably less interesting after the intermission (Paramount split it onto two DVD’s and blessedly spotted the break where the original theatrical intermission fell), when the at least potentially dramatically compelling confrontations between Moses and Rameses and the death of Rameses’ son are over and DeMille actually has to show the Exodus. When composer Elmer Bernstein — who won an Academy Award for this film just three years after making his movie debut in Cat Women on the Moon (I thought that was the most embarrassing debut credit for a composer who went on to do major films and win an Oscar, but John Williams’ credit on the 1958 juvenile delinquency drama Daddy-O certainly rivals it!) — turned in his score for the start of the Exodus, DeMille decided it was too somber and sad, so he ordered Bernstein to come up with something more joyful — and Bernstein responded with a wildly inappropriate action theme that sounds like the score he wrote for The Magnificent Seven three years later. One would have thought the parts of the movie most strongly and clearly based on the Book of Exodus would have inspired DeMille and his writing committee more than the rest of it — instead they come off more like a checklist (“Red Sea parts? Check. Pharoah’s army drowns? Check. Golden Calf orgy? Check. Moses sees the Burning Bush and God etches the Ten Commandments onto two stone tablets on Mt. Sinai? Check”), and the film lumbers to a close, with Moses looking older in every scene but in a totally unconvincing way (when DeMille as narrator introduced his final appearance, I joked, “And the Lord anointed Charlton Heston’s face with much crêpe paper to make his beard look long and white so he would seem older”) and a final credit that reads, not “The End,” but, “So it was written, so it shall be done.” And, as was virtually pre-ordained by its overall conception and the era in which it was made, The Ten Commandments did exceedingly well at the box office and DeMille’s and Paramount’s coffers did overflow with its profits; it was the second highest-grossing movie to that time (only Gone With the Wind had made more) and the audiences, if not the critics, pronounced it good.