Apr 13, 2009

The Ten Commandments

When Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner share the screen the testosterone oozes over the tube. Who today could play either role?

There’s not much need to do a plot summary, or commentary on the 1955 version, but if you buy the version that I’m hawking over on the right side, you also get the original 1920s silent version, and that’s a whole other beast.

The original is in two parts. The first is the Exodus story. This is closer to the Biblical version than the 1955 version. It ends with Moses receiving the ten commandments. The second version depicts what happens when the commandments are violated. The story centers on a family composed of a believing mother and brother and unbelieving brother. The unbelieving brother scoffs at God and His laws. Needless to say de Mille, who loves to show sinners sinning, and then getting their comeupance, manages to have the brother break all ten commandments including the one against killing. (His score in that department is one negligent homicide and one murder.) In the end he is sought after by police, and tries to escape in a speedboat name Defiance. He crashes against rocks that for a moment look like the tablets given to Moses. So in a moment of ironic symbolism it turns out that the sinner is wrecked by the very laws that he scoffed at.

de Mille opens the movie with an intertitle that says the ten commandments are not just laws, they are The Law. This is interesting because he’s saying that they aren’t just a set of prescriptions devised by Moses, but that they are in some way eternal, and perhaps have a certain ontological status as deriving from God Himself. de Mille probably didn’t read Kafka, but it puts me in mind of passages and stories in which men seek admittance to The Law.

When you get a chance, watch the silent version.