Monday, August 25, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Ten Commandments" (1956)

It's funny; when "The Ten Commandments" sticks to the letter of Biblical scripture, it's rather overwrought and stiff, despite the at-the-time incredible special effects of the parting of the Red Sea and columns of fire.

But the bulk of the early going, which is mostly Hollywood B.S. based on historical conjecture about Moses' life until age 30, is riveting and packs a lot of emotional punch.

I thought Charlton Heston gives a marvelous performance as a prince of Egypt who learns he's the son of Hebrew slaves, a man honor-bound to do the right thing even at great personal cost. Once he obtains the white fright wig and starts delivering declarations to the masses instead of speaking dialogue to other characters, though, the film goes into a mortal tailspin.

The great Cecil B. DeMille seemed to sense this, too, since about three-quarters of the film's famous 3 hour, 39 minute run time is devoted to the preamble of Moses convincing the pharaoh to "let my people go." Once they're actually let go, the movie speeds up to almost a dangerous canter, spinning fecklessly through the creation of the commandments, years of wandering in the wilderness, conflicts between the great Hebrew tribes, etc.

Nominated for the the Academy Award for Best Picture, "The Ten Commandments" ended up losing to another even more unworthy epic, "Around the World in 80 Days." Its lack of Oscar nominations in anything other than the "minor categories" is probably indicative that it wasn't really a favorite going in. It failed to garner any acting nods, though Heston got a Golden Globe nomination.

Even its spectacular sets, purported to be the largest ever built, didn't win in the art direction category, nor the extravagant and beautiful costumes. In the end, the film won only one Oscar for special effects.

In the foursome of screenerwriters' version of the tale, Moses was a Hebrew babe placed in a basket on the river Nile to escape the wrath of the pharaoh, reacting to the prophecy of a deliverer who would free the race of slaves. He was plucked from the waters by Bithiah (Nina Foch), sister of Pharaoh -- his name means "to draw forth" -- and raised as her own.

Flash three decades forward, and Moses has become the main rival of Rameses II, deliciously played by Yul Brynner in full strut-and-pout mode. The only son of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), the egotistical and vain Rameses seethes as his father favors his cousin to succeed him upon the throne. Moses has just conquered all of Ethiopia -- keep an eye out for Woody Strode as the King of Ethiopia, and later as one of Bithiah's bearers -- and succeeds in building Sethi's "treasure city" where Rameses failed.

The "brothers," as they refer to themselves, are not only competing for the crown but also the hand of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the "house daughter" who must marry the next pharaoh. She and Moses love each other deeply, though Nefretiri turns out to be quite the scheming vixen. It's she who reveals the truth about Moses' heritage to him. Later, now married to Rameses and mother to his child, she convinces the pharaoh to defy Moses' call to free the slaves, resulting in a series of plagues and a terrible backlash against her own family.

I should mention that at one point only Moses and Nefretiri know about his heritage, and he's all but wrapped up the throne. He could've just waited until the elderly Sethi died and then, as pharaoh, freed all the slaves by edict rather than resulting in thousands of horrible deaths. But, as I learned from years of Sunday school, religious types aren't too keen on you pointing out massive plot holes in the Good Book.

Edward G. Robinson has a terrifically fun role as Dathan, a Hebrew slavemaster who schemes against his own people and, when Moses is busy on Mount Sinai obtaining the word of God upon the stone tablets, whips them into a frenzy of idolatry. In perhaps the film's most ridiculous moment, Moses doesn't just break the tablets in fury, he actually hurls them at Dathan and the golden calf, causing them explode and fall into a rift in the earth that swallows everything.

(This leads directly to the second silliest, a throwaway line in the last scene where Moses is forced to explain how they got the remains of the Ten Commandments back, so they could be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and thus "Raiders of the Lost Ark" could be made. He blathers something about the stone tablets, "which were restored to us." So God replaced the exploded commandments, but only in their broken form?)

I was slightly cheesed off that at no point in the movie does Robinson sneer, "Where's your Moses now?!?" Turns out that was just a Billy Crystal routine, a bit of made-up showbiz lore, like Bogie never actually uttering the words "Play it again, Sam."

Other notable actors include John Derek as Joshua, a foolhardy stonecutter who becomes Moses' chief lieutenant; John Carradine as Moses' brother Aaron, who actually performs most of the miracles with his sibling's shepherd staff; Debra Paget as Lilia, a pretty Jewess who catches Dathan's eye; Martha Scott as Yochabel, Moses' real mother; Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Moses' long-suffering Bedouin wife; and Vincent Price as Baka, chief stone builder for the Egyptians.

I was struck how fleshy and sensual the movie is. Released prior to the MPAA system, it was awarded a "G" rating for its subsequent theatrical re-releases, which seems rather tame for a movie in which not a lot of clothing is worn, and women dance quite lasciviously on numerous occasions. In a rare bit of historical accuracy for this era of filmmaking, most of the cast is dusky-skinned, whether naturally or with help from makeup.

"The Ten Commandments" remains a great piece of entertainment, a full-of-itself package of Hollywood spectacle, at once haughty, laughable and glorious. I'll be interested to see if Ridley Scott's "Exodus," which is to be released later this year, can find as much treasure in the after-slavery portion of the Moses myth as this movie did in the before part.

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