The Ten Commandments (1923 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Ten Commandments
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Produced by Cecil B. DeMille
Story by Jeanie MacPherson
Starring Theodore Roberts
Charles de Rochefort
Estelle Taylor
Julia Faye
Richard Dix
Rod La Rocque
Leatrice Joy
Nita Naldi
Music by Hugo Riesenfeld
Cinematography Edward S. Curtis
Bert Glennon
Donald Keyes
J. Peverell Marley
Ray Rennahan
Editing by Anne Bauchens
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • November 23, 1923 (1923-11-23)
Running time 136 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent
English intertitles
Budget $1,475,837[1]
Box office $4,168,790[2][1]

The Ten Commandments is a 1923 American epic silent film directed and produced 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.

The film is a grand spectacle of early Hollywood filmmaking, running 136 minutes, with the Exodus scenes photographed in early Technicolor. The film is the first in DeMille's biblical trilogy followed by The King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932). The movie was released by Paramount Pictures and premiered at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre on December 4, 1923.[3][4]


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.





The Exodus scenes were filmed at Nipomo Dunes, near Pismo Beach, California, in San Luis Obispo 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 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.[5] Some shots were also done at the now-demolished courthouse in Fresno, 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.[6]


The film was the second most popular movie of 1923 in the US and Canada.[7]


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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sheldon Hall, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History Wayne State University Press, 2010 p 163
  2. ^ Birchard, Robert S. (2004). Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. p. 45. ISBN 0-8131-2324-0. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ The Ten Commandments at database
  5. ^ Seal Beach History
  6. ^ PBS. "NOVA Online/Special Effects/All About Special Effects/Trivia Quiz (Answers)". Retrieved 2009-01-02. 
  7. ^ Variety list of box office champions for 1923

External links[edit]