The Hollywood Epic. These are movies that generally have high budgets, a large cast, and are grand in scope, but are not limited by genre. They also tend to be at least 2:30, and it’s not unusual for them to be over 3 hours long. I’ve looked at some epics here and there before, like Ben Hur, James Cameron’s Titanic, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and Gladiator, among others. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is also considered a 3-part epic. You could even make the argument that Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame are superhero epics. Most of the movies I’m looking at this month are classics, released before 1970. There will be at least one newer Hollywood Epic. Also, I won’t be looking at any direct war movies, since they’re better saved for a War Movie theme month.
To kick things off, let’s look at The Ten Commandments, a 1956 epic religious drama film. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film in history. Its budget of over $13 million dwarfed the previous most expensive movie, Quo Vadis, which cost $7.6 million. Its earnings of $122 million on its initial release is enough to make it the 8th most profitable film in history, adjusted for inflation. With later re-releases, it eventually earned over $600 million in theaters, not to mention how it’s done very well in home video releases and TV showings. It almost dethroned Gone With The Wind as the highest earning movie in history with its initial release. I figured it’s worth starting with this one because I’ve looked at another interpretation of the story of Moses before, with Prince of Egypt. Also of the four movies I’ll be watching this month, this is the only one I’ve seen before.
Normally I go into detail with the behind the scenes details, but with an epic on this scale, there’s way too much to get through. So I’ll mostly focus on the set design, art direction, and some of the extra material they relied on for researching the early life of Moses. First off, this is actually a remake of the 1923 silent film of the same name. Well … the prologue of the 1923 film anyway, as most of that film takes place in the “modern times” of the 1920’s. The set designs were based on the 1923 original, and the main set was built outside of Cairo, Egypt, where all the filming took place. The film also reused sets, costumes and props from the film, The Egyptian, which released in 1954.
The Ten Commandments was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who is often referred to as the founding father of American cinema. He’s worth talking about briefly. Originally born in Massachusetts in 1881, he grew up in New York City, where he began his career in show business as a stage actor. He soon moved to writing and directing stage productions. His first film, The Squaw Man (1914), happens to be the first full-length feature film shot in Hollywood. Earning over $533,000 on a $40,000 budget made it a massive success. HIs further successful projects led to the founding of Paramount Pictures, which is second only to Universal Studios as the oldest film studio in the United States. His first biblical epic, the previously mentioned 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, held the record for Paramount’s highest earning movie for 25 years, at $4.2 million.
It’s also worth noting that 1956’s The Ten Commandments is DeMille’s last film. For him, this film was his career coming full circle in a way.
Moses’s robe was hand-woven by Dorothea Hulse, who was considered the world’s finest weavers at the time. She also designed costumes for Samson and Delilah (1949, and also directed by DeMille), David and Bathsheba (1951), and The Robe (a 1953 story of the Crucifixion of Jesus from the perspective of the Romans, which also happens to be the first film ever released in widescreen). There’s a dance sequence modeled after art from the tomb of Grand Vizier Mehu of the Sixth Dynasty.
The Ten Commandments is known for what was at the time its revolutionary special effects. It’s an example of early blue screen in film, using miniatures, rear projection, and pyrotechnics. For the parting of the red sea, they poured 360,000 gallons of water into a tank that was split in half with a U-shaped trough, and played the shot in reverse, in what remains one of the most expensive special effects shots in film history. They had to combine that shot with footage of the actual red sea, a giant waterfall built on the Paramount backlot, matte paintings to conceal the lines between the real life shots and the water, and use of an optical printer to help blend everything together.
This shot might not look great by today’s standards, but this sequence was done long before the invention of CGI, and I’d argue it’s more impressive than any modern day effects because of that.
The soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein also feels big. Not sure what else to say there. Some of his other well-known soundtracks include 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1963’s The Great Escape, Airplane! And The Blues Brothers (both from 1980, and Ghostbusters. He won the Best Soundtrack Oscar for the musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie.
As for the cast, you’ve got Charlton Heston in the lead role as Moses, and he also performed the voice of God for the burning bush scene. He was awarded the role when he impressed DeMille with his knowledge of ancient Egypt, his resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, and having enjoyed working with him in The Greatest Show on Earth 2 years prior. Yul Brynner plays Rameses II, which DeMille described as “a part equal in dramatic strength to that of Moses.” He was apparently offered the role after DeMille saw him perform in the Broadway musical, The King and I, and offered him the role backstage. Nefretiri (usually spelled Nefertari, but Nefretiri in the movie), which was described by columnist Louella Parsons as “the most sought-after role of the year”, went to Anne Baxter. On the role, she said “There was only one DeMille, and there wasn’t an actor in the world who didn’t want to work with him just once, however short the salary or tall the corn.”
Moses’s wife, whose name was changed to Sephora for the film based on the Douay-Rhelms translation of the bible, also saw a competitive field for its casting. The role eventually went to Yvonne De Carlo, after DeMille’s first choice, Grace Kelly, was unavailable at the time. The movie features a number of other important biblical figures, like Joshua, Seti I (Rameses II’s father), Moses’s birth mother and siblings, and even some from extra biblical accounts. I won’t go into detail for the casting for those roles, because this blog post would get way too long.
If you look at the actual book of Exodus in the bible, it doesn’t talk all that much about Moses’ life as an Egyptian Prince. Most of the book of Exodus focuses on after Moses returns to Egypt to free the slaves. Some of the extra sources include Josephus, the Chronicle of Moses, the Sepher-ha-Yashar, and even some details taken from the Quran. As such, there are some characters in the movie that were never mentioned in the biblical accounts, and also some changes to the story and characters that may not have been accurate.
For one, the Pharaoh of Egypt is never mentioned by name in the bible, while this, and several other movies, use Rameses II as the Pharaoh that Moses deals with. To be fair, that is one of the possible Pharaoh’s that would have been involved with Moses. There’s also a love triangle between Moses, Rameses and Nefretiri that adds a lot of dramatic weight to this movie, but the Queen of Egypt is never mentioned once in the biblical accounts. There’s a scene where Joshua manages to escape Egypt and reaches Moses in Midian, which as far as I know isn’t based on any account. The early scene where it shows Moses being a successful military commander comes straight from Josephus.
I could go on, but none of these are points against the movie in terms of quality, or even its value as a biblical epic. They’re worth mentioning in case anyone is curious.
As for my thoughts on this movie, this is the second time I’ve watched The Ten Commandments. I’m not entirely sure how old I was the first time, but it was after I saw The Prince of Egypt. I found this movie to be slow and boring. At the time I was more into action movies and otherwise fast-paced stories. I also didn’t like the major differences between the two very different versions of the story. Watching this movie now as an adult, with a more developed taste of storytelling and style, I very much enjoyed rewatching this classic.
Everything about this movie feels big, whether it be the huge scope of the story, the large cast interacting with the massive sets, or even the rivalry between Moses and Rameses that lasts throughout the entire film. Despite not being of Egyptian blood, Moses starts off the movie as the more successful of the two potential heirs of the Egyptian throne. He returns from a successful trip to Ethiopia, coning back with a new alliance for Egypt. He then successfully completes a city that Rameses failed to build, partly because he treats the slaves better, which allows them to work harder. He’s also got Nefretiri’s heart, which Rameses desperately wants. It’s only after Moses’s true identity is discovered, and he kills an Egyptian slaver to save Joshua’s life, when he loses his chance at the throne.
Everyone in the main cast is charismatic. Moses speaks with a sense of authority any time he’s either leading people as the prince of Egypt, or he’s speaking on God’s behalf. Rameses is equally commanding in his performance, and Brynner does a brilliant job at showing the Pharaoh’s cold rage, determination, and pure hatred for his Hebrew “brother”. Nefretiri is quite entertaining as a seductress, who is easily able to woo Moses during his time as the prince, but is clearly frustrated when a changed Moses returns to Egypt and is immune to her charms. When she shifts to manipulating Rameses or straight up trying to get Moses killed, she’s kind of terrifying.
It’s worth noting that in the bible, Moses is actually shy and ineloquent, and needs his brother Aaron to help him speak to the Pharaoh. That is one element that I wish they found a way to include in a 3-hour version of the story, but I wouldn’t count that as a point against the movie. Another minor disappointment is that the film only shows four of the 10 plagues. Admittedly the movie was already a very expensive film, and most of the other plagues would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to handle visually in the 50’s.
It’s also interesting comparing this to The Prince of Egypt, seeing how they have very different approaches to the story as a whole. In the Prince of Egypt, Moses was never destined for the throne, and he and Rameses were very close growing up. That brotherhood makes their conflict all the more intense and personal, as Rameses feels betrayed, and Moses is deeply conflicted by the plagues. Both of these approaches work equally well. It may be my nostalgia talking, but I think I prefer the Prince of Egypt’s approach to this. To me, it makes the movie feel more dramatic. That said, Nefretiri feeling betrayed by her former lover do help make up for that.
The Ten Commandments is among the films registered by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and you could argue it fits all three of those. It’s a legendary film and deservedly so. It received 7 academy award nominations, including Best Picture. Although it only won Best Visual Effects, losing Best Picture to Around the World in 80 Days, and several others to The King and I, 1956 is considered a landmark year for movies as a whole, and the competition was tight. Overall, this is an easy recommendation for fans of either Hollywood Epics or Biblical Films.
Next up is 1963’s Cleopatra, just to stick with the Egypt theme for the sake of it. I’m also going to watch Spartacus from 1960, and one movie from the 90’s that I’m not willing to spoil just yet.
Loved this write-up!
The parting of the Red Sea might not look particularly realistic these days, but you’re right–it was SUCH an impressive achievement. Also, I never knew Moses’ robe was hand-woven. That’s really cool.
Looking forward to the other posts in this series. 🙂 (The mention of a 90’s movie has me particularly intrigued.)
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