Every time I watch The Ten Commandments (this most recent screening was the first in several years), I have much the same reaction. While it is easy to patronize as camp, it is impossible to dismiss the film entirely. You can sneer and giggle, but there’s no denying that DeMille’s tasteless audacity creates visually extravagant, often quite entertaining results. Some of it is downright ludicrous, but it demonstrates Hollywood at its technocratic best.
The ridiculous moments are certainly preferable to the suffocating sanctimony that makes much of the film difficult to bear. Given that DeMille’s holier-than-thou attitudes are combined with a thoroughly hypocritical exploitation of the sins he condemns, it is difficult to take any of it as much better than the call of a carnival barker tempting passers-by inside for a glimpse of flesh. There isn’t an ounce of religious feeling in any of it—except, of course, dollar worship, which is present in abundance.
It is easy to blow raspberries at Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses, but embodying a legend under the best circumstances is difficult. When trapped in the exploitative conception of a master dissembler who expects the actor to show off his pecs one moment, then preach purity the next, it’s impressive that Heston keeps an even keel. He delivers what our society’s schizoid attitudes towards pleasure demand, that a religious figure like Moses be both sexy and chaste.
Yul Brynner, as Rameses, has always impressed me as the real star of the show. He’s helped by the fact that he’s playing the villain and is not burdened with demonstrating virtue. Rameses is a no-nonsense, out for himself egotist, and for that very reason he is the most attractive character. Put simply, Rameses knows what he wants—exactly what any honest viewer wants. Brynner fleshes out that shared desire with such a full-bodied performance that when the Pharaoh falls out of the story, the movie never quite recovers.
The rest of the cast varies. Some (like Judith Anderson and Sir Cedric Hardwicke) make DeMille and company’s florid dialog and rhetorical situations almost believable; some (John Derek stands out) are just awful, while others (such as Anne Baxter, Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson) present hyperbolic examples of themselves. Baxter, for example, acts as if Nefretiri is the hot stuff the script requires, and Moses and Rameses seem to go along with it, so we just accept their passion for her as the contrivance necessary to keep things moving.
Like a chef hiding bad meat under a flavorful sauce, DeMille lavishes the most expensive camerawork, design and special effects a major studio can provide on his trashy Victorian vision. The results are a good example of Hollywood’s shrewd habit of supporting parochial narrow-mindedness with unparalleled resources. At least it is clearly DeMille’s vision, however flawed. He was a charlatan, but for better or worse, no one else could have made The Ten Commandments.