'The Ten Commandments': Read THR's 1956 Review

The Ten Commandments - H - 1956

In the fall of 1956, moviegoers were greeted with what would become one of Hollywood's most enduring Biblical-themed films, The Ten Commandments. On Oct. 5, 1956, The Hollywood Reporter gave the highest praise to the film in a review originally headlined, "'The Ten Commandments' C.B. DeMille's Masterpiece — Monumental Production, Entertaining and Uplifting, An Unsurpassed Achievement."

Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments is, in many ways, the summit of screen achievement. It is not just a great and powerful motion picture, although it is that; it is also a new human experience. If there were but one print of this Paramount picture, the place of its showing would be the focus of a world-wide pilgrimage. As it is, Cecil B. DeMille's lofty and crowning achievement will bring into theatres throughout the world the most important segment of potential audiences: the people who do not attend movies regularly or do not go at all. They will go to this one.

Is it a great movie? Entertaining? Artistic? Well, yes. But this is a little like inquiring timorously if the Colossus of Rhodes was a nice piece of statuary, if the Parthenon was a pretty little church. Because The Ten Commandments cannot be evaluated by ordinary critical standards. It establishes its own measure of evaluation in almost every way, speaking theatrically, and it cannot even be judged on that basis alone, since it is also a profound and important spiritual message. 

These weighty comments should not obscure the fact that Cecil B. DeMille is still the master of spectacle, still as skillful as ever in translating historical events in terms of human values, and of welding these two elements into absorbing, exciting, thrilling, moving screen entertainment. This is why we say the summit of screen achievement. Because The Ten Commandments takes all the great technical advances, VistaVision, Technicolor, high fidelity recording, etc., and without allowing these physical elements to dominate, tells one of the greatest stories of all time. 

Many Outstanding Players

There are many very capable people who have helped to make The Ten Commandments and DeMille has been generous in his credit to all departments. But you have only to imagine (or try to) the name of any other man who could have functioned as the creator of The Ten Commandments to realize what a giant Cecil B. DeMille is. This reasoning does not diminish the many other fine artists there are in Hollywood, it simply puts in proper perspective the massive accomplishment that his picture is. And it puts the credit squarely where it belongs. On Cecil B. DeMille

"Proclaim liberty throughout the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof." So says Moses to the Jews as the Chosen People approach the River Jordan and Moses leaves them. This is the theme of this great picture, liberty under God, the sanctity of the individual and his struggle for freedom from oppression created tyrannical state and the men who see no higher authority than that with which they invest themselves. The story, in its bare outlines, is familiar to everyone. Moses, born to a Hebrew family in slavery in Egypt, is spared by his mother from the death decreed by the Pharaoh when she puts the infant in a basket and sets it adrift on the Nile. The child is found by the Pharaoh's daughter and raised as her own child, as a prince of Egypt. There comes a time when Moses learns he is Hebrew, not Egyptian, and when he must choose which future he will accept. Having chosen his own people, he then leads the Jews out of Egypt and, after years of hardship and wandering, delivers them to the Promised Land. 

DeMille has augmented the Bible story with careful research, wisely careful that the story as he presented it will not give offense to any believers, Christian, Jew or Mohammedan. It stresses our common brotherhood, as children of Abraham, rather than the differences which the years have brought. The screenplay by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank, is based on incredible historical background and advice. It is sound dramatically and, despite its expanse, well-knit and cohesive. 

Charlton Heston as Moses is splendid, handsome and princely (and human) in the scenes dealing with him as a young man, and majestic and terrible as his role demands it. He is the great Michelangelo conception of Moses but rather as the inspiration for the sculptor might have been than as a derivation. Yul Brynner is magnificent as Rameses II, an intelligent and not entirely cruel king but one caught in a cataclysmic moment of history. They make a fine counterpoint, Heston and Brynner. Anne Baxter is very good as the Egyptian princess who wants Heston but gets Brynner, an intelligent woman for her time but only dimly aware of the forces at work that defeat her purposes. Edward G. Robinson plays Dathan, the turncoat Hebrew who tries to persuade the Jews that while their chains are oppressive they still represent a kind of security and that freedom is a potentially risky thing. Yvonne De Carlo is very fine as the simple Sephora, whom Moses took to wife and who bore him his son. Debra Paget is lovely and pathetic as Lilia, possessed by Dathan but loving John Derek, who makes a good Joshua. Nina Foch is excellent as Bithiah, the Egyptian princess who reared Moses; Cedric Hardwicke is very fine, especially so, as the Pharaoh Sethi, a kind of Egyptian Louis XIV. Judith Anderson has menace and power as the slave Memnet, and Martha Scott is very effective as Yochabel, Moses' true mother. Vincent Price, John Carradine, Henry Wilcoxon, Douglass Dumbrille, Oliver Deering, Donald Curtis, H.B. Warner, Frank DeKova, Eduard Franz, Lawrence Dobkin, Julia Faye and Ian Keith are among the others in the huge cast who have especially important characters and who make contributions to the picture. 

Breath-taking Photography

Loyal Griggs, who was the director of photography shot both here and in Egypt, headed three other capable cameramen, J. Peverell Marley, John Warren and Wallace Kelley. The spectacle scenes are naturally the most breath-taking but the interiors and more intimate scenes are, in another degree, equally effective. The special effects by John P. Fulton, optical photography by Paul Lerpae and process photography by Farciot Edouart, all are very skillful, extraordinarily so at times. Richard Mueller, as Technicolor consultant, had an important function and it has been well served, while the art direction of Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler and Albert Nozaki is fine. There is an individual stamp and feel about this aspect of the picture. The costumes by Edith Head, Ralph Jester, John Jensen, Dorothy Jeakins and Arnold Friberg are magnificent, authentic or tastefully adapted to theatrical realism. Choreography by LeRoy Prinz and Ruth Godfrey also is right, again authentic but entertaining in its own manner. Sound is good and those responsible are Louis H. Mesenkop, Harry Lindgren and Gene Garvin. Ann Bauchens is the film editor, surely the most monumental editing job in film history. Assistant directors were Francisco Day, Michael Moore, Edward Salven, Daniel McCauley and Fouad Aref. While it is impossible to single out their contributions, they can find satisfaction in the accomplishment of the whole. 

Elmer Bernstein's music is a major and truly monumental piece of work. And finally to Henry Wilcoxon, Cecil B. DeMille's dedicated associate in production, there is great credit and honor in his part in this work. 

There is so much about The Ten Commandments that cries for comment, for appreciation and for approval that it is simply impossible to relay it all here. DeMille himself introduces the picture with a modest and engaging appearance. He also supplies a running commentary that is discreet and yet helpful. To sum up, The Ten Commandments was a dream in the mind of Cecil B. DeMille beyond what anyone else had ever projected, and he has brought it off. It is, in that misused but here accurate word, unique. There is no other picture like it. There will be none. If it could be summed up in a word, the word would be sublime. And the man responsible for that, when all is said and done is Cecil B. DeMille. — James Powers

Twitter: @THRArchives