by Brad Nelson
It’s strange. I had always thought of “The Ten Commandments” as a grand, biblical, faith-based story comprised of larger-than-life characters in a larger-than-life setting. And this certainly is a grand film. According to a Wiki article, it was the highest grossing film of 1957. And adjusted for inflation, it’s the fifth-highest grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Canada. It’s filmed in VistaVision using the Technicolor process. The movie was restored in 2010 and the Blu Ray version that I watched was nothing less than stunning. Of note as well is that this was Cecil B. DeMille’s last film. And he certainly went out with a bang.
Grand it is. But for some reason, and for the first time, I understood this story as a story about freedom. In the very opening of the movie, the narrator says: <em”>Man took dominion over man, the conquered were made to serve the conqueror, the weak were made to serve the strong, and freedom was gone from the world.” And in one of the best scenes in the movie — the one where the Hebrews are partying hearty while Moses is up on the mountain receiving the commandments — Moses confronts the idol-worshipping ingrates:
Mob reveler: “We will not live by your commandments.”
Moses: “There is no freedom without the law.”
The parallels with the present day are stunning. One should first note what “the law” actually means in this case. Just or unjust, sacred or secular, the law as we understand it now (thanks in large part to the Judeo-Christian legal and philosophical underpinnings) is not whatever proclamations come out of the mouth of Pharaoh as in <em”>So let it be written, so let it be done.” (Does that remind you of today’s EPA, OSHA, or Federal circuit courts?) The law, as we understand it today, (and we are in the midst of reverting to a more primitive understanding) is a rule that is known ahead of time, along with the punishment for not obeying it. Only in this way can there be any kind of freedom. If one doesn’t know the law ahead of time, one is subject to the vagaries of others. And experience has shown, there is no freedom under those circumstances.
The alternative to knowing the law ahead of time is the rule of kleptocrats, bureaucrats, and tyrants who speak of “democracy” but the rules are whatever they decide they are. One need not technically be a Pharaoh to rule by decree. The Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) have made themselves Pharaoh in our own land as they ignore the supreme law of the land (the Constitution) and decide for themselves, according to their own whims, what is the law. And our state and Federal governments are littered with almost impenetrable bureaucracies who have the power to, in effect, make up the rules, and dispense the fines, as they see fit. This is also tyranny.
The faults in our sense of justice — old or new — are legion. But perhaps I should first address the major fault of this film as many people see it, that the dialogue is too melodramatic and over-the-top. This is actually true to some extent. But it is meant to be that way. This is the capital-G, fire-and-brimstone, Old Testament God who is front-and-center. This is not Meg Ryan rambling on in some insipid romantic comedy.
Besides that, there’s really no bridging the cultural divide in which “grand” today is typically understood as movies such as “Jackass” where grown men shoot bottle rockets out of their asses. “The Ten Commandments” is not, as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens would likely condescendingly argue, a crude morality play meant for the religiously gullible and baffled. Instead, this is a movie that speaks in such a large and grand voice, it does appear to be a bit over-the-top at times.
And it is meant to be iconic, where sometimes the words out of someone’s mouth are meant to sound as if they were, or should be, chiseled into stone. And even if this were not the case, living in the age that we do of trite text messaging where <em”>Dude, howzit goin” is considered sophisticated conversation, the script of “The Ten Commandments” will sound like a foreign language to those with minds habituated to tripe.
And there is another grand theme besides freedom in this film. In our multiculturalist age of political correctness and class consciousness (where one’s prime duty is to hate the rich and apply the law according to one’s race, color, or class based upon notions of victimhood), one of the other central themes of “The Ten Commandments” will seem strange, especially to those indoctrinated into the cult of the Left, the ones who think they already are the height of cosmopolitan compassion and tolerance. There is a wonderful scene in which Moses (now discovered by his rival, Rameses, to be Hebrew and not of Egyptian blood) is brought in chains to the throne of Sethi (his stepfather) by Rameses (played brilliantly by Yul Brynner):
Sethi: What evil has done this to you?
Moses: The evil that men should turn their brothers into beasts of burden, to slave and suffer in dumb anguish, to be stripped of spirit and hope and faith only because they are of another race, another creed. If there is a god, he did not mean this to be so.
A major advance in mankind is the idea of blind justice, that the law applies equally to the rich or poor, black or white, male or female, etc. But now sitting on the Supreme Court is a justice (Sonia Sotomayor) who once judged a case based solely on the color of people’s skin. Our affirmative action laws and other state-sponsored non-blind “justice” have further retracted us into a Pharaoh-like era where the law is not blind.
Freedom and true blind justice for all mankind are amongst the great themes of this movie. And however foreign or silly the dialogue or acting seems to the tastes of modern yutes, these themes are among the grandest of all. It is not the vibrant Technicolor or hi-res VistaVision that gives “The Ten Commandments” its weight. It is not even the superb actors and sets. It is the timeless principles upon which our own culture is based, even if we are losing touch with those principles.
There are so many memorable scenes in this movies. It’s hard to pick just one to highlight. But one of my favorites is the one where, after their escape from Pharaoh across the Red Sea, Moses goes up into the mountains to receive the law from God. He’s gone for forty days and Obama (err…I mean Edward G. Robinson, who plays “Dathan”) demagogues to the crowd saying they’d be better off in Egypt where at least there was food and, hey, let’s build a golden calf and worship it. And everyone debauch! And let’s sacrifice the water girl! And how about some “hope and change”? Woo hoo!!! Where’s my tape of “Jackass”?
In the movie, the children of Israel had witnessed no less than ten stupendous miracles, each of which had pulled their butts out of the fire. But they wander quickly and are easily misled with attention spans resembling those of today’s video gamers. The children of Israel had just, after great suffering, been given their freedom. And here they were pissing it all away.
That made me think of my own country. We have this grand Constitution whose purpose is freedom for the individual. And we’re pissing it all away in an orgy of entitlement spending. The golden calf of our time is Big Government which is worshiped (or at least trusted) like an idol. We have been given such a great country that has time and again been defended at great cost. And here we are pissing it all away as we worship the idol of Obama, of unions, of entitlements, of “social justice,” etc.
So Moses throws the tablets into the mob and the survivors are forced to wander the desert for forty years until the memory of their great transgression is wiped out. Paying off our bill to the Communist Chinese who have funded much of our borrowing may take a bit longer.
But do watch this movie again, especially if you can see it on Blu Ray. This movie has gained more from the hi-res format than any other movie that I’ve seen thus far. The only one I can imagine topping it will be “Lawrence of Arabia,” when, and if, that comes out on Blu Ray. All in all, a superb masterpiece by Cecil B. DeMille who gives an opening in-person prologue to this movie. I don’t know that I had ever seen that before.