The Ten Commandments is a 1956 American epic religious drama film produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille, shot in VistaVision (color by Technicolor), and released by Paramount Pictures. Based on the 1949 novel Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, the 1859 novel Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham, the 1937 novel On Eagle's Wings by A. E. Southon, and the Book of Exodus, The Ten Commandments dramatizes the biblical story of the life of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince who becomes the deliverer of his real brethren, the enslaved Hebrews, and thereafter leads the Exodus to Mount Sinai, where he receives, from God, the Ten Commandments. The film stars Charlton Heston in the lead role, Yul Brynner as
Rameses, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, and John Derek as Joshua; and features Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Seti I, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Martha Scott as Yochabel, Judith Anderson as Memnet, and Vincent Price as Baka, among others.
Filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the Sinai Peninsula, The Ten Commandments was DeMille's most successful work, his first widescreen film, his fourth biblical production, and his final directorial effort before his death in 1959. It is a remake of the prologue of his 1923 silent film of the same title, and features one of the largest exterior sets ever created for a motion picture. Four screenwriters, three art directors, and five costume designers worked on the film. The interior sets were constructed on Paramount's Hollywood soundstages. The original roadshow version included an onscreen introduction by DeMille and was released to cinemas in the United States on November 8, 1956, and, at the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made.
In 1957, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (John P. Fulton, A.S.C.). DeMille won the Foreign Language Press Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director. Charlton Heston was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Drama). Yul Brynner won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor for this film, as well as for Anastasia and The King and I. Heston, Anne Baxter, and Yvonne De Carlo won Laurel Awards for Best Dramatic Actor, 5th Best Dramatic Actress, and 3rd Best Supporting Actress, respectively. It is also one of the most financially successful films ever made, grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box office during its initial release; it was the most successful film of 1956 and the second-highest-grossing film of the decade. According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the eighth most successful film of all-time when the box office gross is adjusted for inflation.
In 1999, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten"—the best ten films in ten American film
genres - after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. The film was listed as the tenth best film in the epic genre. US Network television has aired the film in prime time during the Passover/Easter season every year since 1973.
After hearing the prophecy of a Hebrew deliverer, Pharaoh Rameses I of Egypt orders the death of all newborn Hebrew males. Yochabel saves her infant son by setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile. Bithiah, the Pharaoh Rameses' recently widowed daughter (and sister of the future Pharaoh Seti I), finds the basket and decides to adopt the boy, even though her servant, Memnet, recognizes that the child is Hebrew. Bithiah names the baby Moses.
Prince Moses grows up to become a successful general, winning a war with Ethiopia and establishing an alliance. Moses and Nefretiri fall in love, but she must marry the next Pharaoh to preserve the royal line. While working on the building of a city for Pharaoh Seti I's jubilee, Moses meets the stonecutter Joshua, who tells him of the Hebrew God. Moses saves an elderly woman from being crushed, not knowing that she is his biological mother, Yochabel, and he reprimands the taskmaster and overseer Baka.
Moses reforms the treatment of slaves on the project, but Prince Rameses, Moses's adoptive brother and Seti's son, charges him with planning an insurrection. Moses says he is making his workers more productive, making Rameses wonder if Moses is the man the Hebrews are calling the Deliverer.
Nefretiri learns from Memnet that Moses is the son of Hebrew slaves. She kills Memnet, but reveals the story to Moses after he finds the piece of Levite cloth he was wrapped in as a baby, which Memnet had kept. Moses follows Bithiah to Yochabel's house, where he meets his biological mother, brother Aaron, and sister Miriam.
Moses learns more about the slaves by working with them. Nefretiri urges him to return to the palace, so that he may help his people when he becomes pharaoh, to which he agrees after he completes a final task. Moses saves Joshua from death by killing Baka, telling Joshua that he, too, is Hebrew. The confession is witnessed by the overseer Dathan, who then reports to Prince Rameses. After being arrested, Moses explains that he is not the Deliverer, but would free the slaves if he could. Seti I declares Prince Rameses his sole heir, and Rameses banishes Moses to the desert. At this time, Moses learns of the death of his mother.
Moses makes his way across the desert to a well in Midian. After defending seven sisters from Amalekites, Moses is housed with the girls' father Jethro, a Bedouin sheik, who worships the God of Abraham. Moses marries Jethro's eldest daughter Sephora. Later, he finds Joshua, who has escaped from the hard labor imposed on the Hebrews in Egypt. While herding, Moses sees the burning bush on the summit of Mount Sinai and hears the voice of God. Moses returns to Egypt to free the Hebrews.
Moses comes before Rameses, now Pharaoh Rameses II, to win the slaves' freedom, turning his staff into a cobra. Jannes performs the same trick with his staves, but Moses's snake swallows his. Rameses prohibits straw from being provided to the Hebrews to make their bricks. Nefretiri rescues Moses from being stoned to death by the Hebrews wherein he reveals that he is married.
Egypt is visited by plagues. Moses turns the river Nile to blood at a festival of Khnum, and brings burning hail down upon Pharaoh's palace. Moses warns him that the next plague to fall upon Egypt will be summoned by Pharaoh himself. Enraged at the plagues, Rameses orders that all first-born male Hebrews will die, but a cloud of death instead kills all the first-born of Egypt, including the child of Rameses and Nefretiri. Despairing at the loss of his heir, Pharaoh exiles the Hebrews, who begin the Exodus from Egypt.
After being taunted by Nefretiri, Rameses takes his chariots and pursues the Hebrews to the Red Sea. Moses uses God's help to stop the Egyptians with a pillar of fire, and parts the Red Sea. After the Hebrews make it to safety, Moses releases the walls of water, drowning the Egyptian army. A devastated Rameses returns empty-handed to Nefretiri, stating that he now acknowledges Moses's god as God.
Moses again ascends the mountain with Joshua. He sees the Ten Commandments created by God in two stone tablets. Meanwhile, an impatient Dathan tells the people that Moses is dead and urges a reluctant Aaron to construct a golden calf idol. A wild saturnalia occurs and a decadent orgy is held by most of the Hebrews.
After God informs Moses of the Hebrews fallen into debauchery, the latter descends from the mountain with Joshua. Enraged at the sight of decadence he deems the Hebrews unworthy, and smashes the tablets at the golden calf, which explodes, killing the wicked revelers, and causing the others to wander in the wilderness for forty years. An elderly Moses later leads the Hebrews towards Canaan. However, he cannot enter the Promised land due to a mentioned previous disobedience to the Lord. He instead names Joshua as leader, and bids farewell to the Hebrews at Mount Nebo.
Charlton Heston as Moses (and the voice of God at the Burning Bush)
Yul Brynner as Rameses II
Anne Baxter as Nefretiri
Edward G. Robinson as Dathan
Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora
Debra Paget as Lilia
John Derek as Joshua
Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Seti I
Nina Foch as Bithiah
Martha Scott as Yochabel
Judith Anderson as Memnet
Vincent Price as Baka
John Carradine as Aaron
Olive Deering as Miriam
Douglass Dumbrille as Jannes
Frank de Kova as Abiram
Henry Wilcoxon as Pentaur
Eduard Franz as Jethro
Donald Curtis as Mered
Lawrence Dobkin as Hur Ben Caleb
H. B. Warner as Amminadab
Julia Faye as Elisheba
Lisa Mitchell, Noelle Williams, Joanna Merlin, Pat Richard, Joyce Vanderveen, and Diane Hall as Jethro's Daughters
Abbas El Boughdadly as Rameses' Charioteer
Cavalry Corps, Egyptian Armed Forces as Pharaoh's Chariot Host
Fraser Heston as The Infant Moses
John Miljan as The Blind One
Francis J. McDonald as Simon
Ian Keith as Rameses I
Paul De Rolf as Eleazar
Woodrow Strode as King of Ethiopia
Tommy Duran as Gershom
Eugene Mazzola as Rameses' Son (Amun)
Ramsay Hill as Korah
Joan Woodbury as Korah's Wife
Esther Brown as Princess Tharbis
Babette Bain as Little Miriam
Kathy Garver as Rachel
Cecil B. DeMille promoted the film by placing Ten Commandment monuments as a publicity stunt for the film in cities across the United States. The Ten Commandments premiered at New York City's Criterion Theatre on November 8, 1956. Among those who attended the premiere were Cecil B. DeMille and his eldest child, Cecilia DeMille Harper; Charlton Heston and his wife, Lydia Clarke; Yul Brynner; Anne Baxter; Edward G. Robinson; Yvonne De Carlo and her husband, Bob Morgan; Martha Scott and her husband, Mel Powell, and son, Carleton Alsop; William Holden and his wife, Brenda Marshall; John Wayne and his wife, Pilar Pallete; Tony Curtis and his wife, Janet Leigh; and Paramount Pictures president Barney Balaban. It played on a roadshow basis with reserved seating until mid-1958, when it finally entered general release.
The Ten Commandments was re-released in 1966 and 1972, and one more time in 1989. The 1972 and 1989 re-issues included 70mm and 35mm prints that reframed the picture's aspect ratio to 2.20:1 and 2.39:1, respectively, cropping the top and bottom of the picture's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Ten Commandments was released on DVD on March 30, 1999; March 9, 2004, as a Special Collector's Edition; and March 29, 2011, as a Special edition and Standard edition. The Ten Commandments received a 4K UHD Blu-Ray release on March 30, 2021.
BOX OFFICE RECEPTION
The Ten Commandments was the highest-grossing film of 1956, and the second most successful film of the decade. By April 1957, the film had earned an unprecedented $10 million from engagements at just eighty theaters, averaging about $1 million per week, with more than seven million people paying to watch it. It played for 70 weeks at the Criterion Theatre in New York, grossing $2.7 million. During its initial release, it earned theater rentals (the distributor's share of the box office gross) of $31.3 million in North America, and $23.9 million from the foreign markets, for a total of $55.2 million (equating to approximately $122.7 million in ticket sales). It was hugely profitable for its era, earning a net profit of $18,500,000, against a production budget of $13.27 million (the most a film had cost up to that point).
By the time of its withdrawal from distribution at the end of 1960, The Ten Commandments had overtaken Gone with the Wind at the box office in the North American territory, and mounted a serious challenge in the global
market - the worldwide takings for Gone with the Wind were reported to stand at $59 million at the time. Gone with the Wind would be re-released the following year as part of the American Civil War Centennial, and re-asserted its supremacy at the box office by reclaiming the US record. Also at this time,
Ben-Hur - another biblical epic starring Charlton Heston, released at the end of
1959 - would go on to eclipse The Ten Commandments at the box office. A 1966 re-issue earned $6,000,000, and further re-releases brought the total American theater rentals to $43 million, equivalent to gross ticket sales of $89 million at the box office. Globally, it ultimately collected $90,066,230 in revenues up to 1979.
It remains one of the most popular films ever made. Adjusted for inflation, it has earned a box office gross equivalent to $2 billion at 2011 prices, according to Guinness World Records; only Gone with the Wind (1939), Avatar (2009), Star Wars (1977), Titanic (1997), The Sound of Music (1965), and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) have generated higher grosses in constant dollars. The Ten Commandments is estimated to have sold 262 million tickets at the worldwide box office.
The Ten Commandments received generally positive reviews after its release, although some reviewers noted its divergence from the biblical text. Bosley Crowther for The New York Times was among those who lauded DeMille's work, acknowledging that "in its remarkable settings and décor, including an overwhelming facade of the Egyptian city from which the Exodus begins, and in the glowing Technicolor in which the picture is
filmed - Mr. DeMille has worked photographic wonders". Variety described the "scenes of the greatness that was Egypt, and Hebrews by the thousands under the whip of the taskmasters" as "striking", and believed that the film "hits the peak of beauty with a sequence that is unelaborate, this being the Passover supper wherein Moses is shown with his family while the shadow of death falls on Egyptian first-borns".
James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter declared the film to be "the summit of screen achievement. It is not just a great and powerful motion picture, although it is that; it is also a new human experience. If there were but one print of this Paramount picture, the place of its showing would be the focus of a world-wide pilgrimage." Philip K. Scheuer, reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, declared the film served as "almost as a religious experience as it is a theatrical one. C. B. remains, at 75, the ablest living director of spectacle in the grand manner. His production measures up to the best for which his admirers have hoped—and far from the worst that his detractors expected. That old-time religion has a new look."
The film's cast was also complimented. Variety called Charlton Heston an "adaptable performer" who, as Moses, reveals "inner glow as he is called by God to remove the chains of slavery that hold his people". Powers felt that Heston was "splendid, handsome, and princely (and human) in the scenes dealing with him as a young man, and majestic and terrible as his role demands it. He is the great Michelangelo conception of Moses, but rather as the inspiration for the sculptor might have been than as a derivation." Variety also considered Yul Brynner to be an "expert" as Rameses, too. Anne Baxter's performance as Nefretiri was criticized by Variety as leaning "close to old-school siren histrionics", but Crowther believed that it, along with Brynner's, is "unquestionably apt and complementary to a lusty and melodramatic romance". The performances of Yvonne De Carlo and John Derek were acclaimed by Crowther as "notably good". He also commended the film's "large cast of characters" as "very good, from Sir Cedric Hardwicke as a droll and urbane Pharaoh to Edward G. Robinson as a treacherous overlord".
Leonard Maltin, a contemporary film critic, gave the film four out of four stars, and described it as "vivid storytelling at its best... Parting of the Red Sea, writing of the holy tablets are unforgettable highlights." The critic Camille Paglia has called The Ten Commandments one of the ten greatest films of all time.
Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 44 reviews, and reported that 84% of critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The site's critics consensus states: "Bombastic and occasionally silly, but extravagantly entertaining, Cecil B. DeMille's all-star spectacular is a muscular retelling of the great Bible story."
all star cast, with Heston and Brynner as the heavyweights
giving force to the story