I was brought up in a religious family, and when I was growing up, TV and movies were not allowed on Sunday. The only exception was religious movies. I am from a family that loves movies, so I have seen The Ten Commandments a ridiculous amount of times. (Well, I’ve seen the first couple hours many times; I was usually sent to bed before the very end, so I’ve only seen the end probably five times.) My sisters and I can do entire scenes from memory, and we each have our favorite lines (“To me you’re a lily, and I want water!”). So the only way I could watch The Ten Commandments this time was in my parents’ basement with my family. We had two big bowls of popcorn and a solemn oath that we wouldn’t quote the lines before they happened because my brother-in-law had never seen it before. That was a hard promise to keep. Man, I love this movie.
So what’s the story? This epic (and epically long) movie tells the story of Moses from his birth to his death. It tells of his young manhood in Pharaoh’s palace, his banishment to the desert, his marriage to a shepherd girl and subsequent return to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves. And yes, in the end he receives the Ten Commandments.
The Good: I think I will always marvel that epic movies with casts of thousands were made at all. For a movie this scale to work, so many people have to be involved. And The Ten Commandments takes this a step further. I felt like Cecil B. DeMille wanted everything to be as authentic as possible, so many things were meticulously researched. As I watched the opening credits, I was impressed not just by the number of experts that were consulted, but also their caliber. DeMille didn’t just make stuff up or go for a vaguely Egyptian feel. He found people who knew what they were talking about so that things would be authentic. This leads to amazing production design and great costumes.
Elmer Berstein’s score is amazing. It is at times melodramatic (Nefretiri’s theme, anyone?), but that is the nature of the film. The score manages to be dramatic and sweeping, but also reverent when it deals with religious things. That’s an impressive thing to do. Also, I have apparently seen this movie so many times that I can listen to the soundtrack and know what lines are being said. But that means that although the music has themes, Bernstein doesn’t repeat himself too much.
The acting is good all around. Charlton Heston does a good job playing a man trying to figure out who he is and what his place is in the world. Yul Brynner plays another man in authority, but Rameses is a totally different king than the one in The King and I, even though both men think Moses is a fool. I think that displays how good an actor Brynner really was. Anne Baxter schemes most convincingly, playing woman who is not necessarily bad, but willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants (did she get this role because she was typecast after All About Eve?). Yvonne de Carlo as Sephora, Moses’s wife, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi –everyone is so good in this movie. I would name everyone, but again, there is a huge cast.
The special effects were amazing for their time. Some haven’t held up, of course, because The Ten Commandments was made almost sixty years ago. But some have held up surprisingly well. The hail that turns to fire still looks believable. That’s incredible to me.
The Bad: As much as I love this movie, I will be the first to admit that the screenplay is not the best. There are many, many cheesy lines. These lines make the movie really fun to watch, but they are not an example of fabulous writing.
The Ugly: I didn’t find anything ugly in this movie. I enjoyed watching it as much this last time as I did when I was a kid. That’s not always the case for me.
Oscar Won: Best effects, special effects.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best cinematography, color; best art direction-set direction, color; best costume design, color; best sound, recording; best film editing.