The Ten Commandments (1923 film)
|The Ten Commandments|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Cecil B. DeMille|
|Produced by||Cecil B. DeMille|
|Story by||Jeanie MacPherson|
Charles De Roche
Rod La Rocque
|Edited by||Anne Bauchens|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||136 minutes|
The Ten Commandments is a 1923 American silent epic film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Written by Jeanie MacPherson, the film is divided into two parts: a prologue recreating the biblical story of the Exodus and a modern story concerning two brothers and their respective views of the Ten Commandments.
Lauded for its "immense and stupendous" scenes, use of two-strip Technicolor and parting of the Red Sea sequence, the expensive film proved to be a box-office hit upon release. It is the first in DeMille's biblical trilogy, followed by The King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932).
Despite its epic scale, the Moses story only takes up about the first third of the film. After that, the story changes to a modern setting involving living by the lessons of the commandments. Two brothers make opposite decisions, one, John, to follow his mother's teaching of the Ten Commandments and become a poor carpenter, and the other, Danny, to break every one of them and rise to the top. The film shows his unchecked immorality to be momentarily gainful, but ultimately disastrous.
A thoughtful contrast is made between the carpenter brother and his mother. The mother reads the story of Moses and emphasizes strict obedience and fear of God. The carpenter, however, reads from the New Testament story of Jesus' healing of lepers. His emphasis is on a loving and forgiving God. The film also shows the mother's strict lawful morality to be flawed in comparison to her son's version.
Danny becomes a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses on top of the mother, killing her. In her dying breath, she tells Danny that it is her fault for teaching him to fear God, when she should have taught him love.
This sends Danny on a downward spiral as he attempts to right his wrongs and clear his conscience, but he only gets into more trouble. To make money, he steals pearls from his mistress, and when she fights back, he kills her. He attempts to flee to Mexico on a motorboat, but rough weather sends him off course and he crashes into a rocky island, where he is presumably killed.
Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the commandments appears in the sets, with a particular commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.
- Theodore Roberts as Moses, The Lawgiver
- Charles De Roche as Rameses, The Magnificent
- Estelle Taylor as Miriam, The Sister of Moses
- Julia Faye as The Wife of Pharaoh
- Terrence Moore as The Son of Pharaoh
- James Neill as Aaron, Brother of Moses
- Lawson Butt as Dathan, The Discontented
- Clarence Burton as The Taskmaster
- Noble Johnson as The Bronze Man
The idea for the film was based upon the winning suggestion of a contest in which the public suggested ideas for DeMille's next film. The winner was F.C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan; the first line of his suggestion read: "You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you." Production on the film started on May 21, 1923 and ended on August 16, 1923.
Jeanie MacPherson, the film's screenwriter, first thought to "interpret the Commandments in episodic form." Both she and DeMille eventually decided on an unusual two-part screenplay: a biblical prologue and a modern story demonstrating the consequences of breaking the Ten Commandments. In a treatment for the film, MacPherson described the four main characters of the modern story:
There are four people in the modern story of The Ten Commandments, and they view these Commandments in four different ways. There is Mrs. McTavish, the mother, who keeps the Commandments the wrong way. She is narrow. She is bigoted. She is bound with ritual. She is a representative of orthodoxy, yet with all she is a fine, clean, strong woman just like dozens we all know.
There is a girl, Mary Leigh, who doesn't bother about the Ten Commandments at all. She is a good kid, but she has spent so much time working that she hasn't learned the Ten Commandments...
Dan McTavish knows the Ten Commandments, but defies them.John McTavish is a garden variety of human being, which believes the Ten Commandments as unchanging, immutable laws of the universe. He is not a sissy or a goody-goody, he is a regular fellow, an ideal type of man of high and steadfast principles, who believes the Commandments are as practicable in 1923 as they were in the time of Moses.
The Exodus scenes were filmed at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in northern Santa Barbara County, which is now an archaeological site. The film location was originally chosen because its immense sand dunes provided a superficial resemblance to the Egyptian desert. After the filming was complete, the massive sets – which included four 35-foot-tall (11 m) Pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates reaching a height of 110 feet, which were built by a small army of 1,600 workers – were dynamited and buried in the sand. However the burial location at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is exposed to relentless northwesterly gales year-round, and much of what was buried is now exposed to the elements, as the covering sand has been blown away.
Portions of the modern story were filmed in San Francisco, with the cathedral building sequence filmed at the then under construction Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Filbert Street and the adjoining Washington Square. The parting of the Red Sea scene was shot in Seal Beach, California.
The visual effect of keeping the walls of water apart while the Israelites walked through was accomplished with a slab of Jell-O that was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot was then combined with live-action footage of Israelites walking into the distance, creating a near-perfect illusion.
"The opening Biblical scenes of The Ten Commandments are irresistible in their assembly, breadth, color and direction; they are enormous and just as attractive. Cecil B. DeMille puts in a thrill here with the opening of the Red Sea for Moses to pass through with the Children of Israel. This section is in color, and there are often big scenes besides that one. They are immense and stupendous, so big the modern tale after that seems puny."
It was the second most popular film of 1923 in the United States and Canada. The film's box-office returns held the Paramount revenue record for 25 years until it was broken by other DeMille films.
DeMille directed a second, expanded version of the biblical story in 1956. For the later version, DeMille dropped the modern-day storyline in favor of profiling more of Moses' early life. In 2006, the 1923 film was released on DVD as an extra feature on the 50th Anniversary DVD release of the 1956 film. In the DVD commentary with Katherine Orrison included with the 1923 film, she states that DeMille refilmed several sequences nearly shot-for-shot for the new version, and also had set pieces constructed for the later film that were near-duplicates of what he had used in 1923.
- Sheldon Hall, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History Wayne State University Press, 2010 p 163
- Birchard, Robert S. (2004). Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p. 45. ISBN 0-8131-2324-0.
- "Review: ‘The Ten Commandments’". Variety. December 31, 1923. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
- "He Himself Was "Colossal"". The Montreal Gazette. January 22, 1959. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
- Birchard 2009, chpt. 45.
- "Dunes Center plans to excavate sphinx". Lompoc Record. April 22, 2014. Retrieved May 2, 2014.
- Seal Beach History
- PBS. "NOVA Online/Special Effects/All About Special Effects/Trivia Quiz (Answers)". Retrieved 2009-01-02.
- Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan. p. 68. ISBN 0-02-860429-6.
- The Ten Commandments at silentera.com database
- Variety list of box office champions for 1923
- Birchard, Robert (2004). Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813123240.
- The Ten Commandments at the Internet Movie Database
- The Ten Commandments at AllMovie
- The Ten Commandments Archaeological Site
- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
- The Ten Commandments at Virtual History