Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments is quite the landmark for the director. While not technically his first historical epic (that was the 1916 Joan the Woman), it was his first Biblical pageant and his first financially successful epic.
But it is also DeMille in the midst of his transition from the lively, witty director of sex farces and sexy romantic comedies with jazz-age sensibilities to the humorless director of white elephant epics, where he’s simultaneously become both more lurid and more pious, reveling in the sins of his characters and then punishing their excess to provide a lesson for us all.
DeMille spends a mere 45 minutes (of the film’s 135-minute running time) in ancient Egypt with Moses the Law Giver, who has already unleashed nine plagues as the film opens and exits after destroying the tablets in face of the blasphemy of his followers. For the rest, we dissolve to the present (circa early 1920s) to find a white-haired old mother reads from the good book to her two sons, one lost in the glory of the lesson (the all-American Richard Dix as John, a humble carpenter, of course), the other a restless, modern and cynical jazz-age kid (Rod La Rocque as Dan), bored with all “that bunk” of the Bible lessons. “No one believes in these commandment things anymore,” he sneers to his shocked old mother, and he marries another modern girl (Leatrice Joy as Mary, naturally) with a pledge to “live our life in our own heathen way.”
There’s plenty of decadence in both sides of this split identity production, from the orgiastic sin spectacle of hysterical partying and blaspheming with a false idol of the ancient section to Dan systematically breaking all ten commandments in his rapid rise to wealth (and, naturally, his precipitous fall) as a corrupt contractor whose reckoning comes when he builds a church with rotten concrete.
But DeMille’s trademark sensibility (revel in sin for the spectacle, then punish the transgressors for a moral lesson) aside, they two sections illustrate what the director gave up in his transformation into epic moviemaker. The section with Moses in the Holy Land is, dramatically speaking, little more than an epic version of a biblical pageant. Stodgy and stiff and as old fashioned as an early D.W. Griffith spectacle, it’s a series of tableaux with old man Moses (Theodore Roberts), in flowing white hair and madman beard, doing a lot of posing and pointing as he threatens the Pharaoh, leads his people into the desert and brings the wrath of God upon the Egyptian slavers and soldiers. But DeMille is a showman and he makes a show of this otherwise moving illustrations of bible stories with stunning special effects: the parting of the Red Sea (using the very same techniques as he did thirty years later in his 1956 edition), the wall of fire, the great balls of fire pyrotechnics for the will of God as he delivers the commandments to Moses.
The modern sequence, by contrast, is brighter, snappier, driven by the pace of life in the twenties and the lively energy of the jazz-age characters. And let’s face it, it’s more fun hanging out with Dan thumbing his nose at morality with his boozing, adultery and graft than watching good guy John try to pull his brother from the brink. But this is a moral lesson, after all, and whether it’s the hand of God or simply karma coming back to him, Dan is doomed to pay for his sins (and yes, he hits all the bases) and DeMille makes his punishment as thrilling as the rest of the spectacle. DeMille is more judgmental here than in his other jazz-age melodramas, which at least appreciated the sexual energy of his lively characters even as they brought everything back to the comfort of the status quo: home, hearth, family, responsibility. They wised up in films like Old Wives for New and Don’t Change Your Husband and The Affairs of Anatol but they had fun along the way and forgiveness was part of the program. Redemption here is offered only to Mary, who follows in the footsteps of the ancient Miriam to repent her ways and accept the laws of God.
The film, previously available on Paramount’s The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection, debuts on Blu-ray exclusively in the deluxe six-disc The Ten Commandments Limited Edition Gift Set, which also features DVD and Blu-ray editions of the 1956 remake and plenty supplements. The film is presented in black and white with an old organ score by Gaylord Carter, dramatic but anonymous, and commentary by DeMille scholar Katherine Orrison. Also features a 20-minute hand-tinted color sequence (in the Handschiegel Process) from DeMille’s personal print, showing the exodus, the wall flame and the parting of the Red Sea in color, and an eight-minute sequence shot in the early two-color Technicolor process which, while faded, offers an impressive look at the costumes during the exodus scene. Both are from the George Eastman House.