The Ten Commandments from 1956 tells the story of Moses, leader of the Hebrews, considered to have been a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Who is thought to have lived in Egypt, in or around the 14th century BCE. The Ten Commandments dramatizes the biblical story of the life of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince who becomes the deliverer of his real brethren, the enslaved Hebrews, and thereafter leads the Exodus to Mount Sinai, where he receives, from God, the Ten Commandments
In the 1950s, big, bold ambitious epics were the norm, The Ten Commandments is certainly all of that and one of the most famous films of the era, another is Ben-Hur from 1959. But The Ten Commandments is the epic of biblical epics that not even Ben Hur can measure up to.
The film was produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille, shot in VistaVision (color by Technicolor), and released by Paramount Pictures. It is based on the 1949 novel Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, the 1859 novel Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham, the 1937 novel On Eagle’s Wings by A. E. Southon, and the Book of Exodus.
The film stars Charlton Heston in the lead role, Yul Brynner as Rameses, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, and John Derek as Joshua; and features Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Martha Scott as Yochabel, Judith Anderson as Memnet, and Vincent Price as Baka, among others.
Filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the Sinai Peninsula, the film was DeMille’s last and most successful work. It is a partial remake of his 1923 silent film of the same title and features one of the largest sets ever created for a film. In fact,
DeMille’s enormous ancient Egyptian sets have become a Hollywood legend.
The construction of four 35-foot-tall statues of the Pharoah Ramses, 21 five-ton sphinxes, and city walls over 120 feet high was all constructed on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. When filming ended DeMille simply had this entire Egyptian city set bulldozed and buried. In DeMille’s autobiography he stated:
“If 1,000 years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope that they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America.”
– The Autobiography of Cecil B.
The film has since garnered seven Academy Awards including Best Motion Picture, Best Special Effects, Best Color Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Color Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording. The film won its only Oscar for rising to the special-effects challenges of religious, rather than historical, imagery — most famously the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea.
The effects for the parting of the Red Sea scene took about six months of VistaVision filming, and combined scenes shot on the shores of the Red Sea in Egypt, with scenes filmed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood of a huge water tank split by a U-shaped trough, into which approximately 360,000 gallons of water were released from the sides, as well as the filming of a giant waterfall also built on the Paramount backlot to create the effect of the walls of the parted sea out of the turbulent backwash.
A gelatin substance was added to the water in the tanks to give it more of a seawater consistency. All of the multiple elements of the shot were then combined in Paul Lerpae’s optical printer, and matte paintings of rocks by Jan Domela concealed the matte lines between the real elements and the special effects elements.
These were, for the time, some spectacular special effects. But lacking the computer-generated special effects we have today, the movie instead compensated with an enormous undertaking, and here are a few factoids: 5,000 camels, 5,000 water buffalo, about 4,000 oxen, 2,000 geese, and 2,000 ducks were used during the Egypt shoot. 8,000 to 14,000 extras were used in the movie. 200,000 gallons of water a day used on location in Egypt; wells were drilled on the site.
Director DeMille was 73 years old when they shot on location in Egypt. He lost 21 pounds and suffered two heart attacks during the making of “The Ten Commandments. He was 75 when the movie finally premiered.
Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 39 reviews and reported 90% of critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The site’s critics’ consensus states: “Bombastic and occasionally silly but extravagantly entertaining, Cecil B. DeMille’s all-star spectacular is a muscular retelling of the great Bible story.”