Updated: Jul 13, 2019
This week I'm looking at 12 movies in honor of Easter and Passover. So far, I've looked at The Last Days in the Desert as well as The Robe & Risen. Today, I temporarily turn from Jesus movies and beginning looking at a Passover movie. Or perhaps I should say the Passover movie - what is undoubtedly the most popular depiction of Moses' life (not to mention the Old Testament) that has ever been made.
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Ramses II), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri)
Adapting: The Book of Exodus
The Egyptians, fearful that a prophesied Hebrew deliverer has been born, order the execution of the Hebrew males. The baby Moses escapes, gets adopted into Pharaoh’s household, and ends up becoming a triumphant Egyptian general and a rival of Ramses II for the throne of Pharaoh and the hand of Pharaoh’s daughter, Nefretiri. Moses compassionately seeks to reform the treatment of the Hebrew slaves, only to discover that he himself is a Hebrew. After being exiled from Egypt because of his solidarity with the Hebrews, Moses eventually encounters God at Mount Sinai and is sent to rescue the Hebrews from slavery. This puts Moses on a collision course with Ramses II (now Pharaoh) and Nefretiri, as well as the corrupt compromisers among his people.
...if you haven’t read the book of Exodus recently, you can be forgiven for failing to distinguish the parts of the film that are actually from Exodus and those that have been drawn from other biblical stories.
The Whole Bible
While the Book of Exodus is the primary source that The Ten Commandments follows, several other biblical passages are merged into the narrative in subtle but creative ways. Indeed, if you haven’t read the book of Exodus recently, you can be forgiven for failing to distinguish the parts of the film that are actually from Exodus and those that have been drawn from other biblical stories. For example, the film presents Moses’ birth as a fulfillment of prophecy and Egypt’s murder of the Hebrew boys as an attempt to avert the birth of the prophesied deliver but we see no trace of this concept in Exodus itself. You may wonder then why this move feels so familiar, even biblical. The reason? Because it is – even though these aren’t elements of Moses’ story, they are part of Jesus’ story. This not only makes these changes feel genuine, it also serves as a kind of retroactive typology, making Jesus’ life appear to resemble Moses’ even more than it actually does.
The secondary villain Dathan is also significantly influenced by other parts of the Bible, particularly Numbers 14 & 16. Throughout the accounts of Exodus and Numbers, there are a variety of voices that speak against Moses, both before and after the exodus. These voices are all put into the mouth of Dathan (one of the few rebels who is named by the Exodus account), all so as to unify the plot and character development. Moreover, whereas the Golden Calf is presented in Exodus as a idolatrous tool to continue toward the land, The Ten Commandments presents the incident more in line with Numbers 14 as an attempt by an Egyptian-oriented rival to usurp Moses’ rule and lead the people back to where they came from.
“The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? The same battle continues throughout the world today.” - Cecil B. DeMille
The Ten Commandments begins with a much more blatant statement of purpose than most modern moviegoers are used to seeing. DeMille, the director, appears on screen and says, “The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? The same battle continues throughout the world today.” This comment suggests to viewers that we should identify the character of Ramses with modern (Communist) dictators and, consequently, identify Moses’ struggle for freedom and liberty with America’s Cold War. And in fact the main conflict is less focused on the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (as in the book of Exouds) and more on the triumph of Freedom and Law (that is, American values) over Tyranny and atheistic communism (Ramses’ atheism getting highlighted through the skeptical approach he takes toward the miracles). This is why The Ten Commandments concludes, not by focusing on God’s promises having been made complete but rather with a random quotation from legislation about the year of Jubilee, “Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” – which, more importantly, also happens to be an allusion to the Liberty Bell.
That's it for now. Tomorrow I'll continue on the Passover theme by looking at The Ten Commandments spiritual successor, The Prince of Egypt, and its sequel, Joseph King of Dreams.