The Ten Commandments (1923) Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Forever overshadowed by its talkie counterpart, The Ten Commandments is nevertheless an impressive epic film for the 1920s, similar in scope to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). It is a joy to watch this artifact from the early days of Hollywood. I cannot say I would soon return to this film, but I look forward to contrasting it with DeMille’s remake in the 1960s. Thankfully in the remake, DeMille decided against adding a modern narrative to the story.
The first part of the film (the “prologue”) tells the famous story from the book of Exodus in which Moses is called to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and establish the Hebrew laws or the ‘ten commandments’ delivered on Mount Sinai. In the film, the laws are described as the “fundamental law” by which human organizations must be based. There are some terrific moments in Part I, such as the Egyptian chariot crashes which were mostly unplanned and left many of the extras injured. The panoramic scenes of the desert outside Egypt were shot near Pismo Beach on the Guadalupe Dunes in southern San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara Counties in California. Some of the huge sphinx-like heads and other sculptures have been left out on the dunes, now buried over, but some have resurfaced in recent years, particularly in the late 2010s.
Certain scenes, like the Red Sea, contain early technicolor footage. These scenes were shot in Seal Beach, California (in Northern Orange County). The parting of the waters was cleverly shot by capturing a shot of melting gelatin, and running the shot in reverse, to create the illusion of receding water. Amusingly, Moses’s staff has a star of David at the tip, even though the star of David was not a symbol for Judaism until the Middle Ages.
Part II transports the audience to the present-day. Two brothers are taught to fear God by their Orthodox mother, but one becomes a corrupt, money-obsessed atheist, while the other becomes a humble carpenter. The former goes downhill and winds up dead in a complicated scheme for money, the other keeps a level head and remains satisfied with his possessions and Christianity. These scenes were mostly shot in San Francisco.
The idea for the film came from a submission-based program to suggest the next big idea for a film to be produced by Cecil B. DeMille. The screenplay for the idea was then adapted by Jeanie MacPherson, a pioneer for women in Hollywood. She worked with some of the great filmmakers of the silent era, like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille (she was covertly one of Cecil B. DeMille’s mistresses). She initially intended to write a screenplay in episodic form, mirroring the key parts of the story of Exodus, but she and DeMille ultimately decided on a two part script -one about Moses, and the other showing the ramifications for those who break the Ten Commandments in the present-day.
In 1956, DeMille remade the film into the superior re-telling solely of the Exodus story. Several of the scenes in the original feature an early version of technicolor cinematography. DeMille described the film as the first part in a triad of films, followed by King of Kings in 1927 and then The Sign of the Cross in 1932.