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Ten Commandments’ mystique still set in stone

Marty Schroeder | Thursday, April 27, 2006

It has been 50 years since God parted the Red Sea on movie screens. Now, with the recently-released DVD from Paramount Home Video the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments” can be enjoyed anywhere this side of Egypt.

Directed by the prolific Cecil B. DeMille, this film told the story of Moses from his birth to his death in relation to his mission as the deliverer of the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Extra-Biblical sections of the story are added such as his tenure in the court of the Pharaoh, where he is a prince of Egypt. The love triangle between himself, Rameses II, and the princess Nefretiri is also explored.

Moses begins the film at the height of power, falls to the rank of slave, is driven out into the desert and returns to Egypt as God’s chosen deliverer. The narrative then follows the Jews from Mt. Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments – a Hollywood-style snafu, since the Ten Commandments were actually revealed to the entire people of Israel before Moses received the tablets unlike the film – to their entry across to the River Jordan to the Biblical Promised Land.

Charlton Heston’s Moses is a charismatic character and easily the emotional crux of the film. Heston adds a power to the role that some may find over-acted, but to others seems powerful and moving. Yul Brynner is equally charismatic in his sinister performance as Rameses. He becomes Pharaoh and is the target of the famous axiom “Let my people go!” Edward G. Robinson, made famous by 1930s and 40s gangster films, is also of note for his performance of the traitorous Hebrew Dathan.

Noted for its epic proportions, this film was massive in its undertaking. Parts of it were filmed on location in Egypt. For the scenes involving sandstorms, DeMille had jets from the Egyptian Air Force tied down and their engines turned on to blow sand.

The sheer number of extras used is staggering. Over 14,000 people and 15,000 animals were used in shooting this film, along with 300,000 gallons of water for the parting of the Red Sea sequence. The water was filmed rushing into a tank and then played backwards for the film. While it may look dated today, it still stands as a spectacle and an amazing spot of special effects.

Along with the 1956 version of the film, the DVD set also includes the 1923 black and white version. This film takes the Biblical narrative and uses it as a prologue for a story with a modern setting. It came about after DeMille solicited ideas for a film from everyday people. Someone submitted an idea for a story about the Ten Commandments and DeMille though it would make an excellent film.

This prologue is the story of the Jews in captivity and begins with Moses already as the deliverer telling Pharaoh to let his people free. It then follows them to Mt. Sinai, where Moses receives the tablets and the Golden Calf is fashioned. The story then follows two brothers in 1923 – one who follows the Bible and another who does not.

These two movies are now in a complete set. Alone, the films are good – but become better when watched together. The evolution of DeMille’s filmmaking can be observed and his devotion to the craft – he suffered a heart attack filming the second one – is undeniable.