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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: NOTES ON THE FILM

by Jeffrey Dane
Copyright 1999




Directed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1956


Cast
Charleton Heston, Yul Bryner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget,Vincent Price, John Carradine, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch.

Who portrayed Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS? Charlton Heston, of course. Who composed the music for the film? Who designed the Academy Award-winning special effects? Who furnished the inscriptions for the stone tablets seen in the movie - and where did the stone actually come from? Most moviegoers are more familiar with their work than with their names, but the background roles these and a host of others played in the creation and making of the film contributed significantly - not only to our enjoyment of Cecil B. DeMille's epic last film, but also to its impact and quality. Both Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille have become so identified with historical epics, and with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in particular, that the images of DeMille as a creator of biblical extravaganzas and of Heston as Moses have become indelibly linked.

What's most obvious, by its nature, often escapes our attention. Though DeMille's film clearly has a spiritual theme and humanitarian overtones, it is not "religion" per se. It is entertainment, but with a sincere, heartfelt and significant message. That message is as valid now as it was four decades ago when the film was made - and by extension, as unabated as when the real patriarch of the Old Testament actually lived.

Certainly by implication and almost by definition, The Ten Commandments has a stronger connection to Hebraic culture and history than do most other films in that genre. It's no accident that this film was DeMille's magnum opus. The spiritual message in his biblical-subject films was deeply felt by him throughout his career, and it manifested itself not only in his work but also in the deeds and conduct of his life. He read the Bible almost daily and their stories colored his outlook. Though professionally a stern taskmaster who could treat peers with severity and sometimes even brutally, he also admired honesty and treated underlings with dignity and generosity. His proclivity for making biblical-subject films was a feature of his professional life, and by design he'd arrange crowd scenes, particularly around holidays, so that actors would have work and income. These are not the marks of a man devoid of goodness of spirit.

Visually, the Red Sea sequence depicting the parting of the waters was arguably the most moving in the entire film. Certainly it was the most skillfully done and "realistic" in terms of special cinematic effects. The appearance of the dense "clouds" in the sky was accomplished by producing brit smoke which was then optically tinted and darkened, and superimposed into the appropriate shots. The pillar of fire that barred the Egyptians' way was animated - as was the fire atop Mt.Sinai, which represented God's presence and which, with photographic flash powder, burned the inscriptions into the stone. Twice in the film we hear a voice representing God's. In both cases the voice was of course sonically modified for purposes of drama and impact. The voice heard at the giving of the law on Mt.Sinai was that of the late basso- profundo, Delos Jewkes. The voice heard at the burning bush, however, was provided by Charlton Heston himself. Mr. Heston confirmed this in a personal letter to the author, who had queried the actor about it for verification. Though hindsight is easy, in retrospect the delivery and inflections of speech do identify the voice as Mr. Heston's. One need only listen carefully during that sequence in the film to hear this. That more than one such voice was used in the film seems to correspond to the multiplicity of people's spiritual views.

It may be more than coincidence that DeMille began and ended his survey of historical themes with the same biblical subject. When his first (silent) version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was made in 1923 (with Theodore Roberts as Moses) at the then-staggering cost of $1.3 million, it was generally believed DeMille had taken grandiose leave of his senses, but the film broke every attendance record in existence and actually inspired a number of young men to become rabbis, priests and ministers. The re-make of the film more than three decades later officially cost Paramount Studios $13,282,712.35. John P. Fulton, who had also worked on the 1923 film, won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the later version. That it was the only Oscar that went to THE TEN COMMANDMENTS that year was a keen disappointment to DeMille - but there can be a balance without symmetry: when we're asked to think of a biblical film, what easily comes to mind first is THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Though DeMille had some Hebraic ancestry he was not of Jewish upbringing per se, but the traditional Hebraic propensities for a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge were reflected in his penchant for authenticity in his films. In keeping with this principle he retained a research staff at Paramount Studios, and engaged men of the cloth from various religions as technical advisors on THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

Significantly, he even made special arrangements to have stone tablets cut from the red granite of a peak known in that area today as Jebel Musa (in Arabic, "Mountain of Moses"): Mt.Sinai itself. The tablets, which DeMille kept in his office for a time after the film's completion, are about 21" long, 11" wide and 1" in thickness. This was corroborated in a letter to the author by Henry Noerdlinger, chief of DeMille's research staff. Bearing little similarity to what we recognize today as Hebrew but having a strong resemblance to the ancient and angular Phoenician alphabet (roughly contemporary with the Canaanite era and written only with consonants and no vowels), the symbols on the tablets were written for the film by Dr. Ralph Marcus of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the University of Chicago. Music contributes to our enjoyment of a film more than most of us can imagine, and in the impact THE TEN COMMANDMENTS has on us, the unseen role composer Elmer Bernstein plays can't be understated. We can easily determine just how important the music is in the film, particularly in the opening credits, where music not only sets the mood but actually primes the viewer for the entire feature. Running the film without sound during these opening credits will prove the point.

Elmer Bernstein, left, with the author.
Cecil B. DeMille's favorite composer in Hollywood was Victor Young, who died in 1956. Had his health not been failing, it's certain he would have scored THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Any number of composers in Hollywood could have done so but Demille had an interest in the young Bernstein, fostered by Victor Young's recommendation. Conjecture is fruitless but still fascinating: had Young composed the score, The Ten Commandments would have been a different film from the one we know. Bernstein acknowledges he planned his score in keeping with the kind of music he knew DeMille wanted for his films.

Said Elmer Bernstein about his score at the time of his association with Demille, "...It was a very complex problem since the composition had to express scripture, history and drama in music. The score is composed of symphonic themes identifying momentous events and significant personages as well as the great mass of people through whose trials and triumphs history moves ... I hope that it also helps to suggest the lasting truth of the film's inspired message..." Bernstein later re-recorded the score in stereo for LP discs. He thereby fulfilled a prophecy made by Demille himself, who during the preparation of the original score had told the composer he would someday have occasion to perform and record this music again. Demille's comment was touchingly foretelling: "Your music will surely outlive me, and possibly even yourself."

The links in the chain that binds us to the world's history generally, and to our cultural history in particular, seem larger and stronger when we realize with a special immediacy that those who lived and died thirty three centuries ago were as alive then as we are today.


The Author: Jeffrey Dane is a historian, researcher and journalist whose work is published in the USA and abroad in several languages. In having met both Elmer Bernstein and Charlton Heston, he feels the pleasure of a more direct connection to The Ten Commandments than many moviegoers. His book, BEETHOVEN'S PIANO, was published by NY's Museum of the American Piano.

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