It’s the quintessential Easter movie and here are some things you may not know about it
IDAHO FALLS – For many families, the Easter celebration is not complete without the annual re-watch of the 1956 Cecil B. Demille masterpiece, “The Ten Commandments.”
The three-and-a-half-hour saga tells the story of the Biblical prophet, Moses, and his role in leading the Israelites to freedom after years of enslavement under Egyptian rule. At a budget of $13 million, it was the most expensive film up to that time and went on to gross more than $80 million at the box office, according to author Marc Eliot.
As Eliot writes in his 2017 book about the film’s leading man, it became “the highest-grossing live-action film of the first seven years of the 1950s.”
The role of Moses made Charlton Heston a star and several years later, he was cast in “Ben-Hur,” another Biblically-themed film that would earn him an Oscar for Best Actor.
Nearly every year since 1973, “The Ten Commandments” has been part of ABC’s primetime lineup on or around Easter. The TV ratings guide reports last Saturday’s airing of the film had higher ratings in that timeslot than competing networks NBC and CBS. Still, its .33 rating was lower than last year’s showing of .47.
Regardless, it’s a film that continues to have an impact on audiences all these decades later.
Emotionally invested in the film’s theme
Eliot reports Heston read the entire Old Testament in preparation for this role and he spoke endlessly about his fascination with Moses to his wife and fellow actors, which annoyed them. As the film’s production neared completion, Heston expressed how the role affected him in a journal entry published in Eliot’s book.
“All of it was strange and wonderful and awesome,” Heston wrote. “To stand on the peak of Sinai was a deeply moving experience for me … All the Mosaic literature I’m working through, all the times I’ve read the script, mean little compared to the weeks I spent wearing Moses’ clothes and breathing the air he knew.”
Heston wasn’t the only person emotionally invested in the film. DeMille, the film’s director, was drawn to the plot’s central theme of freedom amid a tumultuous time.
The Red Scare was on everyone’s mind during the 1950s and Congress had formed the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate people and organizations suspected of having Communist ties. Hollywood was a target.
DeMille, an American patriot and devout Christian, felt the time was right for a remake of the silent film version of “The Ten Commandments” he’d made three decades earlier. It had been a hit with moviegoers then and he saw an opportunity to give it a fresh take while sharing a timely message.
“The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator,” DeMille says during the introduction of “The Ten Commandments” remake. “Are men the property of the state? Or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”
Studio heads were skeptical at first, but ultimately approved the project.
“He assured the studio his film would have broad appeal,” Eliot writes in his book. “Once the film was green-lighted and DeMille started preproduction, he began to suffer anxiety attacks about what would happen to his legacy if the film failed at the box office.”
His concerns turned out to be unwarranted, but the project still had its setbacks.
Numerous takes on various sequences, such as the Israelite exodus, delayed the project, increasing production costs. His failing health also played a role. He suffered a major heart attack, requiring hospitalization and several months of recovery. DeMille handed over the reins to his assistant director to finish the shoot.
“On August 13, 1955, after a total of 161 days, nearly six times the amount it normally took to make a studio feature, Edward Salven (the asst. director) called it a wrap,” Eliot writes.
The film’s legacy
“The Ten Commandments” remains a landmark film more than 65 years after its release. Its depiction of the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea are iconic scenes in cinema. Even with all its spectacle, The Deseret News pointed out its numerous historical inaccuracies in 2010.
“The second half of the film is on much firmer biblical ground. Tellingly, when ‘The Ten Commandments’ runs on American network television every spring, the ratings invariably increase as the film progresses,” writes Eliot.
Still, Heston’s face is what comes to mind for many who read the Biblical tale and the Israelite’s deliverance from bondage, as depicted in DeMille’s epic, is one of the world’s most recognizable religious narratives.
DeMille, who died nearly three years after the film’s release, noted the religious significance of Moses’ story during a commencement address at Brigham Young University in 1957.
“Like mighty rivers flowing from a single source, all the great religions of the Western world stem from Moses,” DeMille said. “On their broad streams, they carry the precious cargo of their different traditions — but they all share in a common reverence for the Law of God revealed through Moses.”