While Yul Brynner easily gives the best performance in Ten Commandments, until the second half of the movie Anne Baxter gives the most amusing one. She's an Egyptian princess and she's going to marry the next pharaoh. The next pharaoh is either Brynner or Charlton Heston. Cedric Hardwicke is the current pharaoh and Brynner’s dad. Heston is Hardwicke’s nephew, though no one knows Heston is actually an adoptive nephew because mom Nina Foch pulled him out of the river. His real mom had to get rid of him because Hardwicke’s dad, pharaoh at the time, was going to kill all the newborn Hebrew male babies because a falling star told them a newborn male Hebrew baby would lead the enslaved Israelites out of bondage.
So, you know, it's hard to really get into the zone with Commandments when the historical inaccuracies, regardless of whether the filmmakers knew they were inaccurate at the time, slap you in the face. There's already a big artificially enforced narrative distance because director DeMille comes out at the beginning to tell you to be scared of Frankenstein—wait, wrong movie—but director DeMille does introduce the film and tell of its historical accuracy. Sure.
There's also the enforced distance from DeMille’s bible-y but not actual Bible narration. Sadly he never says anything about like, “And lo, Anne Baxter was hot for Charlton Heston’s shiny bod.” It’s a scenery chewing part for Baxter and many of her scenes end with her almost staring into the camera, punctuating her actions in the scene (it occasionally feels like DeMille is doing some kind of Mae West gag). Baxter’s miscast, but has good chemistry with her costars, even if that chemistry never really amounts to any actual sincere moments. Maybe other than Baxter not being able to stand Brynner, which gets less funny in the second half after she has to marry him.
The first half of Ten Commandments—well, more than half; up until intermission—the first half is Heston getting stuck finishing a project Brynner screwed up on because he couldn’t get the Hebrew slaves to build a monument city for Hardwicke fast enough. Heston becomes quickly sympathetic to the slaves’ plight after the Egyptian foremen want to run a trapped old woman (Martha Scott) down with these giant statue pieces. Water bearer Debra Paget tries to save her, can’t, kind of gets stuck, which causes her beau, John Derek (who’s actually greased up more than Heston throughout), to try to save them. He punches out an Egyptian to do it, causing the foreman to stop construction so they can kill him first. Paget goes to get Heston who saves the day because Charlton Heston.
It doesn’t take long for Brynner to conspire against Heston, who’s getting the slaves to work by being nice to them; Brynner screwing with things for Heston eventually leads to Heston finding out he’s adopted and he’s Hebrew. As such, Heston decides he’s got to go become a slave incognito, even though Baxter keeps trying to talk him out of it. Heston gets cast out of Egypt once he gets busted, so Baxter is stuck marrying Brynner. Heston is ostensibly going to pine away for Baxter but once he runs into Yvonne De Carlo and her six horny sisters, his heart starts to mend. It helps De Carlo is willing to share the hole in Heston’s heart with God, who happens to frequently visit a nearby mountain and Heston wants to give him a piece of his mind.
Before intermission, Ten Commandments is always moving. There’s always something going on, always some subplot percolating and then boiling over. Least effective (initially) is star-crossed lovers Paget and Derek. See, Paget’s a really hot slave so all the guys want her, like master builder Vincent Price and scumbag narc slave Edward G. Robinson. And then there’s this fake subplot about Hardwicke’s big party, which occurs but isn’t really a big party. It’s foreshadowing of the second half’s scale issues.
Ten Commandments takes a hit in the second half. There are the plagues, there’s Heston the Silver Fox, there’s the Red Sea, there are the dead firstborn sons, there’s all sorts of stuff and it’s never impressive. The Ten Commandments’s special effects aren’t spectacular. They’re not even particularly inventive. They seem like they were difficult to pull off, but they aren’t the better for that effort. A lot of the problem is the lousy matte shots. Loyal Griggs does an okay job with the photography throughout—there’s not much he can do when they’re shooting exterior scenes on a sound stage, Commandments has a crappy sky backdrop—but he does well with the epic exterior shots and so on. Well, the orgy scene is a little goofy photography-wise but it’s just a little goofy overall.
But until the actual exodus occurs, the second half is mostly Heston threatening Brynner with a plague if he doesn’t free the slaves. Brynner tells Heston to stick it, plague happens, Brynner tells his advisors to stick it, then Heston to stick it, then another plague. By the end of the movie, Brynner’s kind of trapped in this pitch black comedy about being way too vain and way too stupid. Only he wasn’t stupid in the first half. But whatever.
Baxter’s less fun in the second half too because the chemistry with Heston is gone. It’s not like she hits on godly Silver Fox Heston and there’s some spark. There couldn’t be; a spark would light his robes on fire. It’s also indicative of the biggest second half issue—Heston. He ceases to be the protagonist and instead is some kind of bit player who comes on to scare, confuse, or inspire the other cast members. The movie never figures out how to handle Heston now getting divine guidance or how much he knows about what’s going to happen. There’s a disconnect between script and performance on it too, at which point Commandments is just out of luck because DeMille’s already established he doesn’t give a crap about directing the performances.
If he did, he would have gotten enough coverage of dialogue scenes between Heston and Baxter editor Anne Bauchens isn’t stuck doing a harsh cut every single time they go from medium to long shot. Every single time. Actors are on different marks and stuff. Looking in other directions. It’s very lackadaisical, which the movie might be able to get away with if DeMille actually had some great special effects sequences in store. He’s got some enormous scale sequences in store, but what DeMille delivers after all that obviously outstanding coordination between his set decorators and the production managers and whoever yelled at extras? It’s decidedly lacking.
Maybe if there were some booming Heston performance to hold things together but nope. And Brynner and Baxter’s second half arc fills time but is far from successful. It gets time, but that time never pays off. It comes closer than the Robinson stuff, which also never pays off but also gets a lot less engaging as time goes on. It’s too bad; Robinson gives one of the film’s better performances.
Everyone’s basically okay. Except Paget. And Derek’s really one-note. And Price. And Judith Anderson’s mean nanny. And, kind of Hardwicke. Like, you want to cut Hardwicke slack because he’s miscast, but he’s also thin. Like. The part’s thin, he’s miscast, but the performance is still slack. Baxter’s good with him though, probably better than with anyone else. Poor De Carlo comes in before intermission, gets back burnered for her six sisters to make their play for Heston, comes back in, gets more to do, then disappears once intermission’s over. She gets one more significant scene, where Baxter gets to chew up the scene around her. So bummer for De Carlo.
Foch is good as Heston’s adoptive mom.
Pretty good Elmer Bernstein score.
It’s a lot of movie. Some of its good, some of it isn’t, some of it is impressive, more of it isn’t. Brynner’s performance is about the only unqualified plus.
Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Fredric M. Frank, based on material from books by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, J.H. Ingraham, and A.E. Southon; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), John Derek (Joshua), Debra Paget (Lilia), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), John Carradine (Aaron), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), and Vincent Price (Baka); narrated by Cecil B. DeMille.