Thursday 21 December 2023

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writer: Jeanie Macpherson
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, Charles de Roche, Robert Edeson, Leatrice Joy, Nita Naldi, Estelle Taylor, Edythe Chapman and Julia Faye

My final review of a 1923 film turns out to be the big one, the highest grossing picture of the year at the American box office. It’s also an unusual movie in a few ways.

For one, it was the product of a contest, in which the public suggested ideas for the next Cecil B. DeMille film. F. C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan won with “You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you.”

For another, it isn’t one story but two, told in uneven, almost jarring fashion, which is the reason why I’d actually forgotten what it was all about. I remembered the prologue, which is about three quarters of an hour long and was bulked up to become DeMille’s own remake in 1956. That’s the story we expect, of Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

However, that surprisingly transforms into a contemporary melodrama for the remaining eighty minutes, as the four core characters, all of whom belong to a single family, see the Ten Commandments from different angles and so live their lives in very different ways.

Needless to say, the prologue is what counts here. It’s everything that we expect from Cecil B. DeMille, even if it feels a little compressed. It looks huge from the outset, with vast sets in Egypt which dwarf mere human beings, but it must be said that there aren’t many of them, just the Pharaoh’s palace and a growing line of sphinxes leading away from it.

It’s also overplayed, with vicious Egyptians whipping pitiful Israelites as they struggle to move the latest sphinx, with outrageous levels of cruelty.

Charles de Rochefort looks suitably regal as the Pharaoh, even when faced with the direst predictions of Aaron, Moses’s brother and the leader of the Israelites. Nine plagues are done and we’re just in time for Aaron to predict the tenth, namely the death of every firstborn son in Egypt. When this happens at midnight, the Pharaoh finally relents and lets the Israelites go. It only took the murder of a bunch of kids, just like the origin story of Darth Vader.

Except, of course, the Pharaoh changes his mind in the morning when his own god fails to resurrect his son, and so gives chase, his army of chariots reaching the Jews by the shores of the Red Sea. And here’s where the effects start to shine, because we know what’s coming: a wall of flame rising from the sand, the parting of the Red Sea and the crushing of the army of the Egyptians when Moses closes his hands.

It’s all highly effective stuff, even though it does feel rather extreme. It didn’t take all that overt cruelty for us to realise that the Jewish slaves are the good guys and the Egyptians the bad guys, but it doesn’t seem to be quite that simple. What shocked me is how selfish every character but Moses is, other Jews included.

There are a lot of stories that deal with faith and they work best when God stays stubbornly absent. It’s easy to see the Jews losing faith as an enslaved race by the Egyptians, ignored by their god. It’s harder to buy into that when He works miracles in front of their eyes. At every point, a Jew is keen to point out how God has betrayed them, even when the proof that He hasn’t is literally all around them.

That’s doubled when Moses spends too long up a mountain. Forty days in and Aaron makes a golden calf for everyone to worship because they’ve apparently forgotten everything that happened on the way to the Sinai wilderness. No wonder Moses is pissed when he gets back down and sees such blasphemous debauchery.

So, for all that this is the greatest story ever told, it’s overblown and hard to get behind. It falls to the production design and effects work to sell us and those are amazing. The Red Sea parting is impressive but it was the explosions in the sky that worked best for me, the point at which God provides Moses with the titular commandments, each emerging from chaos in huge fiery letters to light up the sky. It’s pure cinema and it’s literally awesome stuff.

And, three quarters of an hour, that’s done with because we leap forward to the 1920s to spend time with the McTavish family and this doesn’t hold a candle to what went before.

Initially, we meet a trio, a pair of brothers and their mother, who has been reading them all this from the Bible. She’s Martha McTavish and she’s an old school religious despot, keen for her sons to fear God and adhere firmly to all the Ten Commandments, just as she does.

John obviously respects the commandments but he doesn’t outwardly seem to be religious. He’s New Testament to her Old Testament, an honest and decent man who’s more about love than fear. Dan, on the other hand, has no time for God at all and gleefully plans on breaking every last one of the commandments, which is a little bit overkill, given what number six is.

The fourth character is Mary Leigh, who is a homeless girl (I think) who steals a sandwich from Dan and ends up hiding in their house. John asks her to stay, both the boys fall for her and, the next thing we know, she’s married to Dan. She’s the agnostic of the bunch, ignoring the Commandments as no longer relevant, but she goes along with her husband readily.

Dan’s now a powerful architect supervising the construction of a church, skimping every possible way he can for profit. John is a simple carpenter—you know, like Jesus—but Dan has him work on the church too. Mum, well, Mum shows up right as John figures out what Dan’s up to and just in time to be under a wall that collapses because of its subpar concrete.

There’s more here than my brief synopsis, so we get the smuggling of jute and stowaways from leper colonies and Sally Lung, a beautiful Eurasian woman. All of this is worthy flavour. However, none of it is memorable in the way that pivotal scenes in the prologue were.

Richard Dix is decent as John McTavish and Rod La Rocque is suitably decadent as Dan, but this was never going to be about acting. It’s all about spectacular effects work, even given the inherent problems that fire and water cannot be made small; excellent cinematography and majestic sets. And those things, however much money this film made at the box office, is how it’ll be remembered.

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