Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2022) on… The Ten Commandments (1956)

Since it’s Easter today, I’m back for a brief interruption of my month-long break for another film that’s appropriate for this time of the year!  This time, we’re going with the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek, Vincent Price and John Carradine!

When Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses I (Ian Keith) is warned by his wise men that a star has announced the birth of a deliverer for his Hebrew slaves, he orders the death of all the newborn Hebrew boys.  Defying his edict, Yochabel (Martha Scott) puts her newborn son in a basket, and then places the basket in the Nile River.  The basket floats down the river, where it is discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah (Nina Foch).  Believing the child has been sent from her late husband, she decides to take him in as her new son and names him Moses.  Her servant Memnet (Judith Anderson) sees the Hebrew swaddling cloth and warns her against doing this, but Bithiah forbids her from ever revealing Moses’ Hebrew ancestry.  Fast forward a few decades, and Moses (Charlton Heston) is enjoying great success.  He enjoys the favor of Bithiah’s brother, Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Harwicke), after a military victory against Ethiopia (and its resulting alliance).  Sethi’s son, Rameses II (Yul Brynner), had been tasked with building a city in time for Sethi’s jubilee, but he has been unable to complete it due to the Hebrew slaves awaiting the arrival of their deliverer.  With the two men vying for the hand of the Egyptian princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) (who has been promised to Sethi’s successor), Sethi tasks Moses with the job of finishing the city, and asks Rameses to find the deliverer (if indeed he exists).  When Moses gives the Hebrews one day of rest for every seven days and allows them to raid the temple granaries for food, Rameses and the temple priests try to use this to prove to Sethi that Moses intends to lead the slaves in rebellion against him.  However, Sethi finds that Moses has instead made great progress on building the city, and is now all but assured of being the next pharaoh (to the delight of Nefretiri). Everything is looking up for Moses.

Then things change when Memnet reveals Moses’ Hebrew origins to Nefretiri. While Nefretiri kills Memnet to stop her from spreading the story any further, Moses still learns the truth about his Hebrew ancestry. In the process, he joins with his real family and the other Hebrews in doing slave labor. Nefretiri tries to get him out of there, and reminds him that he could do more good for his people as the next pharaoh. However, Moses still needs to see the master builder, Baka (Vincent Price), before he will do anything more. That proves problematic, as he kills Baka when he finds him torturing the stonecutter, Joshua (John Derek), who had tried to rescue his girlfriend, Lilia (Debra Paget), from being taken advantage of. The Hebrew overseer, Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), sees all this, and, since he was tasked by Rameses to find the so-called Hebrew “deliverer,” he turns Moses in. At Sethi’s jubilee, Rameses reveals Moses “betrayal,” and Sethi has no choice but to make Rameses the next pharaoh. Rameses decides to have Moses exiled in the desert, expecting him to never return. Moses survives the desert, and meets shepherdess Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), along with her sisters. While he still pines for Nefretiri, he decides to marry Sephora and start a family. One time, while tending sheep near Mount Sinai, he sees a burning bush on the mountain and decides to investigate. There, he hears the voice of God, telling him to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites from their slavery. But will Moses be able to change the heart of the pharaoh with God’s help? (Okay, that question has a VERY obvious answer, but we’ll go with it, anyways.)

In the 1920s, director Cecil B. DeMille filmed a silent film version of The Ten Commandments (which had a prologue that told the story of the biblical exodus before switching to a modern story about two brothers and how they viewed the Ten Commandments). The film was a success, and spawned a “trilogy,” with him doing the silent film The King Of Kings (1927) and later doing the 1932 talkie The Sign Of The Cross. After doing The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), he wanted to remake The Ten Commandments, but this time with a focus on the life of Moses. In spite of his then-recent successes, Paramount’s board of directors were initially hesitant to approve the idea, but they came around at the urging of the studio head, Adolph Zukor. DeMille did a lot of research on the subject, taking inspiration from books like The Prince Of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Pillar Of Fire by Joseph Holt Ingraham and On Eagle’s Wings by Arthur Eustace Southon as well as various historical texts (including the Bible, obviously). He did some location shooting in various places in Egypt, but Charles Heston, Yul Brynner and Henry Wilcoxon were the only major cast members to join him there for the actual shoot (with Yul Brynner really only there to film as Rameses leading the Egyptian chariots after the Hebrew people). The movie proved to be a huge hit with audiences, the biggest of Demille’s career. It also proved to be his last film as director, as his health went downhill (not helped by a heart attack that he suffered from partway through filming, although he was able to quickly return and finish the movie), and he would pass away a few years later in 1959.

I’ve seen The Ten Commandments many times over the years, through VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and now 4K UHD (but more on that in a moment). In short, I like it very much!! It was my first Cecil B. DeMille film, and it’s certainly made it easier for me to try some of the other films that he’s done as a director (even if this one does still remain my favorite of the bunch). And as a DeMille film, I can certainly say that it emphasizes the spectacle over the acting (and boy, does it). Don’t get me wrong, the actors and actresses do pretty well here. Charlton Heston as Moses is very much an iconic role, and I have yet to see any other actor I like better as Moses. That’s just how good he is here. Of course, Yul Brynner makes for a very good villain as Rameses, jealous of Moses’ success and determined not to let Moses get the better of him. Anne Baxter leaves a strong impression as Nefretiri, a temptress bound and determined to get what she wants (and heaven help the people that get in her way, regardless of how she feels for them). And then there’s Edward G. Robinson as the ambitious stool pigeon Dathan (a role that rescued him from being blacklisted at the time), who proves to be just as villainous as he tries everything he can to stay in Egypt after he gains power himself. Seriously, the performances here all make the film enjoyable. While the special effects themselves don’t look the best, I’d still say that they’re quite impressive (especially for a film made WAAAAY before CGI ever became a thing). Arguably, this is my favorite biblical epic, and for that reason, I have no problem whatsoever in recommending it (especially this time of the year)!

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2021) with… The Ten Commandments (1956)

This movie is available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures. For UHD, there are two options: a regular release that mainly contains the film on one UHD and two Blu-rays (plus some extras on the Blu-rays), or as a limited edition steelbook edition that includes everything in the regular version plus an entire disc of extras (on Blu-ray) that also includes the 1923 silent film version directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The transfer on the UHD still uses the restoration performed for the Blu-ray (released nearly a decade ago), which was already very good, and yet, the extra work done to put this film on 4K UHD shows off this movie just that much more! The colors pop much more, and the textures on everything are even more visible! Honestly, the only times this movie doesn’t look as good (and this is not the fault of the restorationists, but the original filmmakers themselves) are the moments where double exposures are used for the cast members that were not able to film on location. This was the first 4K UHD I was able to see (but, as some may have seen, the second one I have commented on, following my updated review of My Fair Lady, also from Paramount), and it was to my eyes quite spectacular to see. I have no trouble whatsoever in recommending the 4K UHD (especially the limited edition if you can still get it)!

And with that, I bid you “Happy Easter,” as I now resume my break from blogging for the rest of the month. Of course, come the first of May, I will indeed be back to feature my next Screen Team Of The Month (but you’re still going to have to wait until then to see just who I am featuring)! In the meantime, keep enjoying some good (or great) movies!

Film Length: 3 hour, 52 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

*ranked #10 in Top 10 Movies Watched In 2022

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Charlton Heston – Ben-Hur (1959)

The Sea Wolf (1941) – Edward G. Robinson – Two Weeks In Another Town (1962)

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Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2021) on… Ben-Hur (1959)

Easter has come around again, and this time, I wish to celebrate it through The Faith In Films Blogathon, as hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. For that, I’ll be discussing the classic 1959 biblical epic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston!

Judean prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his family are thrilled at the return of his childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has become a Roman tribune, which makes him second-in-command to the governor of Judea. However, their joy is short-lived when Messala pushes Judah to turn in some of the rebellious Jewish leaders, and Judah refuses. Not long after, the new governor arrives. While watching the governor’s entrance from a roof, Judah’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) accidentally knocks some tiles down onto the governor. Judah, his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and Tirzah are quickly arrested. Messala learns the truth, but decides he will become more powerful by appearing willing to punish a close friend. Vowing vengeance, Judah is sent to the seaport of Tyrus to become a galley slave. After three years, Judah is still a slave, and now on a ship commanded by the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). The Roman fleet engages with a fleet of Macedonian ships, but, before starting the battle, the Roman consul decides to leave Judah unchained (unlike the other prisoners). The consul’s galley is rammed during the battle, and Judah tries to save the other rowers. Getting topside, he saves the consul, who has been knocked off the ship by a Macedonian soldier. Judah keeps Arrius alive, and a Roman ship picks them up. In gratitude for saving his life (in a battle that they found out the Romans actually won), Arrius brings Judah to Rome, where he adopts Judah as his son. Still wanting to find out what happened to his mother and sister, Judah returns to Judea. Upon returning to his now broken down home, he finds his former servant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet) living there. Esther and Judah had developed feelings for each other before his arrest, but she now worries that he may be too consumed with hate for their love to work. Judah goes to meet with Messala, and offers to forget his vow of vengeance if Messala finds his mother and sister within the day. Messala sends one of his men to find them in the prison, and discovers they are still alive after nearly five years but are now lepers. They are sent away to a leper colony, but stop by their old home to see if Judah had returned. Esther sees them and tells them about Judah’s return, but they make her promise not to tell Judah what had become of them. When she tells Judah that they had died, he goes off to meet Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), whom he had met on his journey back to Jerusalem. He works with the Sheik’s team of horses to help train them in preparation for the chariot races, in which he hopes to beat the current champion: Messala. He does win the race, but Messala is fatally injured during the race. Before he dies, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister are indeed alive, but have become lepers. Judah continues his downward spiral, as he now feels great anger and hate towards Rome, whom he blames for turning Messala into a monster. While all this is going on, a certain Nazarene (who once gave Judah a drink of water as he was being taken to the Roman galleys several years earlier) has been preaching a message of love and forgiveness. Will this message reach Judah’s hardened heart, or will he destroy himself as he tries to fight Rome?

In 1880, after doing much research to keep his story as authentic as possible, American Civil War General Lew Wallace published his famous novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ. The novel would become a bestseller for a long time, ranking only second to the Bible. With that popularity came stage versions and film adaptations (both authorized and unauthorized). In the 1950s, the MGM studio was struggling financially. After the success of their epic 1951 film Quo Vadis, they considered a remake of Ben-Hur (following their 1925 silent film version), but it took a few years (and a change or two in studio leadership) before the project came about. The project was given to producer Sam Zimbalist, who brought on director William Wyler, with the production to occur at Cinecitta studios in Rome. The movie ended up costing a lot more to make than had originally been budgeted (which made the studio executives nervous), but the movie ended up being quite a hit, making up for the costs (and then some), as well as winning eleven Oscars (out of the twelve it was nominated for)!

I will readily admit that I do really like this movie, and its religious elements tie into why! With the story partially following Christ from His birth to His resurrection (thereby making this both a good Christmas and Easter movie, much like the movie King Of Kings which I reviewed last year), it really does give us a possible glimpse into what it would be like for those of that time to come to Christ. This movie was still made during the time when the actors playing the role of Jesus didn’t show their face or speak in the movies (since we never see the face nor hear the voice of actor Claude Heater, who portrays Christ in this movie), but that’s really a point in its favor. Without facial expressions or the sound of his voice, Claude Heater relies more on body language to portray the Christ (not to mention the aid of the score by Miklós Rózsa). For that reason, his performance (which we are only able to see for just a few minutes) is SO much better than when we actually got a fuller view through Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal two years later with MGM’s King Of Kings, especially going into the crucifixion.

And since this movie is subtitled “A Tale Of The Christ,” we can use that to talk about how faith in and of itself is a big part of the movie. As Judah Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston gives us a wonderful performance! As a Jewish man, we see him hold onto his faith, even when things go terribly wrong. For a good part of the movie, he struggles between his faith and the hate he feels for his old friend (and for Rome). Yet this faith is enough to sustain him, so much so that Jesus gives him a drink of water on his way to the galleys (when the Romans forbid anybody to do so). And he manages to survive several years as a slave on the galleys, when others didn’t last so long. Judah’s hate almost gets the best of him, when he learns from the dying Messala that his mother and sister are alive (but have become lepers). Yet, Esther, who has listened to Jesus’ message, is able to get Judah to realize how much his hate has consumed him, and, in the process, he tries (in faith) to bring his mother and sister to Jesus, hoping to see them healed.

Of course, this being Ben-Hur, I can’t get away without mentioning one of the best sequences in this movie (and one of the most thrilling for the era): the chariot race! I do very much admire the fact that Charlton Heston did learn how to operate the chariot for the big chariot race in this movie (of course, he had a little experience on the subject from The Ten Commandments). That race (a scene that last nearly ten minutes) is worth seeing this movie for! Normally, one would expect something like that to use rear-screen projection (or, in more modern films, a green screen and CGI). But here, you have the two actors right in the midst of the action, and it makes that scene so much more effective (yes, I know they did use some stunt doubles, but the movie is edited well enough that it’s hard to tell)! Plain and simple, this is a wonderful movie, fun to watch any time of the year! So I would have no trouble whatsoever recommending this one (seriously, see it right away if you haven’t yet)!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

Film Length: 3 hours, 42 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

The Ten Commandments (1956) – Charlton Heston

Stephen Boyd – Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962)

As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you).  If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!