Ten Commandments, The (1956): DeMille’s Last Movie, Bombastic Biblical Epic

the_ten_commandments_posterUA (Michael Todd Inc.)

“The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. De Mille’s last feature (he died in January 1959), is arguably his best work–it is his most extravagant film, displaying his signature narrative and visual strategies of the past four decades.

Shot on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and other places, the film was DeMille’s last and most successful work. It is a partial remake of his 1923 silent (of the same title), boasting one of the largest sets ever created for a film.



At the time of its release, November 8, 1956, it was the most expensive film ever made.

the_ten_commandments_5_hestonThe picture’s all-star cast includes. Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, H.B. Warner, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John

Carradine, and Woody Strode as the king of Ethiopia.

The epitome of kitsch, “Ten Commandments” is full of the absurdities vulgarities, and excessiveness that one expects of a DeMille work.

Not surprisingly, the biblical epos is based on a shallow, often preposterous scenario, co-written by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr. and Jack Gariss, It is based on several sources: The Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Pilar of Fire by the reverend J.H. Ingraham, and On Eagle’s Wings by the reverend G.E. Southon.  Additional subplots and characters derive from the biblical ancient texts of Josephus, Eusebius, Philo, and even the Midrash.

Size matters: This grand-scale epic stars the muscular Charlton Heston as Moses, chosen by God to lead his fellow Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The flight from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and Moses’ receiving of the Commandments are highlights.

the_ten_commandments_4Critics often single two or three big scenes, one of which is the exodus itself, with huge aerial shots.  But there are some  compelling dialogue scenes, as the one that describes Hardwicke’s Sethi, confronted by the unchained Moses, hands the succession to Yul Brynner’s Rameses.

As a remake of De Mille’s own 1923 silent picture of the same title, it benefits from the technology of the times it was made by way of special effects.  Viewers went to see the picture multiple times in order to experience the parting of the Red Sea.

That said, some elements of the production design are still striking and the color scheme is particularly ravishing.  Here is a spectacle that exhibits not so much DeMille the director as De Mille the circus showman.  To his credit, DeMille truly believed in this style of filmmaking and the movie shows more than anything else his obsessive righteousness.

the_ten_commandments_2The movie is bombastic and pretentious too, what with DeMille’s introduction and own narration. Known for his meticulous attention to detail, DeMille reportedly spent over three weeks shooting the orgy scene alone. Yet, the spectacle is a must-see for students of Hollywood’s history in its combination of the ludicrous and preposterous with the  magnificent and splendid.

6bdz62fkckwIt is also one of the most commercially successful films ever made, grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box-office during its initial release; it was the most popular film of the year, and the second-highest grossing film of the decade. theatrical exhibition it is the seventh most commercial film, when box-office grosses are adjusted for inflation.

Cultural Status/Event

The Ten Commandments is broadcast almost every Passover in the US on ABC TV.

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by


Screenplay (Adapted):

Cinematography (color):
Lionel Lindon

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): James W. Sullivan, Ken
Adams; Ross J. Dowd

Costume Design (color): Miles White

Editing: Gene Ruggiero, Paul Weatherwax

Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Victor Young

Oscar Awards: 5




Special Effects


Oscar Context

The big winner in 1956 was another spectacle, albeit of a different kind, Around the World in 80 Days.


Moses (Charlton Heston)

Rameses (Yul Brynner)

Nefretiri (Anne Baxter)

Darthan (Edward G. Robinson)

Sephora (Yvone de Carlo)

Lilia (Debra Paget)

Joshua (John Derek)

Sethi (Cedrick Hardwicke)

Bithiah (Nina Foch)

Yochabel (Martha Scott)



Running Times: 219 Minutes.

MPAA Rating: G