There has to be some degree of irony to a film called The Ten Commandments, since one of those commandments says “make no graven images,” and this film does sort of count as one long graven image. Or am I completely off base?
Either way, this is one of those completely “review-proof” films, where any attempt to analyze or criticize it as you would a normal film. For people who love this film, the basic standards of filmmaking are utterly without relevance to their enjoyment of it. Sure, by our definition of what constitutes a good movie, impresario Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic is an overacted, overwrought potboiler, but saying so leaves you feeling like a spoilsport, if not a bloody heathen.
I won’t bother with recounting the basic plot of this movie. If you are somehow unfamiliar with it, crack open the Book of Exodus and start reading. However, much of the first half of this story still won’t seem that familiar. Despite DeMille’s claims at the beginning of this film, I sincerely doubt that any of the historical sources he supposedly consulted contained any of this melodramatic tale of palace and romantic intrigue.
Frankly, I found the first two hours of this film to be the most entertaining. Before the burning bush, DeMille was relatively free to tell his own story. Yes, it’s all sword and sandal soap opera, but it is enjoyable.
After the intermission, however, the film switches gears, morphing from soap opera to a portentous Easter pageant. Hemmed in by the biblical sources, the film moves from set piece to set piece of the Exodus story with pedantic, uninspired, almost ceremonial dutifulness. Dialogue is replaced by pious proclamations and the film grinds to a complete halt during the Exodus scene, as literally tens of thousands of extras pour down the Avenue of the Sphinxes and into the desert. This scene is spectacular and beautifully staged, but it drags on and on until it seems longer than the period of slavery itself.
Of course, DeMille never did anything small and his ambitions for this film were nothing less than grandiose. Still, it’s hard not to roll your eyes when DeMille proclaims the Exodus story as the “birth of freedom,” as if no other people were enslaved and unhappy about it, and when he tries to link the Hebrew struggle for freedom to the then-current conflict against communism.
As you can probably guess, this is not my kind of movie, but I can at least admire the ambition and the level of craft visible on screen. The art direction and staging is genuinely eye-popping, while Yul Brenner manages to exceed the constrictions of his role as the pharaoh Ramses and give a charismatic performance. Charleton Heston, at least before the burning bush, is able to flesh out the early “Egyptian” Moses before vanishing behind increasingly fake beards and booming assertations of God’s will.
In short, The Ten Commandments is The Ten Commandments. Its uniqueness makes comparing it to other films rather pointless. You either like this kind of thing or you don’t.