Long after I got tired of pretending that a giant rabbit had hidden a bunch of colored eggs around the house, Easter retained its savor for me because I knew that once Passover passed overhead, ABC would once again be cranking up Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 trash masterpiece, The Ten Commandments. A couple of weeks ago, I paid tribute to Richard Fleischer as the prince of cheese. That's because DeMille will always be the king of cheese — nay, the king of kings of cheese — and this movie is his Gorgonzola throne. Hail Cheeser!
Is it the zippers clearly visible on the costumes from Ancient Egypt? Or the fact that the Voice of God (actually Charlton Heston's voice with a great deal of treatment) leaves us wondering if the Almighty is 'luded out? Is it the wristwatch clearly visible on Moses' arm in one shot? Yea, verily, it is all these things and more. In The Ten Commandments, a score of big-name actors hit their career-worst peaks, none more so than the lead. DeMille cast Heston because of his resemblance to a Michelangelo's statue of Moses, and Heston repaid the favor by playing Moses so stiffly that a marble statue looked supple by comparison.
But it is the dialogue — the wonderfully sculpted, thumpingly awful dialogue — that makes me love The Ten Commandments more with each viewing. The original 1923 silent version (which DeMille also directed) had plenty of spectacle, but it didn't have that stilted, Belasco Theater sound ringing out from the screen. As Al Jolson warned at the end of the first sound flm, The Jazz Singer, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"
There are two strains of writing in this film. In the first, every line of dialogue creaks under the weight of carefully balanced, opposed images delivered with a metronomic one-two punch:
Baka: Will you lose a throne because Moses builds a city?
Rameses: The city that he builds shall bear my name, the woman that he loves shall bear my child. So let it be written, so let it be one.
Or, as a later generation of pharoahs would say: Bada-boom, bada-bing.
In the second, the characters establish a theme and spend their conversations batting it forward like hockey players during practice:
Nefretiri: You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool!
Moses: The man stupid enough to use you as a footstool isn't wise enough to rule Egypt.
This approach reaches its pinnacle during the series of exchanges between Rameses and Dathan, which could also serve as evidence in a court of law that Noel Coward was out of town when DeMille was hiring screenwriters:
Rameses: You have a rat's ears and a ferret's nose.