Maybe I should have watched The Ten Commandments (1956) during Holy Week? It would have been good preparation for Easter Vigil. If you are not Catholic, or maybe are but have not gone to that particular Mass (they are all good, especially on that Holiest of days), the marathon ceremony includes a number of readings from the Old Testament, some of which include the events covered in today’s film. Like Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus (a post-Easter event), these passages are meant to point the way to Jesus coming into the world and doing the acts He did. I believe this says much about the way this movie was made. As such, I am not going to give you an exhaustive recitation of the plot. It is nearly four hours long, and a summary would threaten sleep on everyone, myself included as I write it. For such a long cinematic drama, I am actually going to give you a relatively short review. If you want to get the true story of Moses (Charlton Heston) and the things mentioned in the film, go read the first twenty chapters of Exodus. In my Bible anyway, it is about sixteen pages. It will take you less time to read it than to watch the movie.
I do not mean to sound flippant about The Ten Commandments because it is an important piece of classic cinema. There was a time when major networks, particularly during the Lent or Easter season, or even Advent and Christmas, would deign to show it on their airwaves in order to please their overwhelmingly Christian viewers (a fact they seem to have forgotten). I believe I recall seeing it at some point as a wee lad, but most of what I know about it comes from reputation. It was directed by legendary (even in his own time) director Cecil B. DeMille, who also had a reputation for making religious dramas. Though not affiliated with any sect, DeMille was nonetheless a Christian. I point that out only to underscore how strange some of the decisions were in the filming. As I mentioned above, the source material is rather thin, though he made it a point to say to the audience how this is based on Scripture. If you have read these texts as I have and watch the movie, there are going to be several moments that will leave you saying, “Huh?” To be fair, the film gives itself an out by also listing some other ancient sources that it utilized to fill in what would have been barely an hour had it relied solely on the text of the Bible. And perhaps this is too much of a quibble, but it is hard for me to picture Moses as the action hero as he is here sometimes portrayed. As in the Bible, it starts with baby Moses being taken from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter and given his name. I am guessing that the name of Pharaoh’s daughter comes from one of those other sources because the Bible says nothing of a name, and yet in the movie she is Bithiah (Nina Foch). The very next part of the Bible involves a grown up Moses apparently already knowing his heritage and killing an Egyptian for striking a Hebrew. In the movie, this does not happen until nearly two hours into its run time! In the meantime, we see Moses as an Egyptian general, city builder, and presumed heir to the throne, much to the chagrin of his adoptive brother Rameses (Yul Brynner). Here again, there are other Egyptian characters filled in, Rameses being one. Another addition is Nefretiti (Anne Baxter), who it is implied is romantically involved with Moses. There are Biblical characters tossed in as well, such as another action man in the form of Joshua (John Derek). Soon after Moses’ true birth is revealed to him, the result of the Hebrew origins of his swaddling cloth that shows up one day in the hands of a servant. He then goes to serve as a slave with his people. It is while he is in bondage that he witnesses Joshua being tortured by the Egyptian master builder Baka (Vincent Price), another invention, that we get to an event (albeit dramatized) actually in the Bible. Yet, because this is Hollywood and the 1950s to boot, we have to have the mustache twirling villain that is Rameses in this film capturing Moses but saying that death is too good for his former step-brother. Classic evil overlord mistake, and I say that because when he finally decides that it is a mistake to have let the Israelites go (and they skip over a bunch of the plagues) his madness is depicted as being what drives the Egyptian chariots into the midst of the Red Sea to be drowned. From there, the Israelites make it to the land of Canaan. However, they give hardly any context as to why Moses could not go with them into the Promised Land. Nope, just show Moses on the side of a mountain with the sun beaming down on him, and the end.
Context is important, and for a movie twenty minutes shy of four hours, there is surprisingly little in The Ten Commandments. Why can Moses not enter the land of Canaan with the rest of the people he had led to that point? Because, as is explain elsewhere in the Bible, Moses had given in to the pressures of the people who wanted Moses to provide water instead of relying on God. Due to this and other grumblings of the Israelites, they were forced to wander for forty years in the dessert before arriving at Canaan. There is significance in the number forty. It is the number is also the number of days Jesus spent in the dessert being tested by Satan, and hence the amount of time we Catholics have for Lent. All three periods are meant to be purgative. For our purposes, the time the Israelites spent in the dessert were full of other times where they tested God. These are important in understanding the ending of the film, as well as driving home the point as to who would be worthy to enter the land flowing with milk and honey. But, no, the climactic scenes for this movie are the death of the Egyptian charioteers and seeing the Israelites who had given themselves over to worshipping the false golden calf being swallowed up by the earth. I suppose those are more cinematic and exciting, moments you desperately need for a movie that is so long. For me, though, they devolve into action schlock that takes away from the most important message of the film: God is God, and He provides. Can God perform mighty deeds as we see in the movie? Of course. Actually, one place where Hollywood matches up with the Bible is in showing how incredible it is for the Israelites to have seen the miracles they witness, and still not believe that God will give them what they need to survive. The Ten Commandments, unfortunately, does not drive this point home, but what we need to remember is that God is real and does give us everything we require, whether or not we realize it. Think about the miracle that is the rain. It comes from above where we typically think of God residing, and nourishes, well, everything. Remember that the next time you are griping about traffic, or having to sit through four hours of movie that does not meet your expectations. Yes, that last one is directed at myself.
I feel somewhat bad for not enjoying The Ten Commandments more. I do not think it is necessarily a function of its length, at least not purely in terms of the number of minutes it lasts. I get frustrated by the stuff that is added in seemingly blatantly to pad its run time. God is more than enough, and we know what God did at this moment in our history from reading the Bible. Still, if this movie is what someone needs to realize that God is real, then it should be watched. People need miracles, and while they do happen far more often than we realize, at least seeing the wonders to which the Israelites were privy could be a start. Just remember that great and small, God is working in your life.