The crossing of the Red Sea, a composited image that includes live action, matte paintings, and special effects.

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The Egyptian sets are magnificent, enormous, glossy and detailed, populated by hundreds of costumed extras. But the staging, perhaps inadvertently, goes beyond ‘authenticity’ –the lingering sense of Hollywood grandiloquence generates suspicion that the next day Gene Kelly might stage a gigantic dance scene on the same set. The score by Elmer Bernstein, soaring and heroic, also raises the film up but sets it as a mid-century production.

When the action moves to medium shots of Moses (played by Heston’s infant son Fraser) being rescued from the Nile, Israelites working in mud pits, or the alleys of Pithom, there is little sense of scale, depth, or dirt; these studio sets fall flat. Sadly, the most important divine interventions, the Burning Bush, Pillar of Fire, Moses’ staff transformed into a snake, and the fiery creation of the tablets of the law, are animated. These flaming cartoon effects are about as unpersuasive as the ‘monster from the id’ in another 1956 hit, Forbidden Planet. On this we may pine for modern special effects.

But the film’s heart is the acting, namely the scenery chewing love triangle of Heston, Yul Brynner, and Anne Baxter. Heston – chosen in part because of his resemblance to Michelangelo’s Moses – projects a stolid Upper Midwestern masculinity that is associated with few actors today. Unlike his revolutionary contemporary, Marlon Brando, Heston’s emotion and vulnerability had to be accessed through a hard shell. There is a straight line through Heston’s most famous roles, from Moses to Ben-Hur, all the way to George Taylor, marooned on a planet of damned, dirty apes. He is slow to be provoked, but then, watch out.

In contrast, the Siberian born Brynner exuded exoticism, befitting a role like the King Mongkut of Siam, for which he had become famous in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. His Rameses is also played within a narrow emotional range, with quiet seething and few outbursts. But Brynner’s natural authority was critical to projecting both Rameses’s imperiousness and blindness.

Finally, there is Ann Baxter, granddaughter of a Frank Lloyd Wright and a Hollywood journey woman, who plays the vampish Queen Nefretiri as a manipulative bad girl. The subplot of her short-lived romance with Moses then unhappy marriage to Rameses is entirely invented and gives the film a 1940s feeling of love triangles and femme fatales. But Baxter reliably delivers some of the film’s cheesiest (“Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) and most bitter lines (“You let Moses kill my son. No god can bring him back. What have you done to Moses? How did he die? Did he cry for mercy when you tortured him? Bring me to his body! I want to see it, Rameses! I want to see it!”)

To the modern eye, or certain modern sensibilities, the primary cast is also disconcertingly “white.” To counter we might point to the brief presence of the distinguished African American actor, and professional football player, Woodrow Strode, as the Ethiopian King, and several thousand Egyptian Army personnel as, well, the Egyptian Army. Like any film, it is a product of its times.

For every exceptional actor like Cedric Hardwicke (Seti) or Nina Foch (Bithia) there are one-dimensional hacks like John Derek (Joshua) or the annoying girls who played Jethro’s daughters as giggly flibbertigibbets. Still, DeMille was both a craftsman and eminently practical; rope swinging hunks like Derek were box office draws, and veteran character actors like Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price and John Carradine kept the non-Biblical B-story going when Heston and Brynner were off screen.

But does it still work? The real star of The Ten Commandments is God, who speaks directly to Moses and works miracles that ultimately convince Rameses to let the Israelites go. Divine intervention and national liberation is the essence of the Biblical account. What a contrast with Ridley Scott’s 2014 retelling, where Moses is a freedom fighter and God a vision on by a blow to the head of a child brought, or the 1998 animated Prince of Egypt, where Moses cries because of the plagues and with musical numbers that sound like rejects from Frozen.

In 1923 DeMille made two parallel stories to highlight the decay of modern values, but in 1956 he opted for a more subtle approach. He makes God the star, and liberation the central theme, and through clever dialogue and narration Americanizes the Exodus once again. But Cold War made the stakes far higher than even those that killed Mrs. McTavish. “Man took dominion over man – the conquered were made to serve the conqueror – the weak made to server the strong,” the narrator – DeMille himself – intones. Moses’ last words in the film, “Go – proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10), also inscribed on the Liberty Bell, make the connection between ancient Israel and America clear.

Film tells us not ‘who we are’ but how we see ourselves at any given moment. Perhaps every generation gets The Ten Commandments that it wants. There are no ‘timeless’ films but DeMille’s The Ten Commandments comes closer than many, because of its subject matter, epic scale, and outsized social impact. Whether its messages of human liberty and the enduring relationship of God and the Israelites still resonate, in America or elsewhere, is another question.

Alex Joffe is the editor of The Ancient Near East Today.

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