The story of Moses beautifully comes to life in director Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 extravaganza The Ten Commandments, which returns for its annual Easter-weekend airing on Holy Saturday night, April 3, at 7-11:30 p.m. ET/PT.
This is one movie has stands the test of time (the '50s special effects aren't the best, but they're not bad), and it earns the title of epic. Its scope is vast, dramatic and sweeping; post-Moses, Heston gets a bit stiff, but everybody else happily chews scenery throughout; there are extras, horses and chariots for all day; and while there are Scriptural liberties and extra-Biblical characters, the meat of the Biblical Exodus story is still there.
This sheer size of this story appeals to all ages, as the adventure of Moses, from the time he was a baby until his death, spans an emotional and turbulent time in the history of the Hebrews.
At the center of the film is Moses (Charlton Heston), who led his people out of slavery and to whom God gave the Ten Commandments, which have had an incalculable effect on culture and law. But before we get to that part of his life, the film looks at how he became a Biblical icon.
Fearing a prophecy, Egyptian Pharaoh Seti (Cedric Hardwicke) demands all Jewish boy babies be killed. Not wanting her son to die, Moses’ mother, one of a group of Hebrew slaves, places him in a basket and sends it down the Nile River, where Pharaoh’s childless sister Bithiah (Nina Foch) discovers it.
Bithiah takes the baby and raises him as her own. Moses grows up as a prince alongside Pharaoh’s son Rameses (Yul Brynner). Moses is obviously Seti's favorite, along with the throne princess, Nefretiri, played by Anne Baxter, whose parentage is not specified (but whose bangs game is strong).
But when he discovers his Hebrew heritage, Moses faces a dilemma. Does his allegiance lie with the Pharaoh or with his people? As they say, blood is thicker than water, and Moses chooses the Hebrews. So Moses is banished from Egypt.
In time, having found a home and a wife (Yvonne De Carlo) among devout desert shepherds, Moses receives a divine summons from God, via a voice from the Burning Bush. He knows he must return to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of bondage.
It is on this long and arduous trek back across the desert -- with a dissatisfied group of Hebrews in tow, including a wily Hebrew former overseer (Edward G. Robinson) -- that he receives the tablets with the laws of God.
Although ABC traditionally airs The Ten Commandments on Easter weekend, it's actually about the institution of the Jewish holiday of Passover, a movable, multi-day feast that, this year, began at sundown on March 27 and ends Sunday evening, April 4 (also, this year, Easter Sunday).
Passover celebrates the Exodus with the traditional dinner/service known as a Seder. Jesus' Last Supper, marked on Holy Thursday during Holy Week, was a traditional Seder. For Jews, it is a celebration of Moses and freedom, and, for Christians, it is also a celebration marking a pivotal event in Jesus’ life.
The movie was a large production of Biblical proportions -- literally. It was filmed on location in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and on Mount Sinai, where Moses ascended and returned with the twin tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God.
With a $13M budget, it was the most expensive film production for its time. Despite this, it turned a profit, and was the most successful film of 1956 and the second-highest-grossing film of the whole decade.
The Ten Commandments was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture -- but only won one, for special effects (probably because of the parting of the Red Sea).
In 1999, the Library of Congress selected it to be included in the United States National Film Registry and thus preserved for future generations. To be selected a film must be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The Ten Commandments is all of these.
In 2008, the American Film Institute (AFI), named The Ten Commandments as one of the ten best film epics of all time.
The Ten Commandments is a long movie, not unlike the Exodus out of Egypt. It's not purely Biblical, but it is a film families have enjoyed together for decades and will continue to delight viewers of all ages for many more.
If you miss it on ABC, The Ten Commandments is now available in a 4K version on DVD/Blu-Ray and multiple streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime Video.