Sunday, April 12, 2009


My plan for the weekend was to wrap up "Holy Week" and honor Max Von Sydow's 80th birthday by rewatching and reviewing The Greatest Story Ever Told, but as I do every year at this time I fell under the spell of Cecil B. DeMille's bizarrely enthralling swan song when it turned up on ABC. I don't propose to do a full-scale review, since I presume this item is quite familiar to everyone. But I have to say something about this enigmatic blend of grandeur and garbage.

DeMille's remake of his own 1923 picture is very much a product of its period. The silent version is actually just a long prelude to a modern story of the woes suffered by people who violate the commandments. The remake is all Exodus, with elaborations. But it's Exodus viewed through the lenses of Christianity (the anachronistic "Deliverer" myth) and the Cold War (Egypt as a totalitarian state). The director pounds the latter point home in his spoken introduction, which ABC always skips. But for all that C.B. thought he was making a profound political allegory, his movie is just an old-timey melodrama at heart.

The remake is the work of an old man. While the special effects are upgraded from the silent version, the direction has devolved from the slick, sick style of Sign of the Cross. The staging is often primitive, and DeMille had either lost his touch with actors or had lost control of them. There are moments of performance in Commandments that are right down there with the worst dross of the 1950s.

Here's an early example. Rameses I has ordered the execution of the firstborn of Goshen. We get this would-be poignant shot of a shellshocked woman and a soldier wiping a baby's blood off his sword, when into the scene rushes this woman who pauses, with a murderous soldier in hot pursuit, turns toward the camera and just emotes, badly, wailing for help and such before running offscreen with the soldier closing in for offscreen bloodshed.

Now we're at the opposite shore of the Red Sea. God, sadist that He is, could have saved the Hebrews and spared the Egyptians, but just had to remove the pillar of fire so the Egyptian chariots would enter the temporary channel. The first person to see them coming is this woman, who really goes over the top. I remember her dialogue as "Oh! The chariots! Run! Run!," but stills don't do justice to the moving image, so she gets off easy here.

By the way, I'm no military strategist, but I think that at least some of the charioteers could have made it to shore and done some damage to the Hebrews if they had not (as this shot shows) paused in the middle of the Red Sea to admire the scenery or something.

All through the pictures there are moments when extras (or actors who are slightly more than extras) run amok. In the Golden Calf sequence, Edward G. Robinson and John Carradine are trying to command the scene, but they're being constantly upstaged by this one woman who's all over the place with gestures and broad facial expressions. As Aaron puts the finishing touches on the calf, she's all over it, polishing it with her hair with maniacal glee. Who is this person?

One aspect of the movie that is both awkward and redeeming is its gratuitous display of femininity. You'll notice that young Hebrew womanhood seems no worse for wear -- the opposite in fact -- for their years of drudgery, but perhaps their slavery took another form. In any event, DeMille misses no opportunity to show them off, even when it doesn't seem to fit into the rhythm of the film. The most notorious instance is when Moses parts the Red Sea. Heston says his line, "Behold his mighty hand!" We get a shot of the sea. And then:

The camera lingers on these babes for a long moment before the FX kicks in. You can't help but wonder what casting couch they stopped at before reporting to the set that day. The emphasis placed on them makes no sense otherwise -- unless it's a moment of pure gratuitousness of the sort that defines this film.

DeMille's attitude toward women is one of the most primitive aspects of the movie. In Sign of the Cross he upheld a vamp-vs-virgin dichotomy, but in Commandments it seems that every woman, Egyptian, Hebrew or Midianite, is a man-hungry hoyden. Let's take a look at Midian. It looks like a vision of female empowerment as Jethro's daughters run things in the absence of sons. But once Yvonne de Carlo discovers Moses, it may as well be Dogpatch U.S.A. Here they are, frozen in time, crying out together, "A MAN!!!"

And I mean all women. The one moment when DeMille regains his envelope-pushing form is the Ethiopian embassy scene, and the moment in the moment is when the King's sister offers a token of regard to Moses, "who is kind as well as wise." The implication had to be unmistakable even in 1956.

You can tell that's how Nefreteri infers things. Her comment: "And what a bee-YOO-tiful enemy!" -- is Anne Baxter's performance in a nutshell, and never was that metaphor more apt.

Once upon a time, Baxter won an Academy Award for acting. Tell that to people whose only exposure to her is The Ten Commandments and they will struggle to believe. For me, her performance defines this film more than Heston's or Yul Brynner's. She embodies the great mystery of the whole show. Does she realize that her character and her dialogue are trash, and is she camping it up, expecting us to be in on the joke with her, or is this her fatally straight reading of material she takes at face value, not realizing what an ass she's making of herself? It's the difference between risk and obliviousness to risk, because Nefretiri, as written, could have been and possibly was a career-killing role. But whether it's intentionally arch or unintentionally awful, Baxter's performance is what it is, and it exemplifies what fascinates me about the whole project.

DeMille's film is the point where the extreme tendencies of movies converge, the rich massiveness of spectacle combined with moments of pure schlock worthy of Poverty Row. For all the money at stake, it remained an intensely, domineeringly personal film, and an expression of declining powers that nevertheless or for that reason slipped free from the conventional discipline of classical cinema narrative to achieve moments of raw strangeness as well as scenes of pure theatrical power. Whether it's uncontrolled extras or the discordant word-jazz of a script in which there is no such thing as a casual utterance, the same kind of aesthetic sensibility is at work here as in films a thousand times cheaper. When people wonder aloud about the kind of film people like Ed Wood would have made if they had millions of dollars to play with, I suspect that in some way those theoretical movies would look and sound like The Ten Commandments. Its imperfection is its perpetual attraction.


Lolita said...

I adore this film! My favourite scene is where Yul Brynner holds a monologue about what a treacherous little peacock Anne Baxter is (I think it's Anne Baxter?). My knees gets weak during that scene! Too long since I saw the film, though...

hobbyfan said...

Anne Baxter's role in "Ten Commandments" didn't kill her career. Appearing on "Batman" as Olga did. Or don't you remember that, Sammy?

Samuel Wilson said...

Lolita: Baxter is the only treacherous peacock I can think of in the picture, but Brynner's a bit of a peacock himself. And the film is easy to adore. For all its flaws, or because of them, it's nearly irresistible.

Hobbyfan: I think you put the hearse before the horse, to refine a phrase, as being on Batman meant that you were done as a viable movie star, at least for a while, unless you were already a genre star like Vincent Price.

Anonymous said...

I watched this film as well on Sunday and I had forgotten what awful dialogue there is in it. I'd swear some of it was written by Ed Wood.

hobbyfan said...

I've seen "10 Commandments" a few times. Whatever possessed ABC & Disney to commission a remake a couple of years back, quite frankly, underestimated the enduring popularity of the original. It's amazing that it hasn't been farmed out to Disney Channel or ABC Family after all these years.

HaarFager said...

Oh, man.... how I love this film! Let me count the ways. I saw it for the first time on the big screen when it was making the rounds at it's 10th year re-release and watched it just about every Spring on ABC since the 1970's. It's just one big miasma of spectacle, color, emotion and grandeur. How can you not watch it over and over again? I certainly can't resist the urge. Even picked up the special 50th anniversary DVD release. Be sure to read my fifth annual Ten Commandments post if you don't think the movie has mesmerized me since childhood: