The Ten Commandments
With industry analysts predicting a box-office take of over $300 million, The Passion of The Christ is easily the biggest religious blockbuster in decades. But for sheer popularity, staying power and cultural clout, it would be hard to top the biblical epics of the 1950s.
One film towers above them all. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments—which now releases for the first time as a "special collector's edition" DVD—grossed the equivalent of $790 million in its day, and thus remains one of the five most successful films of all time.
DeMille's film, still the definitive depiction of the Exodus in the popular imagination, and a staple of Easter television broadcasts, is widely mocked these days for its campy performances and its strange, eclectic cast. The unique lineup includes Anne Baxter as the lusty, manipulative Egyptian queen; Vincent Price as a smug Egyptian slavemaster; John Derek (future husband and director of Bo) as a very earnest Joshua; and, of course, Edward G. Robinson as the Hebrew traitor who ultimately convinces his fellow Israelites to worship a golden calf—who can see him, now, without hearing Billy Crystal's impression of him saying, "Where's your Moses now, see?"
But for those who can accept the film's Victorian theatricality, there is much to enjoy here, from the overpolished dialogue, which is full of quotable lines, to the domineering performances of Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as his nemesis, the Pharaoh Rameses. Perhaps most surprising, and affecting, is the genuinely tender, stern, humorous, and conflicted humanity Sir Cedric Hardwicke brings to the role of Seti, the father-figure Pharaoh who knows Moses would be a better king than Rameses, but is forced by his own prejudice to give the throne to the one prince who is not the child of Hebrew slaves.
The collector's edition DVD includes about 40 minutes of new documentary material and a full 3½ -hour audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone, a book on the making of the film. Alas, these bonus features do not offer many insights into the political and religious agenda with which DeMille made this film, or into what made this genre so popular; for the most part, they focus on movie-set anecdotes and the incredible attention to detail with which the sets, props, and costumes were made.
The biblical epics of the '50s were partly the product of an increasingly religious sensibility within American culture, which at the time was consciously opposed to the atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union. It was also a decade in which the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance while "In God We Trust" became the standard slogan on American currency. But the biblical epics also came out at this time because Hollywood was fighting for its survival against the arrival of television, and the studios achieved this, in part, by cashing in on the public's nostalgia for lavish 1920s spectacles.