Meek, Mystical, or Monumental? Competing Representations of Moses within Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956 & 1923)

Anton Karl Kozlovic

Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia

Volume VII, Number 3, 2015 I Download PDF Version


Auteur film director Cecil B. DeMille was a co-founder of Hollywood, a progenitor of Paramount Pictures, and a master of the American biblical epic responsible for the 1956 and 1923versions of The Ten Commandments. The critical DeMille, film and religion literature was selectively reviewed, and these two watershed biblical epics were examined to reveal competing representations of Moses utilizing humanist film criticism as the guiding analytical lens. It was concluded that Theodore Roberts’ mystical, wild-fire Moses differed significantly from Charlton Heston’s monumental,warrior-king Moses, and that both portrayals eschewed the meek Moses of Judeo-Christian Scripture. Further research into DeMille studies, biblical epics, and the emerging interdisciplinary field of religion-and-film is warranted, warmly recommended, and already long overdue.

Keywords: Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments, Moses, Hollywood, biblical epic, religion-and-film, Theodore Roberts, Charlton Heston

Introduction: The Master of the American Biblical Epic

Cecil B. DeMille1 (1881-1959), affectionately known as “CB” (see Figure 1) was a monarch of the movies, a film founder of Hollywood, and a progenitor of Paramount Pictures who helped turn an obscure Californian orange grove into a major movie centre that became the synonym for filmmaking worldwide (Birchard, 2004; DeMille & Hayne, 1960; Edwards, 1988; Essoe & Lee, 1970; Eyman, 2010; Higashi, 1985, 1994; Higham, 1973; Koury, 1959; Louvish, 2008; Noerdlinger, 1956; Orrison, 1999; Presley & Vieira, 2014; Ringgold & Bodeen, 1969). Not only did DeMille help institute “the Age of Hollywood” (Paglia, 1994, p. 12), but this pioneering “auteur of auteurs” (Vidal, 1995, p. 303) became the undisputed master of the American biblical epic with his iconic classics: The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Ten Commandments (1956). Because this Hollywood lay preacher utilized the silver screen as his sermonising tool, DeMille was subsequently tagged “King of the epic Biblical spectacular” (Finler, 1985, p. 32), the “high priest of the religious genre” (Holloway, 1977, p. 26), and the “arch apostle of spectacle” (Clapham, 1974, p. 21). Indeed, DeMille’s lay preacher efforts prompted one anonymous Protestant church leader to proudly proclaim: “The first century had its Apostle Paul, the thirteenth century had St. Francis, the sixteenth had Martin Luther and the twentieth has Cecil B. DeMille” (Manfull, 1970, p. 357). And yet, his career as a movie pioneer, cinematic lay preacher, and the “Golden Age of Hollywood summed up in a single man” (Mitchell, 1993, p. 17) is still grossly under-appreciated today.

The scriptural Moses is an indelible character within Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Coates, 1988) with a variety of feature films devoted to him, notably, The Life of Moses (1909-1910), The Ten Commandments (1923), The Ten Commandments (1956), Moses – The Lawgiver (1974), Wholly Moses! (1980), Moses (1995), The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Ten Commandments (2006), The Ten Commandments (2007), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Both of DeMille’s Moses movies in particular have left an indelible mark upon the popular consciousness (e.g., Orrison, 1999; Pardes, 1996; Shepherd, 2013; Wright, 2003). His 1923 version was a welcomed religious antidote to the salacious drugs, sex and murder scandals that threatened the very existence of 1920s Hollywood (Anger, 1981), whilst his 1956 version became the epitome of the biblical epic that earned an honoured place in the US National Film Registry (Library of Congress) for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant (Eagan, 2010). As such, both are worthy of closer examination of their central character, Moses.

Research Task and Methodology

DeMille’s two biblical epics were closely examined to reveal competing representations of Moses played by Theodore Roberts and Charlton Heston respectively, which were compared to the biblical Moses.2 The critical DeMille, film and religion literature was selectively reviewed and integrated into this text to enhance narrative coherence (albeit, with a strong reportage flavour) utilizing textually-based humanist film criticism as the guiding analytical lens (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989, pp. 24-47). This frequently under-utilized film analysis methodology is applicable to all genres ranging from science fiction (Telotte, 2001, pp. 35-38) to literary autobiography (Johnson, 2007). It assumes that audiences are cultured, accept the cinema as fine art, and have seen the movie(s) under discussion. Its main pedagogic function is to identify noteworthy incidents and foster critical commentary rooted in primary and secondary sources (e.g., the nominated movie(s), memoirs, autobiographies, film books and journals); and especially the tracking of themes, motifs, symbols, and other construction secrets, tropes and topoi. This analytical focus is thus tailor-made for the writer’s research task.

The Quintessential Problem of Casting Moses in the Movies

A major production problem for biblical filmmakers is finding actors who could portray the human and holy qualities of a foundational religious figure like Moses—the holy hero of the Old Testament. Let alone satisfy biblical prescriptions, Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology, and public expectations conditioned by two millennia of Church teachings and art (Flynn, 1990), plus a century of Moses movies (Britt, 2004; Chattaway, 1999, 2014; Homan, 2007; Wright, 1996). A lack of authentic images and specific scriptural facts exacerbates the problem as filmmakers are forced to make explicit what may only be implicit within the sacred text before disentangling the various conflicting representations, myths, political reformulations, and narrative accretions within history, legend, and art. For example, Moses has been depicted in various media as an Egyptian prince, conquering general, monumental architect, Hebrew slave, mystic, traitor, murder, disgraced exile, outlaw, social outcast, humble shepherd, faithful husband, devoted family man, good businessman, horned Devil, and the burdened receiver of God’s holy laws—the Ten Commandments (a.k.a. the Decalogue; the Ten Words).

Moses was also the front man for the Sinai covenant, the ambassador of God, the possessor of great supernatural power, an astute tactician, a stammerer, a weak and fearful man, a liberator of slaves, the Hebrew deliverer, a violent man, a harsh judge, the recipient of God’s punishment, the instrument of God’s punishment, and a patient but frustrated desert wanderer burdened by his fickle people. Furthermore, Moses was an emotional, wrathful, and self-doubting human being (i.e., not divine) who grew from abandoned baby to pampered prince, from desert holy man to cosmic saviour, from national leader to cultural hero via his mystic, liberator, and lawgiver roles. And yet, despite leading the Exodus and his decades of suffering and sacrifice before and after it, he was not permitted to enter the Promised Land (Deut. 34:4). This is a challenging task for any actor whilst it dealt with a watershed moment in Hebrew history that changed civilisation forever. Indeed, for Jews, it is the Exodus rather than Creation that defined them…Full Text PDF

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