The greatest show on earth

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1956).

From the profane (Last Tango in Paris) to the sacred: re-watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) this week I was reminded of its many guilty pleasures.  Most of them involve the spectacular bodies of the cast—Charlton Heston (those arms!), Yul Brynner (those abs!), even Judith Anderson (who knew she had such amazing shoulders?).  And Anne Baxter’s purring voice (“Mmmmoses!”) lends a lubricious charge to every scene in which she appears.  As many have noted, The Ten Commandments is a pretty trashy piece of sexploitation in disguise as wholesome family fare.  A big, expensive commodity that imagines itself to be a sacred art object, the film is completely oblivious to its own vulgarity.  DeMille and Heston’s commitment to the material is unflagging and often humorless; they treat every purple line of dialogue, and every tacky special effect, as a profound expression of Biblical truth.  The Ten Commandments is, in other words, the very definition of kitsch.  
But what wonderful kitsch it is!  As a kid I responded to Bible stories (and Bible movies) much in the same way that I responded to fairy tales; I thrilled to their goriness, their magical properties, and their simple dramatic power.  The Ten Commandments indulges that power in spades.  One could say (and many have) that it reduces the majesty of its source material to what is essentially a showman’s trick.  But what else can one expect from Hollywood?  Or from DeMille, who made his career by becoming the greatest showman in the industry?  DeMille saw the saga of Moses not as an occasion to explore theological nuance but an opportunity to put on a show—the greatest show on earth.  For DeMille, religion was the stuff of great theatre.  The result is a monument to mass entertainment at its gaudiest and most delicious.

Notwithstanding its deployment of state-of-the-art cinematic gimmickry (Technicolor, VistaVision, etc.), The Ten Commandments draws heavily on the melodramatic tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its mixture of sentimentality, sensationalism, and religious fervor.  Made in 1956, the film is a reminder of DeMille’s roots in silent cinema, when melodrama reigned on American movie screens.  (DeMille had, of course, originally made The Ten Commandments as a silent film in 1923.)  Even the composition of certain shots in the 1956 version, framed as if by a proscenium arch, recalls the staginess of early silent cinema.  More obvious is the film’s reliance on melodrama’s tried-and-true plot conventions.  With its love triangles, damsels in distress, chase sequences, sibling rivalries, familial betrayals and sacrifices, sneering villains, low humor, and maudlin use of kids and animals, The Ten Commandments is a testament to the staying power of those conventions.         

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