Monday, March 21, 2016

Film & Faith: Ten Commandments

"So let it be written, so let it be done."
-- Ramses, repeatedly, in The Ten Commandments

ABC-TV will once more gobble up some good ratings by showing Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments some time during Easter weekend.

For its relevance to Easter, you need to watch it on Blu-Ray where the images are so vivid that in one scene, if you hit pause and look very carefully, you can see a bunny in the background.

Bunny or not, this film was one of the first to make me ponder my relationship with the Creator of the Universe. By "relationship," I mean something like "are we on speaking terms?" or "are you really like they say you are?"

It began when I heard one of my aunts call The Ten Commandments "a wonderful sermon." Another said it had "a deep spiritual message." I didn't know what they could possibly mean by that, but I knew I could use these testimonials to talk my parents into taking me to it. Who can say "no" to an 8-year old boy who actually begs to sit through a 3-hour, 39-minute sermon?

It took forever for the film to get to Madison, but it was a big deal when it got there.

Moses before the burning bush.

The day I saw Ten Commandments (hereafter, 10C), the delight in crossing the boundary from life to more-than-life grew in intensity the way, I suppose, attending a Christmas midnight mass makes a garden-variety church service seem banal.

As I settled into my floor-level seat (the Woodard's balcony was still reserved for black people), my feverish anticipation made my popcorn and milk duds difficult to enjoy. 

After at least a couple of days, the heavy red curtains opened with a series of squeaks, revealing a thinner, transparent curtain (a scrim, I guess), and as it opened, the lights dimmed, and I prepared to be whisked from Madison directly into the pages of Exodus, the stories of which I had heard many, many times.

To my great disappointment, 10C actually began with DeMille himself, in front of a curtained backdrop, telling us how to feel about the film, but after that . . .

It was really exciting to watch the film-long transformation of a young Charlton Heston from an Egyptian prince wearing a side pony tail like Napoleon Dynamite's girl friend, to a heroic runaway slave exiled by a scowling Ramses (Yul Brynner) and then to the drastic makeover after his conversation with the burning bush.

First we hear Yvonne de Carlo's Sephora (also called Zipporah), Moses' wife, say, "He's seen the face of God," then we are shown Moses with his hair and beard freshly moussed and frosted, walking toward her, his eyes gazing heavenward. It was a great look, and my sister assured me that people who saw God really did change like that.

Moses after the burning bush.
The scene where Moses talks to the bush (it's actually God) contains some dazzling special effects for its time, especially once the bush starts inscribing the commandments on a boulder by hurling fire balls at it.

And when God speaks from the bush, He sounds suspiciously like Charlton Heston with a severe head cold. But this was my response at the time: "So that's how God sounds." My sister said, yes, that was exactly how He sounded.

Turning staffs and spears into snakes, and Moses's snake eating the Egyptian snakes, all the plagues, the parting and unparting of the Red Sea -- all of it, what a feast for my young, impressionable eyes!

Seeing Pharaoh's entire army, chariots included, floating underwater -- what a joy to see these powerful villains sinking to such depths, caught off guard by the underdogs and sent to sleep forever with whatever fish then called the Red Sea home.

And, looking back, I can honestly say I have never again seen so many Egyptians drowning at one time.

Far too soon, the film reached its sad ending (spoiler alert!) in which Moses cannot cross over to the Promised Land. This felt like a raw deal to me. All he had gone through, having to channel all those deadly miracles onto Egypt because God kept hardening Ramses's heart; the stress of tolerating and herding the thick-headed, whiny children of Israel by now coloring his long, long beard a snowy white; and for what?

To let Joshua enjoy the fruits of his labor? Played by John Derek who would eventually marry Bo Derek? No fair!

I was so mesmerized by this film, I even enjoyed the Intermission. And, being a young boy, it wasn't necessary to use the 10 minutes to relieve my bladder in the already sketchy theater men's room, where one of the local bad boys occasionally enjoyed flushing a cherry bomb down the toilet which would then resound like a sonic boom as moviegoers were, for example, just about to enjoy a chaste kiss between the professional virgin Doris Day and the still closeted Rock Hudson.

And the score of 10C! You could walk by the theater and hear it emanating from the cinder-block walls:

Sure, watching the movie now I realize it contains arguably some of the worst acting in film history outside of Ed Wood's laughable efforts at becoming the next Orson Welles. But there's no arguing with DeMille's showmanship, his passion for spectacle, and his ability to slip scantily clad dancing ladies into every bible-based film he ever made.
You gotta love Ramses' badass blue hat.

After seeing it the first time (I saw it several more times before I entered my Age of Reason), I really did feel like I had just heard a wonderful sermon, the only wonderful one I'd ever heard.

It reiterated all that I had heard about God speaking to people (he personally "called" men to the ministry and gave personal advice to job hunters and car buyers) and about the power of faith (with even as much as a mustard seed, people could move mountains), and somehow DeMille had made it all seem more likely.

Even though most of his shots looked like only slightly animated pictures cut from a Sunday-school booklet, his set was realistic, and it was filmed in Egypt, and those were real people with actual sweat and such.

I felt lifted. I had had a child's mini-religious experience.(I distinctly remember having another of those as a young adult when I was driving back from Tallahassee after seeing The Exorcist.) While still under its influence, I decided to put my now fortified faith to work.

I went into the woods and trimmed the twigs off a fallen oak branch. Then I walked a quarter of a mile to a large pond called Lake Francis (it still exists, just off Highway 53 as you enter Madison from the I-10 exit).   
Good luck with this one, Moses!

I waited till I was convinced no one could see me. What I was about to do wasn't for entertainment, it was just for me. I looked out over the pond, took a deep breath and mustered up as much faith as I possibly could, then spread my arms, the oak branch in my right hand.

I took one last quick look around, saw no one, then closed my eyes and "faithed" with all my might. 

It was just a pond, for God's sake, how hard could it be?! Using King James English, God's own language, I begged the Lord to help: "Show forth thy power, O Lord, and parteth this pond for thy glory and in thy name!"

I stood there for a good while, hardly moving a muscle, just occasionally partially opening one eye to check for progress. Once I saw some slight movement at my feet, but it was only a water bug mindlessly darting across the surface. I closed my eyes tighter and gritted my teeth. I was running out of ways to faith up.

After a while, I heard a car coming, and, even with the miracle so close at hand, I didn't want to risk looking like a complete idiot, so I opened my eyes and used my rod and my staff to poke around in the mud as if I were searching for something.

Finally, I acknowledged that my faith was smaller than a mustard seed and Lake Francis was going to remain unparted.(I was in Madison just a few weeks ago, and Lake Francis was still fully intact, one stupid little pond with no excitement whatsoever.)

Before I allowed my staff to go back to being just an oak branch, I tried for a quick consolation prize. I dipped the staff into the water and tried to turn it into blood. I probably don't have to tell you it didn't work.

Free Ten Commandments extras:

Trivia: The baby actor who played the infant Moses was Charlton Heston's son Fraser, who grew up to direct the film version of Stephen King's Needful Things.

The troublemaker Dathan was played by Edward G. Robinson near the end of a career devoted chiefly to playing mobsters and tough guys. The voice of Chief Wiggins in The Simpsons is an imitation of Robinson's.

Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Moses's wife, would later play Herman Munster's wife, Lily.

Vincent Price, one of film's greatest horror actors, plays Egyptian bad guy Baka.

Here is the original NY Times review of Ten Commandments when it was released in 1956.

Finally, the NY Times review of the recently released Blu-Ray version.