Movies I Need To See Before I Die: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923)

Poster for Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

I saw the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS (with Charlton Heston) nearly 10 years ago for the first time.  Man, I really didn’t like it at all.  It was poorly acted and the direction was lifeless.  Well, back in 1923, the same director Cecil B. DeMille made a silent version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.  Recently, I have been really getting into silent movies.  I think it’s really neat to see how movies were made back then.  It’s such a different style than what we’re used to.  That’s intriguing to me.  Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to see this silent version, so I gave it a whirl.

Now, this isn’t what you might think it is.  This isn’t really like the 1956 version at all.  It’s actually 2 stories.  The first 50 minutes is an extended prologue which takes place during the Old Testament.  Moses is warning Rameses about using slaves to build his city.  He tells him that God wants him to “let his people go”.  Of course he doesn’t and then God kills all of the town’s first-born children.  I’m sure most of you know the story.  Moses leads the slaves to freedom.  There’s the parting of the red sea,  Moses retrieving the Commandments, and the people worshiping the golden calf.

The second portion is a modern melodrama that begins with a mother reading her grown sons the story of Moses from the bible.  One of the sons, John, is a believer and leads a simple life as a carpenter.  Her other son, Dan, doesn’t believe a word of the bible and just wants to find a way to be rich.  The two boys meet a young woman named Mary, and both fall in love with her.  Mary ends up falling for the smooth talking Dan.  Even though John is jealous, he never lets his hate overtake himself.  Years later, Dan is a rich, but crooked businessman. He hires John to build a church for the community, but instead of using good materials to construct the church, Dan gets cheap material because he just doesn’t care.  He’s more interested in making a profit than safety.  This all blows up in his face and the family must deal with it.

Now, I’m not a religious person at all.  I’m not sure if I believe in anything or not.  But, that doesn’t mean I can’t like a faith-based film.  I will admit that most of the religious films I have seen (including the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS) are laughably preachy.  FIREPROOF is pretty embarrassing to watch.  The reason why I usually don’t like these movies isn’t because they’re too religious, but because they’re poorly made.  Sure, this silent version of TEN COMMANDMENTS is heavy-handed, but I was expecting it to be.  I mean, it is called THE TEN COMMANDMENTS after all.  But that didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

The Moses prologue is really impressive.  They built this massive Egyptian set in California, but it looks authentic.  There’s no model work here, or CGI.  This is the real deal!  I love the spectacle of early cinema.  I was pretty floored with all the extras used in some of these scenes.  I thought it looked pretty neat when the Pharoah’s men were chasing after Moses in their chariots.  Some of these shots featured literally thousands of extras.  Wow!  I couldn’t believe it!  The special effects used when God speaks to Moses looked great!  I knew this whole story already, but seeing it in this silent format kept me engaged.  My only complaint was that we didn’t really get to know any characters too well here.  It’s more or less presented as a great legend.  No one is really fleshed out in this first half.  I also thought the guy who played Moses was a bit of a ham (and looked a lot like Keenan Wynn).

The second half is still good.  I read that most critics liked the first portion the best, but I think I might actually prefer this story than the prologue.  The actors are all good here.  I enjoyed Richard Dix a lot as John.  A very likable performance.  I also thought that Leatrice Loy holds the movie together quite well.  She is the main conflict for the 2 brothers and you can see why.  She’s sexy, charming, and intriguing.  And even though this story doesn’t have the epic scale of the Exodus scenes, there is still some great filmmaking here.  The construction of the church is pretty cool.  There’s a great moment when Mary brings Tom lunch up to him at the top of the structure.  It looked as if the actors were really up that high (which they probably were).  There’s an intense scene when a building collapses, and a murder sequence that adds tension when the camera focuses on a curtain rod.

The reason why I like silent films so much is because the director had to rely on visually telling the story, which makes these movies always interesting to watch.  DeMille has crafted a technically impressive achievement.  The spectacle of the movie alone makes it worth seeing.  But the story is also engaging.  What keeps it from being great though is that it does end up getting a little too preachy.  The mother character is a little too “fire and brimstone”.  She feels more like an ideal than a character.  Also, everything is too black and white in this.  There is no middle ground.  The bad guys are BAD, and the good guys are GOOD.  That’s it!  I understand why they made it this way.  To make a statement.  I get it, which is why I can still recommend the film.  It’s still pretty darn entertaining, despite its heavy hand.

This is light years better than the Heston version.  The effects hold up better (parting of the read sea is awesome!), the acting is better and it’s about an hour shorter.  I do think it’s effective having the parallel storylines.  If you like spectacle or silent cinema, check it out.  Don’t let the religious themes scare you away, it’s very enjoyable.  ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

– Not rated but contains some violence, intense sequences, heavy thematic elements and some mild sensuality.  I could see the MPAA rating it PG13 today.

– Running time: 2hrs 16min.

(THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is currently available to rent on DVD from Netflix)


Categories: Austin Kennedy, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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