Holidays are often a time in which we turn to religious and family tradition, and spring holidays are no exception. One of the most popular Easter and Passover traditions in the United States is the annual broadcast of the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. After nearly sixty years, the film remains an example of groundbreaking cinema that is beloved by families across the nation and world. In keeping with tradition, this week I’ll be discussing five reasons that The Ten Commandments is a film which truly defines the meaning of the term ‘classic’.
|Behold, the power of the makeup department|
1. SPECTACULAR EFFECTS: While CGI has become practically a requirement of modern films, during the 1950’s film-makers were forced to rely upon a combination of early technology and personal ingenuity in order to create on-screen illusions. At the time of its production, The Ten Commandments was charged with the daunting task of bringing the supernatural events and miracles of the scriptures to life. One way that film-makers achieved this feat was by using the established camera trick of showing film sequences in reverse. In order to create the illusion of the infamous parting of the Red Sea, footage of the crew flooding a large dump tank was shown in reverse, which made it appear as though the water was pulling apart rather than flowing together. Similarly, when Moses transforms a stick into a snake, footage was spliced and sped up in order to make it appear as though the stick was actually coming to life. During the burning bush and hail storm sequences, film-makers made a bold choice in using animation to create the desired effects and blending it against the live-action background. Through the use of established props and camera manipulations, the film-makers were able to create a groundbreaking piece of cinema that was truly worthy of its epic subject.
2. A COMPLICATED HERO: Given the fact that its protagonist is a biblical hero, one would expect that the film would portray Moses (Charlton Heston) as larger than life in both his presence and actions. Instead of a flawless hero, however, the film portrays the prince turned slave turned prophet as an average man trying to cope with a life that is full of unusual circumstances. For instance, during his reign as prince of Egypt, Moses is sympathetic to the Hebrew slaves he rules, but never questions the ethics of slave owning. During this time Moses remains loyal to his adoptive father, Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), even though he is all too aware of Sethi’s ruthlessness to his slaves and subjects. He also makes a questionable choice in his romance with the vain and selfish princess, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), who proves herself to be even more calculating than any of Egypt’s male rulers. Later, when he learns of his Hebrew heritage, he also behaves in an all too-human manner by refusing to take action against Sethi and maintaining the title of prince while secretly living amongst his countrymen, thus allowing himself the opportunity to return to the privileges of his former life if he chooses. It is not until Moses receives his first vision from God that he becomes the deliverer that his fellow Hebrews so desperately need and his adoptive family so greatly fears. Through the initial portrayal of Moses as an average man, the script allows him to grow as a character as he evolves into the hero of the Bible. This approach in turn makes his character more relatable, believable, and engaging for audiences.
|Today a shrink's field day. Then, an average family|
3. AN EQUALLY COMPLEX VILLAIN: In most religious epics, the lines between good and evil are far more broad and clear than they ever are in real life. As a result, it is surprising that The Ten Commandments chose to color its villain, Rameses (Yul Brynner), with such grey areas. At the film’s start, Rameses is shown to be participating in the same life of luxury as his adoptive brother, Moses, but with far fewer privileges. While Rameses is Sethi’s biological son, he is consistently subjected to slights and rejection as Sethi continually shows his favor for Moses. As a result, Rameses is forced to compete with Moses for all of the things that would otherwise have been given to him as his birthright; favor in the family, marriage to Nefretiri, and his position as the next ruler of Egypt. The massive stakes at play turn what would otherwise have been a tense sibling rivalry into a full on battle for Rameses as he struggles to make his own life and establish his own identity independent of his much preferred sibling. By showing the family dynamic that Moses and Ramses were raised in, the film allows viewers to understand the feelings of rejection and inadequacy that drive Ramsees to succeed against his brother at all costs. As a result, the film provides Rameses with genuine motivation behind his actions rather than reducing him to a cardboard villain who commits heinous acts simply because the plot requires him to.
4. TOUGH BROADS: Although the 1950’s are today known as a time in which women were relegated to secondary roles and expected to be demure, The Ten Commandments defies stereotypical expectations of its time and instead displays an array of strong, self-sufficient, female characters. At the film’s start, Sethi orders all male Hebrew infants be turned over to his police and executed in order to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy of a deliverer growing up to free the Hebrew people from slavery. Even though they know that they are risking their lives by doing so, Moses’ biological mother, Yochabel (Martha Scott), and sister, Miriam (Babette Bain), hide him and transport him down the Nile river to safety. Although she is risking far less, Moses’ adoptive mother, Bithiah (Nina Foch), also defies social norms when she chooses to raise him as her own son despite the fact that she is aware of his Hebrew heritage. When he grows up, Moses is forced to choose between two equally independent women; Egyptian princess Nefretiri and Bedouin shepherdess Sephora (Yvonne DeCarlo). Although she has been promised as the bride of the next pharaoh since birth, Nefretiri remains determined to marry the husband of her own choosing and uses her position to manipulate the Egyptian royal court into bestowing the crown upon Moses instead of Rameses. When Nefretiri’s servant, Memnet, confronts her with Moses’ heritage, she even goes so far as to commit murder in order to protect the man she loves. Later, when Moses has returned as a prophet, Nefretiri spitefully uses her wiles against him and manipulates Rameses’ to eliminate both Moses and the cause that he has abandoned her for. While she does not possess Nefretiri’s cunning, Sephora is equally strong willed. For instance, while her sisters frivolously concern themselves with their looks and ability to attract men, Sephora acts as their father’s right-hand woman by protecting the family’s flocks and managing their care. When her sisters put themselves on display by dancing before the local sheikhs in hopes of attracting Moses’ affections, Sephora scorns their degrading behavior and spends her night watching the flocks. It is this self-respect and independent thinking that, combined with her honesty and warmth, eventually leads Moses to choose Sephora over both her many sisters and Nefretiri.
5. A STRONG SUPPORTING CAST: At the time of its release, The Ten Commandments was advertised as having a “cast of thousands”. While that moniker might be an exaggeration, the film does possess a talented cast made up of many excellent supporting players. In their respective roles as ambitious informant Dathan and merciless overseer Baka, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price provide the film with a pair of wonderfully detestable villains, who nearly steal the film from the leads each time that they appear on screen. Similarly, Judith Anderson’s Memnet is nearly as chilling as her infamous Mrs. Danvers, as she uses her influence to cleverly maneuver through court in order to prevent Moses’ rise to power. John Derek and Debra Paget are truly tragic in their roles as doomed lovers Joshua and Lilia, adding poignancy to the plight of the oppressed Hebrews. Through the combined skill of its supporting and leading cast, the film overcomes a sometimes clunky script to create a series of performances that are nothing short of epic.
|Where's your messiah now?!|