The reaction to the Ten Commandments

DeMille’s Ten Commandments raised issues about the cold war. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In most cases, it is difficult to determine the precise reaction of the audience to a film.  However, The Ten Commandments made such a huge impact in the United States and DeMille was such a compulsive collector of every reaction to his films that it is possible by examining his archives to gauge its influence.  DeMille’s opening statement was quoted in many film reviews across the United States.[1]  Certainly his ideas about the struggle having modern resonances were well received.  For example, the Memphis Press Scimitar wrote:

In freeing the Israelites from Egyptian oppression and he establishment of government by law as embodied in the 10 commandments veteran Producer, Director Cecil B. DeMille has seen a parallel to the great 20th Century struggles between tyranny and freedom.[2]

The Houston Texas Press noted:

The timelessness of this picture in out world where men have scaled the lengths at the same time producing our modern Pharaohs and their slaves is a lesson in faith.  It shrinks the doctorial world planners down to actual size and renews our appreciation of liberty.[3]

The Boston Independent said:

As the Israeli – Egyptian impasse invites the wisdom of Solomon to resolve it and refugees flee Soviet policed Hungary, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments which recalls the genesis of the conflict and man’s earliest struggle for freedom … It is doubtful if there could be a more apropos commentary on the world situation than the final lines spoken by Moses. ‘Go proclaim liberty, throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof.’[4]

The film was also discussed in newspaper editorials, where the Los Angeles Express saw its cold war undertones:

As a story of the downfall of tyranny and of the triumph of religious faith, it also may be source of inspiration to an anxious world.

The newspaper’s reviewer saw it in a similar vein:

It is really the story of man’s search for freedom from tyranny – which could apply right now to the cause of the Hungarians vs. the Russians.[5]

The theme of freedom triumphing over tyranny was repeated in hundreds of reviews and articles across the United States.[6]

The Ten Commandments had a tremendous impact on religious leaders across the United States.  It was released at the time of the Suez crisis and many Jewish leaders saw it as a vindication of the Israeli position.  But even Jewish religious leaders saw its cold war message of salvation.  Rabbi Irving Lehrman gave a sermon on ‘Moses – Hollywood’s Newest Hero’.  He said the spirit of Moses was needed today.

That spirit – of freedom and peace – is needed in Poland and Hungary whenever people are enslaved so that the world can be led back to the Ten Commandments and break the shackles of tyranny.

While Moses is dead his spirit lives on.  That spirit is needed today in London, Paris and Washington, so that the people of Israel battling the modern Pharaoh will have more faith and will be led from Egypt to the promised land of freedom and peace.[7]

William Lindsay Young of the National Conference of Christians and Jews wrote to producer Henry Wilcoxon:

It may well be that Cecil B. DeMille, through the production of the Ten Commandments, will stand out as one of the great prophets of the 20th century.  From out of the Judeo-Christian revelation he has drawn a clear and compelling picture of the relevance of this heritage for our day.  One sees, as in the brightness of noon, that when the spirit of freedom burns in the souls of men, no material force, no tyrant, can keep them in bondage.  In this beautiful screen production Mr DeMille has given us a lethal spiritual weapon that will have telling effect in the current worldwide struggle for the preservation of freedom.[8]

Christian leaders also saw the film’s political message.  Director of the Communications Division of the American Baptist Convention, R. Dean Goodwin, wrote to Ann Del Valle of Paramount Studios about the film’s probable reception in the USSR.  He wrote:

We who have lived all our lives within the framework of the Christian tradition and who believe in freedom and the dignity of man, and who believe in a moral code that is sanctioned by a Diving Being find it to understand a society which rejects all of this.  The governing powers in the Soviet Union could not afford to have a film viewed by Russian people in which one person stands on his God-given rights before the king, and in the name of God demands his rights and leads his people to freedom.  I found enough people in the Soviet Union who want such freedom that I must admit it would be dangerous to the established authorities to show “The Ten Commandments” anywhere in the Soviet Union.[9]

Other religious leaders saw it in a similar fashion.  Herschel Hedgpath of the Methodist Church wrote to Paramount executive Frank Freeman saying;

I believe that Paramount studios and Mr DeMille have made a lasting contribution to the thinking of our time … We need to come to grips with an understanding of the true nature of the basic Communist ideology and I think the picture in its clear analysis of the basic nature of dictatorship and freedom as opposing ideas in the rule of man does this clarification vey nicely.[10]

The comment which pleased DeMille the most was from the statesman Bernard Baruch who wrote a not to DeMille saying: ‘In the materialism of today, the production I was privileged to see last night is a spiritual uplift to those who yearn for liberty against tyrants.’  DeMille sought and got permission to use the quote in newspaper advertisements across the country.[11]

While The Ten Commandments may have been the most direct of the biblical epics in its anti-communism, the themes can be traced directly back to Samson and Delilah.  And the public did get the message.  A fan, Mrs R. M. King of Florida, wrote to Cecil B. DeMille saying:

What we Americans need is more religious pictures.  Such faith as Samson and Delilah would cause God to backfire Russia’s bomb and to rust the ‘iron curtain’.[12]

The major thrust of all these films was that an immoral empire would crumble into dust when faced with true religious determination.

Despite his ultra-conservative leanings, the political message of DeMille’s biblical films was far more subtle than the overt anti-communist films of the time.  He did not use them as vehicles for straight out anti-communist propaganda and their message of religious salvation against tyranny was eagerly accepted by the American people.  The popularity of biblical epics cannot possibly be attributed entirely to their anti-communist message.  Yet they did provide reassurance that God would protect his people in times of adversity.  Perhaps at the deepest level possible, these films reassured a worried American public.  If there was no physical defence to the threat of nuclear war and the communist hordes, then there was a spiritual defence.

The biblical epics provided a cultural mythology that assured the destruction of the communist empires.  The American people needed to be reassured that this growing threat would inevitable crumble.  While the anti-communist films had merely heightened fear and tension and created the impression that the communists were an implacable enemy, the biblical epics of the 1950s provided another depiction which showed them vulnerable to resistance based on spiritual values.  Empires without a moral basis may flourish for a while but they would wither in time because of its absence.  The image that communism was doomed, or damned, was highly reassuring to audiences.  These films advocated views which were remarkably similar to those held by the State Department Secretary John Foster Dulles and many other conservative political leaders.  The unrivalled popularity of these films in the 1950s shows that Dulles’s ideas were deeply ingrained throughout the United States.

[1] Some examples include Galveston Texas News, 7 March 1957, New York Herald Tribune, 2 October 1956, New York Journal American, 30 September 1956, Buffalo Evening News, 10 January 1957, Arizona Republican, 24 February 1957, Press-Telegram, 1 August 1957, Livermore (Calif) News, 24 December 1957, The Sunday Denver Post, 27 January 1957, 7 February 1957, Daytona Beach Morning Journal 6 February 1957, Chicago American, 20 October 1956, Indianapolis Star, 30 January 1957, Baltimore Sun, 20 October 1956, Michigan Battle Creek Enquirer and News, 10 October 1957, Detroit Independent, 25 October 1957, Tell City Independent News, 18 January 1956, The Witness, (Dubuge, Iowa), 2 January 1956, New Beacon (Mass), 16 April 1958.  Scrapbooks 171 – 188 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[2] Memphis Press Scimitar, 7 March 1957, Scrapbook 218, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[3] Houston Texas Press, 8 February 1957, ibid.

[4] Independent Boston, 21 November 1957, Scrapbook 216.

[5] Los Angeles Express, 15 November 1957, Scrapbook 214.

[6] Among other newspaper articles with similar themes were the Houston Chronicle, 7 February 1957, Houston Post, 3 February 1957, 10 February 1957, Texas Gazette, 16 July 1957, Omaha World Herald, 1 March 1957, Attica NY News, 20 December 1956, New York Herald Tribune, 4 November 1956, NY News, 11 November 1956, New York Morning Telegraph, 9 November 1956, NY Times, 11 November 1956, NY World Telegraph and Sun, 9 November 1956, Buffalo Evening News, 12 December 1956, Buffalo Courier Express, 23 October 1956, Buffalo Jewish Review, 21 December 1956, Jamestown (NY) News, 18 April 1957, Cincinnati Time-Star, 21 December 1956, Columbus Dispatch, 7 March 1957, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 26 November 1956, Newark Advocate, 14 July 1957, Bisbee Daily Review, 26 March 1958, Arizona Daily Star, 3 March 1957, Phoenix Gazette, 6 March 1957, Arkansas Gazette, 10 February 1957, LA Herald Express, 25 October 1957, LA Valley Times, 28 October 1956, Telegraph Tribune, 1 August 1957, Los Angeles Times, 5 January 1957, Los Angeles Herald Express, 15 November 1956, Datona Beach Morning Journal, 6 February 1956, Miami Herald, 16 December 1956, Florida Times-Union, 6 February 1957, Orlando Sentintal, 29 January 1957, St Petersburg Times, 26 January 1957, Pensacola Standard, 7 February 1957, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 20 January 1957, Chicago American, 21 November 1957, Evansville Courier, 26 June 1957, Indianapolis Star, 30 January 1957, Boston Sunday Herald, 12 August 1956, Christian Science Monitor, 13 November 1956, Detroit Times, 22 November 1956, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, 25 October 1957,Kansas City Star, 14 February 1957, Monroe Morning World, 4 July 1952, Boston Daily Record, 4 May 1957, New Beacon (Mass), 16 April 1958, Malden Press, 2 May 1958, Birmingham News 7 October 1956, Phoenix Gazette, 9 October 1956, and St Petersburg Times, 26 January 1957.  Derived scrapbooks in the Cecil B. DeMille archives. 

[7] Miami Herald, 16 December 1956, Box 724, Folder 21, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[8] William Lindsay Young to Henry Wilcoxon, 27 September 1956, Box 720, Folder 3, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[9] R. Dean Goodwin to Ann Del Valle, 24 October 1958, Box 720, Folder 3, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[10] Herchel H. Hedgpath to Frank Freeman, 11 January 1957, Box 720, Folder 30, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[11] Bernard M. Baruch to Cecil B. DeMille, 6 October 1956, Box 214, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.  The advertisement appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1956 and across the United States.

[12] R.M.King to Cecil B. DeMille, 10 March 1950, Box 632, Folder 4, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s