The Ten Commandments

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The Ten Commandments

The annual network presentation of Cecil B. De Mille's 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments has been an American television standard every Easter for decades. Highlighted by Oscar-winning special effects, such as the spectacular parting of the Red Sea, The Ten Commandments vividly tells the Biblical story of the life of Moses, with 1950s superstar Charlton Heston in the lead role. Featuring a cast of thousands, the three-plus hour saga remains a perennial audience favorite, proving that larger-than-life spectacle continues to be among Hollywood's principal contributions to popular culture.

One of the most important early motion picture directors, Cecil B. De Mille helped define Hollywood's early cinematic style in silent films such as the classic 1915 melodrama The Cheat. Primarily a comedy director in his early career, De Mille made his first epic film, The Ten Commandments, in 1923. In this earlier version, De Mille interwove the Biblical story with a modern-day parable of two brothers, one a saint, the other a sinner. Even though the shooting budget exceeded a million dollars, the film was a huge moneymaker for Paramount Pictures and made De Mille the top director of his day.

In the mid-1920s, the director started his own studio and his reputation reached legendary proportions. As noted in Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film, "By the middle of the decade De Mille, with his Germanic swagger, boots and riding crop, had come to represent the archetypal director to the moviegoing public." After movies switched to sound, De Mille remained one of Hollywood's most bankable directors throughout the 1930s and 1940s, known for his sweeping historical epics.

In 1950, the sixty-nine-year-old director reunited with his great silent star, Gloria Swanson, to make the classic Sunset Blvd. Two years later, he directed The Greatest Show on Earth, which won the Oscar for Best Picture—DeMille's first. In 1955, rumors began circulating Hollywood that the legendary director was planning to remake his 1923 classic, The Ten Commandments. Everyone wanted to audition. As actor Vincent Price, who would be cast as Baka, the Master Builder of the Pyramids, recalled, "I think all of us, Eddie Robinson, myself, Judith Anderson, we all really wanted to be in a De Mille picture. We really felt that you couldn't call yourself a star unless you had been in a De Mille picture! So we all took these sort of small, but rather arresting parts." Indeed, the cast was star-studded, with Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Ramses, and Anne Baxter as Nefretiti, and featuring Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, Nina Foch, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine. Bit players included future television stars Mike Connors and Robert Vaughn and musician Herb Alpert.

In The Ten Commandments, Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking meets the 1950s. As described by film critic Pauline Kael, "Charlton Heston is the highly athletic Moses; Anne Baxter is the kittenish princess who loves him; Judith Anderson is the sinister slave who knows the secret of his Jewish birth; Cedric Hardwicke is the likable old Pharoah; Yul Brynner is the prince who beats Moses to the Egyptian throne; Edward G. Robinson is the traitor to the Jews; Debra Paget is the young slave old Robinson has got his eyes on. Stir them all together, throw in stone tablets, a whopping big Golden Calf, part the Red Sea, and you've got Cecil B. De Mille's epic—3 hours and 38 minutes of it. As old-fashioned hokum, it's palatable and rather tasty." Filmed in VistaVision, The Ten Commandments was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning for Special Effects.

Both Hollywood and Cecil B. De Mille made better films than The Ten Commandments, but few have remained as popular for as long. A family favorite, a good old-fashioned epic, a television tradition, The Ten Commandments has become a staple of American popular culture.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Barson, Michael. The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors: The Studio System in the Sound Era. New York, The Noonday Press, 1995.

Monaco, James. Encyclopedia of Film. New York, Perigee, 1991.

Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema: A Complete Narrative History from the Beginnings to the Present. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.