The Ten Commandments (1956)

I don’t know why ABC1 showed this today (and I don’t know why I chose to watch it, since I do have it on DVD and could watch it whenever I like… maybe just cos it happened to be on today), cos it feels more like an Easter film than a post-Xmas film. Maybe that’s just cos it always used to show on TV at Easter, cos it’s not really an Easter story, is it… but it is kind of the embodiment of 50s Hollywood, perhaps not always in the best way; Rosenbaum’s description of it in the 1001 Movies book, “simultaneously ludicrous and splendid”, really is the best possible summation of it. There are few if any recognisably human figures in the film, almost everyone is operating on a strictly mythic level (Charlton Heston more than anyone), and it’s oddly hard to actually feel anything for them (Yul Brynner does good cartoon villain, though). The self-consciousness of this epicness is probably the hardest thing to swallow about it now, entailing some godawful acting, wooden scripting and an overall ponderousness (to say nothing of the minimal relevance of the actual commandments to the story; this is not the 1923 version); it must’ve seemed old-fashioned in 1956 and it seems even more so now. As for the historicity of it all, well, who can say… But anyway, no one watches it, surely, for that; like King of Kings, and indeed like his own older version of The Ten Commandments, this is an extraordinary mix of DeMille’s basic sincerity and belief in this stuff and his propensity for showmanship which managed to override all other considerations in the end. As spectacle it remains quite amazing (surprising, though, that DeMille chose to film in VistaVision rather than Cinemascope); if the material is often ludicrous, the handling of it is invariably splendid. Pretty much every cent spent on the thing is visible on the screen, in the sheer number of people and things (the Exodus must’ve been a logistical nightmare), the riotous Technicolor, the massiveness of the sets and effects. The Ten Commandments is a huge entertainment and genuinely awe-inspiring (perhaps in spite of itself at times), which is why I’ve seen it so many times by now and was happy to see it again today, and though I know uncle Cecil fully intended to make more films after it, even so it stands as about as suitable an end to his career as could be imagined…

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