The Ten Commandments (1956) – part two

DeMille directs Brynner in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The Ten Commandments focused on the spiritual strength of the Israelites which eventually overpowered the military might of the Egyptian empire.  The film opened with scenes of clouds and the narrator saying:

And God said let there be light and behold, there was light.  And from this light, God created life on earth.  And man was given dominion over all things.  And the power to chose between good and evil.  But each sought to do his own will, because he saw not the light of god’s law.  Man took dominion over man.  The conquered were made to serve and conqueror.  The weak were made to sere the strong and freedom was gone from the earth.[1]

The film then moved to a scene of endless lines of Hebrew slaves dragging massive blocks across the ground with Egyptian guards cracking whips.  The Egyptians were cruel and vicious toward their Jewish slaves.  No end existed to the plight of the Israelites.  In one scene the narrator said of the Jewish slaves:

Day after day, year after year, century after century, bondage without rest, toil without reward, these are the children of misery, the afflicted, the helpless and the oppressed.[2]

Joshua, played by John Derek, asked his girlfriend, ‘Is life in bondage better than death’ and Sayre pointed out that it echoed the phrase, ‘Better dead than red.’[3]  The phrase was repeated throughout the film.

The film detailed the rise of Moses who became the deliverer of the Jews.  To escape being killed by the Egyptians, who were hunting for the famed infant deliverer, his mother placed him in a basket on the Nile.  The basket floated down the Nile and was eventually picked up by the childless Pharaoh’s childless daughter who adopted him.  He was favourite and seemed certain to take the throne upon his death.[4]  He eventually learned of his Hebrew background, renounced his Egyptian past and was forced to become a slave building the pyramids.  Moses could not stand the poor treatment and fought with an Egyptian overseer after which he was banished to die in the desert.

In the desert, Moses attained great spiritual wisdom and power and then returned to Egypt.  He gave a demonstration of his new powers and demanded that the new Pharaoh ‘let my people go.’  DeMille wrote in his autobiography that when Moses stood before the Pharaoh and said the ‘divine demand’, it was a depiction of the same forces that ‘confront one another in the world today.’[5]  When Rameses refused, Moses prophesied that seven plagues would visit upon Egypt.  The Pharaoh scoffed at Moses and his prophesies and Egypt was then subjected to one plague after another.  After suffering the seven plagues, the Pharaoh still refused to let the Jews leave Egypt.  He announced to his soldiers that the first born of every Jewish family should die.  Before he could act, Moses prophesied that an Angel of Death would visit Egypt killing the first born of every family.  The Jewish people were saved by dabbing lamb’s blood over their doors.  Every first born child died including the son of the Pharaoh.  The distraught Pharaoh finally succumbed to this overwhelming pressure to let the Jewish slaves go free.  In the response Moses says:

Tomorrow we go forth a free nation, where every man shall reap what they shall sow, where no man may kneel except in prayer …[6]

With phrases like ‘free nation’, and ‘reap what they will sow’ the links are made between the Israelites and the Americans.  The Pharaoh, on the other hand, sounded like a Marxist when he snapped, ‘You prophets make the Gods, so that they may prey on the minds of men.’[7]

After the Israelites had begun their walk towards the promised land, the Egyptian Pharaoh decided that he wanted to destroy them.  He sent out his magnificent army in pursuit of the defenceless Jews.  The famous climax of the film had Moses dividing the Red Sea while the Egyptians were held back by a pillar of fire.  The fire subsided and the army chased the fleeing Israelites across the floor of the Red Sea.  When the lase Jew had crossed the Red Sea, the waters were sent crushing in on the Egyptian Army and all were destroyed.  Rameses returned back to his palace, shattered, bewildered and beaten.  He slumped into his throne and said ‘Their god is God.’  The slaves had defeated the masters.

The rest of the film was an anti-climax after the Red Sea scenes.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai to accept the ten commandments.  He found when he retuned that his people had begun following some pagan religious sect.  God’s punishment was swift and merciless, as Moses hurled the ten commandments at the idolaters and set off an earthquake which engulfed the pagan worshippers.  One of the strongest themes of these films was that those who did not follow God’s rules would be punished.  The Israelites were forced to wander for forty years before finding their promised land.

The film concluded by Moses dying with the promised land in sight.  Actor Charlton Heston noted that the last line ‘Go proclaim liberty throughout all the lands unto the inhabitants thereof,’ were the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell.[1]  The bell was a treasured relic of the American Revolution which was rung on 8 July 1776 to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  DeMille was trying to create a direct link between the struggles of the Israelites and the American War of Independence in the minds of the audience.  From the first scene to the last, DeMille was using the story of Exodus as a modern political statement.

The Ten Commandments was a remake of his highly successful 1923 film, yet there are significant differences between the films.  The original film told the story of Exodus as a prologue to the main feature which focused on the importance of the commandments in daily life.  The 1923 version also contained the Christian message of redemption for sinners which the 1956 version lacked.


[1] Transcribed interview with Charlton Heston, 16 August 1955, Box 12, Folder 18, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.  The phrase is from Leviticus 25:10.

[1] Ten Commandments (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Aeanas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jnr., Jack Garris, Frederic M. Frank

[2] ibid.

[3] Nora  Sayre, Running Time, p. 204.

[4] DeMille was scrupulous in his research on The Ten Commandments and the idea of Moses being a Pharaoh has recently been raised by historian Ahmen Osman in Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt: The Mystery of Ankehenaten Resolved, Paladin, London, 1990.

[5] Hayne, Autobiography, p. 377.

[6] Ten Commandments op cit.

[7] ibid.

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