Allegorical authenticity

Cecil B. DeMille's single biggest contribution to Freedom's Cause was an updating of his 1923 classic, The Ten Commandments. DeMille had been loosely planning a remake since the mid-1940s, but in 1953 was given the go-ahead for the project from Paramount's chief executives, Barney Balaban and Y. Frank Freeman. As producer and director, DeMille was given a free hand in the making of the picture, the only stipulation being that he shoot it in the studio's new widescreen process, VistaVision. Paramount appears to have set few if any financial constraints, judging that even at an initial costing of $6 million (during production it would balloon to a world record $13.5 million) the movie would still make a hefty profit.58

DeMille took from his archives Jeannie Macpherson's scenario for the silent version, which had consisted of two parts: a biblical prologue about Moses' later years, followed by a modern story about lovers violating the commandments. At first, DeMille inclined towards another two-parter, and one of his staff suggested giving the second half an explicitly political twist by focusing on the devious forces aligned against an American city official. However, this whole idea was soon discarded in favour of a conventional narrative telling Moses' life story stretching from birth through slavery to Mount Sinai, which was thought to be more commercially appealing and would look less propagandistic. By concentrating entirely on Moses, who was honoured as a prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims, DeMille also hoped to use the film overseas 'as a means of welding together all faiths against the common enemy of all faiths, atheistic Communism'. He and assistant producer Henry Wilcoxon expected to repeat the success that Samson and Delilah had enjoyed in the Near East and Asia especially, two regions considered strategically and politically vital by Washington.59

Having decided to concentrate on delivering a history lesson, DeMille and his team of four scriptwriters — Aeneas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss and Frederick Frank — did everything they could to make it as believable and as topical as possible. DeMille had always rejected films that focused on mass movements in favour of individuals: on those, as he put it, 'in whose fortunes they [audiences] can feel personally involved'. The final script for The Ten Commandments, which ran to 308 pages, almost three times longer than the average Hollywood film, duly highlighted Moses' heroic quest to liberate the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, and was built around spectacular 'historic' moments such as the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the Burning Bush.60 The Bible actually says nothing about the first thirty years of Moses' life, but DeMille made a virtue of this by claiming to fill in the gap through scholarship. Led by Henry S. Noerdlinger, a team of researchers costing $300,000 spent months 'reconstructing' Moses' movements and thoughts by consulting books, periodicals, museum directors and experts in Egyptian history. The results were published as a 200-page scholarly monograph in the same year the movie was released.61

Naturally, selling the film as a historical document that told the definitive version of the Bible story also involved shooting at the Holy sites. In late 1954, DeMille and eighty-two assistant directors undertook three months' advanced location filming in Egypt, whose king had recently been unseated in an officers' revolution. This involved building the biggest movie set in history outside Cairo to house a 60-acre mock-up of the traditional 'treasure city' of Per-Rameses, and mobilising probably the greatest number of extras (25,000) ever used. Press releases focused on the pilgrimage made to the Sinai desert, where an elite group of cast and crew 'followed the path taken by Moses as described in Exodus', giving a sense that the making of the film was itself a religious experience.62 DeMille suffered a heart attack whilst filming the Egyptian sequences, and yet seems to have interpreted his survival as a sign of God's support for the project. Despite a hectic schedule, he found time to conduct a spot of cultural diplomacy with the new Egyptian regime, which the State Department and CIA were then courting. In exchange for the loan of large cavalry formations for the chariot scenes, DeMille agreed to produce a film showing Egypt's past and present glories. Wearing his official consultant's hat, DeMille also inspected the USIA facilities at the US embassy in Cairo, where he found 'there was a touching eloquence in the tin cans of film, battered and dented from their many trips to and from Egyptian towns and villages, with their message of what America means'.63

Principal photography on The Ten Commandments began in California in March 1955 and ended in August. Totalling 112 days, this was reportedly the longest shooting schedule of all time. At Paramount DeMille discovered that the 35-acre lot was not big enough to contain one of his biggest set-piece scenes, the crossing of the Red Sea. He therefore demolished the intervening buildings, joined Paramount and RKO territory, constructed a 200,000 cubic-foot swimming pool, and installed hydraulic equipment that could deluge the area with 360,000 gallons of water in two minutes flat. This scene alone cost more than $1 million and took eighteen months to shoot.64 Paramount's voluminous coffers also paid for a stellar cast assembled from the screen, stage, television and radio. America's favourite gangster, Edward G. Robinson, who had recently been released from the blacklist, played the villainous Hebrew subversive, Dathan; Yul Brynner, fresh from the Broadway hit musical The King and I (adapted for the screen in 1956), and whose Eurasian features might have led some viewers to think of the current East-West divide, played Rameses II;65 and the Oscar-winning Anne Baxter played the scheming Nefretiri, Queen of Egypt.

Moses was played by Charlton Heston, Hollywood's resident epic hero of the 1950s and 1960s. Tall and muscular, with a dominant physical presence and a strong-jawed, patrician facial bone structure implying intelligence and

All eyes on the master story-teller: YulBrynner (left), comedian Danny Kaye (with cap) and Charlton Heston listen to Cecil B. DeMille during the production of The Ten Commandments (1956). Kaye was among the profusion of actors, politicians and religious leaders who visited the movie's California set. Paramount/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

dignity, Heston managed, as one critic later put it, 'to suggest both the rugged American frontiersman of myth as well as the God who creates Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco'. Heston was an active anti-communist in Hollywood in the 1950s, and took his role so seriously he could recite whole passages of the Old Testament.66 The Ten Commandments crew also included some of the biggest names in the movie business, including Oscar winners Loyal Griggs (director of photography), Edith Head (costumes), Ray Moyer (set director) and Anne Bauchens, who had been DeMille's film editor for thirty-eight years. Arnold Friberg, one of the America's foremost religious artists, was commissioned to paint biblical events as well as wardrobe and character interpretations, on which many of the scenes were based. Animators were borrowed from the Walt Disney Studios to spruce up the special effects.

Unlike one of his rival directors, Alfred Hitchcock, DeMille had never been one for appearing on screen. DeMille was also opposed to blatant sermonising, as his advice to the Protestant Film Commission in 1949 attests: '[L]et the story itself carry the message. Do not put propaganda speeches into the dialogue. Convey the message through what the characters do.'67 DeMille broke both of these rules with The Ten Commandments, however. Immediately after the movie's overture, he steps before a silver curtain to explain to his audience that: 'The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God's law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.' The 'eternal' nature of this conflict was further emphasised in the souvenir programme, which carried the imprimatur of democracy's 'great saviour', recently retired British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and stated:

The foundations of freedom's triumph over the forces of darkness are found in the words that came from Mount Sinai - the Ten Commandments . . . These events are both timely - and timeless. They are as timeless as God's word to Moses heard as the last speech in our film and found on America's famed Liberty Bell: 'Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all its inhabitants thereof' ... In the relationship between Moses and Rameses, we have the clash between two great opposing forces, forces which have confronted each other throughout human history and which still - at this very moment -are engaged in mortal combat for the future of all mankind. On the one hand, there is the Pharaoh Rameses - worshipped as a God - the massive machinery of oppression at his command, his people chattels, and his will their only law. Opposing him stands Moses, armed only with a staff - and the unquenchable fire of freedom under God.68

The Ten Commandments itself was not as direct as the publicity surrounding it, but this was typical of the efforts made in promotion during this era to ensure that audiences came to biblical epics with the knowledge that they were 'about' much more than just their historical narrative.

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