The Ten Commandments (1956)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 2/11/05
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Charleton Heston, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget

At its best, Cecil B. DeMille's remake of his own "The Ten Commandments" (1923) is a grand spectacle of epic filmmaking, featuring enormous sets and a wide array of groundbreaking visual effects. At its worst, it's a tedious and tiresome historical farce, seething with hypocrisy and religious propaganda. The film tells the tale of how the biblical character Moses (Charleton Heston) grew up as the son of an Egyptian pharoah and delivered the Hebrew people from the cruel yoke of slavery. And it takes its own sweet time about doing it, clocking in at a whopping 220 minutes.

Production wise, the film is magnificent. The sets are grand and well lit, the location footage is superb, Elmer Bernstein's musical score is excellent, and the visual effects pushed the limits of modern technology. While many of the effects may look dated by today's standards, they serve the story well and still convey a sense of awe. My only complaint would be the overuse of rear projection, which constantly betrays the stage production mentality of the picture. The visually jarring cuts between stage and location shots are also quite distracting. The acting is on par with other productions of the time, and is overly stiff and artificial. Charleton Heston's melodramatic overacting is hilarious as always, making me wonder what William Shatner would have done with the same role. Vincent Price and Ed Robinson are good for a few chuckles as woefully miscast Egyptian villains. Of all the actors in the film, only Yul Brynner makes a lasting impression as the Egyptian pharoah, Rameses. He alone has presence and dignity, and his performance is riveting. If it weren't for him, I probably wouldn't have made it through the entire film.

Of course the most disturbing thing about the film is the religious content, which is paraded around as historical fact. The director even states this up front, which taints the whole production with hypocrisy. The film starts out innocently enough with its matter-of-fact presentation, but by the second half it becomes pure religious fantasy, mired in propaganda and myth. Overall a decent film, but only enjoyable if you share the views that are expressed in it.