Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Retro Review: The Ten Commandments

Personally, I am an old movie buff. Even though old movies acting and effects are nowhere near what we can put on the screen today, they still tell excellent stories and gives a glimpse into the world as it was way back then. This is part of the reason I tend to appreciate them so much as compared to some modern films which don't do the era they are set in justice I think.

Recently, I was able to watch the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments on Netflix.

That film is epic, which tells not only its own innovative story of the Exodus, but is epic in scope and scale of story telling regarding the life of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Israelites. It also draws influence from novels like Dorothy Clark Wilson's Prince of Egypt, Joseph Ingraham's Pillar of Fire, and On Eagle's Wings by Arthur Eustace Southton. Not only that, it draws on historical sources like Philo's Life of Moses and the works of Josephus. This provides a rich background to draw characters and inspiration from in order to craft a grand narrative to tell a new story of Moses. Largely filling in the 'forgotten years' between Moses exile and return to Egypt.

The casting though, is spot on.

A younger Charlton Heston (with pectoral muscles which could put eyes out) captures a young, outgoing, and brash image of Moses who has been raised by Egyptians. His performance as the film rolls on and he undergoes a transformation from honorable, but driven and intriguing prince, to a devout holy man with a mission to free his people. His penchant for chewing the scenery is fantastic in my opinion and he can be perfectly over the top as necessary.

The second character I noticed was Vincent Price as Baka, an Egyptian overseer who goes from faithful assistant to Moses, to card carrying villain. The man whose voice I remember from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo as a kid, plays an excellent and sinister character on screen. Though admittedly this is a tiny role, it fills me with great amusement.

Bigger roles of course are those of Rameses (Yul Brynner), Nefritiri (Anne Baxter), Joshua (John Derek), Aaron (John Carradine), Lilia (Debra Paget), Yochabel (Martha Scott) and Bithia (Nina Foch). Each of these actors is well cast to their parts, and the female leads are all amazing in their performances.

I think that for a 1950s film, the agency and drama it grants to women is admirable. The roles of Nina Foch as Bithia and Martha Scott as Yochabel both are allowed to shape and drive Moses while holding some agency of their own. Though this is primarily in the form of protecting and nurturing their biological and adoptive son, it is a good role regardless. Nefritiri, whose scheming and agency drives much of the plot is a fantastic character, for both her tragic backstory and her desire for vengeance. Unfortunately, the character Lila falls into the "damsel in distress" category as Joshua's love interest.

While the film would soundly and swiftly fail a modern Betchel Test, it is fair for its day in the 1950s in giving its female characters more voice.

The Biblical epic though, unfolds roughly similar to the original story in the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh, fearing that the people of Judah will become too populous, orders the massacre of every firstborn males of the Hebrews. Yochabel, seeking to protect her son, sets him adrift in the river. He is saved and adopted by Bithia, daughter of Pharaoh.

Years pass, the Hebrews suffer, but Moses (named so by Bithia) is raised in luxury. Prince Moses quickly becomes the favorite of Pharaoh Sethi, to the jealously of his son Prince Rameses. This kicks off the plot as Rameses is charged to build a great city to honor Sethi, but his cruelty slows production. Meanwhile, Moses has won a great victory over Ethiopia, earning acclaim. However, he covets Pharaoh's daughter Nefritiri, who Rameses also covets. When Moses is sent to build Sethi's great city, Rameses schemes against him. Moses however, sees the plight of the Hebrews, and tries to aid them. In the process, he learns of his Hebrew parentage and has a crisis of conscience. In doing so he decides to forgo his Egyptian heritage and live among the slaves.

Here is where part of the film felt contrived for me. In the Book of Exodus, (and the great adaptation, The Prince of Egypt) Moses kills an Egyptian overseer, so he must flee. Here, the same thing happens but in a far more contrived way. Despite being told repeatedly that only Pharaoh may free slaves, and with his path to becoming Pharaoh secure, Moses decides to forgo power and live amongst the Hebrews to know his heritage. Instead of using the path laid out for him to free his people and become an enlightened ruler, he decides to take the hard and stupid way. Moses from this movie doesn't seem too bright in this moment.

It gets worse when because of this bad decision he is captured and accused of being "the Deliverer" whom the Hebrews speak of taking them out of bondage. Rameses has him exiled, showing a great deal of bad judgement himself, and Moses wanders the desert until he comes to the tribe of Jethro, and meets his daughter Sephora.

From here the narrative leaves the contrivance train and we get to the big symbols of the burning bush, Moses receiving his staff and getting all woolly haired and wild eyed, and his return to Egypt.

In is at this point that the movie begins playing to its strengths. While the acting and story telling in the first half of the movie is superb (save for Moses being something of an idiot) the narrative shines forth to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt quite well.

The plagues are carried out as well as can be expected with 50s special effects, which is to say remarkably well at points. They manage to show the turning of the Nile to blood, the flaming hail, and a truly creepy rendition of the Angel of Death coming into Egypt. That last scene is tense, disturbing, and truly enjoyable.

The special effects too, are stunning for the time. Showing off the great accomplishments in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the tempest of God as a pillar of fire, and the burning bush. There was a reason this was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made.

When one considers that by and large this was accomplished through practical effects and with large groups of extras, the coordination is even more impressive. In the penultimate scene where Rameses chases the Jews to the Red Sea, the armies of Pharaoh are actually being played by the Egyptian Army! Which is pretty great in my humble opinion.

At the time this was one of the most expensive movies ever produced. When one considers the budgets many movies get now and the results that delivers, it should be obvious that directors could learn a thing or two from old movies.

The film is of course something of a morality tale. Nefritiri is something of a "Vamp" who uses her feminine wiles to confuse and misguide the men in her life, and is influenced by first her lust, then hatred for Moses. That the story is from the Book of Exodus is fitting since it is the triumph of the Christian God over the gods of Egypt. Moses more questionable decisions come from a clear intent of following an honor code.

Definitely old fashioned in its message, The Ten Commandments is a spectacle that shouldn't be missed, however. The films scenes of Biblical epics and amazing effects for the 50s stand true today. The acting is grand, the story holds up as timeless, and the film itself is a deserved epic. If the long view time puts you off, it comes with a natural intermission to pause at for a little while if you're not up for seeing the whole thing in one sitting.

Well worth seeing as an excellent Retro Film. Personally, I'm looking forward to recommending many more for you!

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