Long after I got tired of pretending that a giant rabbit had hidden a bunch of colored eggs around the house, Easter retained its savor for me because I knew that once Passover passed overhead, ABC would once again be cranking up Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 trash masterpiece, The Ten Commandments. Among filmmakers, Richard Fleischer may have been the prince of cheese, but DeMille will always be the king of cheese — nay, the king of kings of cheese — and this movie is his Gorgonzola throne. Hail Cheeser!
Is it the zippers clearly visible on the costumes from Ancient Egypt? Or the fact that the Voice of God (actually Charlton Heston’s voice with a great deal of treatment) leaves us wondering if the Almighty is ‘luded out? Is it the wristwatch clearly visible on Moses’ arm in one shot? Yea, verily, it is all these things and more. In The Ten Commandments, a score of big-name actors hit their career-worst peaks, none more so than the lead. DeMille cast Heston because of his resemblance to a Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, and Heston repaid the favor by playing Moses so stiffly that a marble statue looked supple by comparison.
But it is the dialogue — the wonderfully sculpted, thumpingly awful dialogue — that makes me love The Ten Commandments more with each viewing. The original 1923 silent version (which DeMille also directed) had plenty of spectacle, but it didn’t have that stilted, Belasco Theater sound ringing out from the screen. As Al Jolson warned at the end of the first sound flm, The Jazz Singer, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”
There are two strains of writing in this film. In the first, every line of dialogue creaks under the weight of carefully balanced, opposed images delivered with a metronomic one-two punch:
Baka: Will you lose a throne because Moses builds a city?
Rameses: The city that he builds shall bear my name, the woman that he loves shall bear my child. So let it be written, so let it be one.
Or, as a later generation of pharoahs would say: Bada-boom, bada-bing.
In the second, the characters establish a theme and spend their conversations batting it forward like hockey players during practice:
Nefretiri: You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool!
Moses: The man stupid enough to use you as a footstool isn’t wise enough to rule Egypt.
This approach reaches its pinnacle during the series of exchanges between Rameses and Dathan, which could also serve as evidence in a court of law that Noel Coward was out of town when DeMille was hiring screenwriters:
Rameses: You have a rat’s ears and a ferret’s nose.
Dathan: To use in your service, son of Pharaoh.
After giving us a couple of commercial breaks to chew over that one, the movie gives us this gem, a ball of badness glittering with almost Zen-like purity:
Rameses: Now speaks the rat that would be my ears.
Dathan: Too many ears tie a rat’s tongue.
Too many ears tie a rat’s tongue. The dialogue in The Ten Commandments is like the pure, icy cold runoff from some glacier of fatuousness hidden away in the mountains, but this gem of inscrutability conjures up images that only Max Ernst could imagine. I’ve got ten bucks that says Bob Dylan watched this scene before writing the songs on Highway 61 Revisited. In fact, all of the conversations between Rameses and Dathan could be strung together and dropped into “Desolation Row” without causing the slightest ripple in the song.
Rameses: You have rats’ ears and a ferret’s nose. Add to them the eyes of a weasel and find me this deliverer.
It should be noted that Edward G. Robinson delivers all of Dathan’s lines as though he were still in a Warner Brothers gangster movie. When Dathan is finally cast down along with the Golden Calf, one expects him to cry “Is this the end of Rico?”
Of course, he doesn’t get hit with a zinger like this:
Nefretiri: (To Ramses) You’re not a God! You’re not even less than a man!
Awwwwwghhhh, dude! I’ve seen some barside crash’n’burns on Ladies Night, when some guy’s surefire pickup line became a noose around his neck, but that one is beyond cold. And the way Anne Baxter wriggles when she says it, as if using her chin to guide the missile home to its target. The Ten Commandments is loaded with bad acting, but it is incomparably the best and most entertaining bad acting ever put on the screen.
The Ten Commandments was DeMille’s last film. The strain of directing it brought on a heart attack, and the condition — made worse when he disobeyed his doctors and finished the flick after only a brief rest — killed him a few years later. But even if he’d kept his health, how could he possibly have topped this milestone? And, more to the point — even if he had, how could anyone have endured watching it? The Ten Commandments broke the mold for a certain kind of Hollywood spectacle. Watching it, all one can do is say “Thank God,” even while staring in wonder.