Friday, April 1, 2016

Charlton Talks to God

The Ten Commandments (1956) was featured as this month's Fathom Events screening for TCM Presents, celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the film's release.  Starring Charlton Heston as Moses, the film also features its director, Cecil B. DeMille, the narrative voice of the movie.  At the time of its release, The Ten Commandments was the most expensive film ever produced (costing over $13 million), as well as being DeMille's most successful film.  It was also DeMille's final film. He would die three years later, at the age of 77. 

This screening showed the film as it was originally released, with an overture, end music and introduction by the director (as well as a 10 minute intermission.  With a running time of 220 minutes, that break was welcome) In his introduction, DeMille informs us that, as much of Moses' early life is not discussed in The Holy Scriptures (as the titles call The Bible), the film goes to the works of Josephus and Philo to fill in the missing period.  (You can see that introduction just below).   The film is reverent in its treatment of the story, and DeMille really wants the audience to understand that care that was taken in creating an accurate telling of the story of Moses.
Charlton Heston is perfect in the role of Moses - and it's hard to envision anyone else in the part (When DeMille did it as a silent film, in 1923, the part of Moses was played by Theodore Roberts, an actor who appeared in 23 films for DeMille, but did not transition to talkies).  According to the  AFI Catalog notes some sources claim that William Boyd ("Hopalong" Cassidy) had been DeMille's first choice for the part, though DeMille's autobiography stated otherwise.  It's been said that Heston's resemblance to the Michaelangelo Moses was the impetus for his selection.  You can judge for yourself from the images below.
Charlton Heston had already worked with DeMille - in the circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), for which DeMille won the Best Picture Oscar (beating High Noon and The Quiet Man).  The Ten Commandments really pushed Heston into the star category, a status that Ben Hur would solidify when he won the Best Actor Oscar three years later.  Heston's magnificent speaking voice gives the character of Moses great power (though, it should be noted that the Moses of the Bible was not a good speaker, and asked God to allow his brother Aaron to do the speaking for him) and served him well in his lengthy and varied career.  Though best knows as the star of epics like this one, he worked in science fiction (Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes),  westerns (The Big Country), comedies (Wayne's World) and even Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra - the latter of which he adapted for the screen and directed).  In the 1980's, Heston segued into episodic television, as the star of the Dynasty spinoff, The Colbys (which briefly co-starred Barbara Stanwyck).  He was married to his wife, Lydia Clark for 44 years; they had two children, Fraser and Holly.  (Fraser made his screen debut (and only on screen appearance) in The Ten Commandments, age 3 months, as the baby Moses.  Fraser was cast en utero, several months before the sequences were scheduled to be shot.)  When Charlton Heston discovered in 2002 that he was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, he retired.  He died in 2008.
With an unbelievably large and impressive cast: Yul Brynner as Rameses II, Yvonne De Carlo as Moses' wife, Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Derek as Joshua, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Martha Scott as Yochabel, Judith Anderson as Memnet, it is hard to pick just a few to discuss.  We particularly enjoyed Vincent Price as the oily and lecherous Baka, The Master Builder.  He made a fine contrast to Edward G. Robinson as his equally lecherous, but far more sinister successor, Dathan.

Anne Baxter, as Nefretiri, however, was a huge disappointment.  Baxter can be a powerful actress, but uncontrolled, she can overact to the rafters.  This was one of the latter performances.   In one scene, where she is supposedly seducing Moses, she turns AWAY from him, eyes wide and smoldering, and instead tries to seduce the camera.  Interestingly, she was not DeMille's first choice for the part - he had in fact considered Audrey Hepburn, but decided her bust was too small for the wardrobe he envisioned for Nefretiri.  This Huffington Post article has some further tidbits of information.

According to this TCM article, Yul Brynner got the part of Ramses between acts of The King and I, and Yvonne de Carlo was hired based on her appearance Sombero.  DeMille was screening it to see Nina Foch; he ended up casting both women based on the 1953 film.

The special effects in the film are of varying quality.  Let's not forget, this is the pre-Industrial Light and Magic era, so special effects look clunky to modern eyes.  Of course, the most famous (and best) effect in the film is the parting of the Red Sea, a complicated process that involved lots of water, reversing of a filmed flood, and a great deal of post processing.  This article provides more detail on the processes used.  Less successful is the use of animation for the burning bush, and for the writing of the tablets of the 10 commandments.  It unfortunately looks animated - and bad animation at that.  DeMille should have talked to Walt Disney before he tried it!

An interesting historical note concern's DeMille's efforts at publicity for the film, including the "donation" of Ten Commandment stone plaques to  government buildings across the United States (this NPR report discusses the civil liberties issues involved in the display of these religious items on government facilities).  The repercussions of this publicity stunt continued for over 50 years.

I'll leave you with the trailer for this film.  All caveats aside, it's an impressive film that got a well-deserved big screen showing.  Perhaps one day, it will be shown in double feature with DeMille's 1923 silent version of the story (it would be a VERY long double feature!)