2015 Blindspot series: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Along with Planet of the Apes and Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments features arguably Charton Heston’s most iconic performance. Cecil B. DeMille is known for making epics, and this is generally considered his best work. In this extravagant big budget retelling, Heston plays Moses from he is a young man and his journey to help his people. At the time of its release in 1956, it was the most expensive film made.
I knew the mythical story but had forgotten how it all fits together, so it was a reminder of The Book of Exodus. They take liberties with the original text for the sake of pacing and coherence. Yul Brynner has second billing as Rameses, and was convincing in the role. Anne Baxter does solid work as the love interest Nefretiri, she is given plenty of screen time and is perhaps the most ambiguous of the main characters, having interests on both sides.

In the introduction, we are told:
“The theme of this picture is whether man should be ruled by Gods law or by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God. This same battle continues throughout the world today”  

Nowadays, the Moses story can be viewed as allegory rather than fact. It has strong messages about self-sacrifice for the purpose of change, how you should never give up in the face of adversity, and that oppression of slaves is wrong. Another lesson is you shouldn’t try and be above the Gods, because there are forces bigger than man.
What I’m less enthusiastic about, is how the Old Testament showcases God’s violence to achieve peace, and intolerance to those who oppose God’s will, for example when the earth opens up and the sinful fall away, while the men who follow God’s Commandments survive. This aspect feels dated, that God is disapproving and you were punished if you were an atheist or had another God. “Those who will not live by the law, shall die by the law!” The Commandments should be guidelines, and God ought to allow man to follow his own path and learn from his own mistakes.
I prefer the teachings in The New Testament, with the tale of Jesus, who can withstand anything, even death, and who is a symbol of love, no matter what. To forgive instead of to condemn.
It’s interesting whether the Moses story is predetermined or if the characters have free will. Perhaps God is so powerful that he already knows every twist and turn.
In the film, the miracles display Gods power, although the voice of God is unintentionally funny, and much of the dialogue in the film is quite pretentious and a product of its time. In most films this type of grandiose dialogue would fall flat but here it feels justified because of the biblical proportions. I was entertained, the special effects are impressive for the 1950s, so overall I think DeMille’s vision holds up well as blockbuster filmmaking and as spectacle. It’s long at 3 hours 40 min, with an intermission.

Won an Oscar for Best Effects, Special Effects. Was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.

12 thoughts on “2015 Blindspot series: The Ten Commandments (1956)

  1. Hi Chris, interesting pick for your last Blind Spot. I think the film is quite epic though between this and Ben Hur, I prefer the latter, which was also supremely epic and also has a compelling spiritual elements. Well, as a believer myself, the Old and New Testament are not mutually exclusive, Jesus actually said 'no one goes to the Father except through me' as He fulfill what God has promised in the Old Testaments, so He didn't exactly have a *brand new* teachings that negate the old, but that's another discussion 🙂

    In any case, the SFX of this film is really quite something for its day. Even Ridley Scott's Exodus wasn't even half as spectacular.


  2. @Ruth: Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments both have some great action scenes. Not sure which I prefer, I’ve only watched them once.
    I get what you’re saying. I probably oversimplified things in my review 🙂 Both Testaments have great stories and imagery. I just dislike God’s violent method of problem solving. Of course you can also be critical of Jesus’ teachings. The SFX still hold up!


  3. So, I finally got around to your review, sorry it too a while.
    You have a good point about the allegory. Given when it was release it is pretty safe to say that the movie reference to the threat of both nazism and communism. German soldiers during WWII had “Gott mit uns” printed on the belt buckle. If you can claim religion is on your side your case is a lot stronger.
    Concerning the tone I actually found it toned down quite a bit compared to the Haggadah read during Passover. This is a God who take care of his own and his own only.


  4. @TSorensen: Thanks for reading! The intro speech in the movie: ”Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God. This same battle continues throughout the world today” certainly hints at 20th Century oppression. The Guardian ( http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/dec/18/ten-commandments-demille-mccarthy ) suggests the film is Cold War propaganda with an American mission to bring “freedom” to the world. Moses as Joseph McCarthy and the repressive pharaohs are the Soviets.

    Re.”your case is a lot stronger with God on your side”. To me, this has negative connotations today with how terrorists are tarnishing the reputation of Islam. A lot of positives to take from religion, but used the wrong way it can cause so much suffering. I sometimes wonder if the religions were abolished the world would be a safer place. Yet I guess the beliefs would still exist in secret and we are then faced with Orwellian censorship scenarios.

    “This is a God who takes care of his own and his own only.” I have not read the text you mention. I realize you don’t follow that harsh rhetoric yourself, as you said you are a non-believer. To me, religion is something welcoming to all and The Commandments should be loose guidelines, not demands. I rarely go to church, but I think there are many useful life lessons in The New Testament.


  5. Thank you for your extensive reply, Chris.
    Well, as you may know I live in Israel these days and am surrounded (ouside the familiy, fortunately) by people who use religious arguments for ridiculous decisions. It is hard not to be sceptic about religion and suspecious of people with religious motives. The Ten Commandments is in a sense a hardline religious movie, but I see it mostly A: as an attack on “unholy” regimes (as opposed to God-fearing America) and B. Cecille B. DeMille final fireworks of a movie. As such it can be watched by everybody.


  6. @TSorensen: No problem! I noticed in your review you said you are living abroad. Based on your comment, it must be quite challenging yet also enlightening to see another part of the world.


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