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Should I Feel Ashamed?

Posted by acdtest on April 23, 2003

Should I Feel Ashamed?

ast night, ABC, using a splendid if at times over-color-saturated film-to-tape transfer, aired its biennial Passover/Easter season showing of the legendary Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. This almost half-century-old movie — a standout example in the long tradition of Hollywood spectacles that had its American beginnings in cinema’s infancy with the great D. W. Griffith’s two seminal works, Birth of a Nation, and Intolerance — has held up surprisingly well over time, and as is the case in most years it’s aired on ABC, I was last night among the audience tuning in.

Even given my generally snotty tastes in cinema, that’s hardly surprising as I’ve had something of an obsession with this movie ever since its 1956 release; an aberration which was for me a source of some little embarrassment.

Well, O.K., some major embarrassment.

In my crowd, at the time, the lingua franca of cinema discussion was the films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and while one might have been able to screw up enough courage to admit to liking a movie by, say, Alfred Hitchcock, or one of the several Frog directors, even though such an admission would be good for at least a month’s worth of snide remarks and jokes at the confessor’s expense, to admit to liking a movie by DeMille, and one of his God-and-sex biblical epics no less, was an admission so reckless and fraught with peril that something other than mere courage was required. Something like, you know, wanton stupidity.

As already noted, however, I was obsessed with this movie, and so, mildly ashamed though I was, admit to it I did, and in consequence suffered banishment from our cinema roundtable until a plea of temporary insanity permitted me to again join the conversation.

But the roundtable knew only the half of it. Or to be more accurate, only the hundredth of it. For in the first two years of the movie’s release, I saw it — in the theater, and by actual count — 103 times, even traveling to out-of-town locations whenever that became necessary. By the end of that period I knew the dialogue, every word of it, verbatim and by heart, and knew, too, every miniscule fault of production, and even the faults of various release prints, as well as I knew my own body’s birthmarks.

Well, there’s no precise accounting for obsessions and the layered, byzantine, and mostly unconscious thought processes which provoke them. But those 100-plus viewings aside, should I really have felt so ashamed of liking this movie as much as I did, and in fact still do?

Consider the script, for instance. Although the dialogue has its share of embarrassing lapses — most often when it quotes verbatim and with cloying sanctitude from the King James version of the Hebrew Bible, or when it’s trying to score some moral point — it’s in large part fairly literate in the context of the story told, especially in the movie’s opening half. True, the script’s sneaky but box-office-savvy occasional attempts to insinuate parallels between Moses and Jesus are more than a little annoying, as is the over-ripe, King-James-y prose of the occasional voice-over narration (spoken by DeMille himself). But these are mere quibbles when one takes into account the movie’s gargantuan 220-minute running time.

Then there’s the score for the movie by Elmer Bernstein which is nothing to sniff at. It’s a rich, quasi-Wagnerian affair, more than musically competent in its own right, and perfectly suited to its task; just what a first-rate movie score ought to be.

How about the handling of the story itself? Its dovetailing of the Hebrew Bible narrative with speculative material based on then current biblical and archaeological research, most of it having to do with events not covered by or only hinted at in the biblical narrative, is fairly seamless and, for its time at least, perfectly plausible. Plausible as well for its time, and well detailed, too, were the myriad of things Egyptological and Bedouin, due allowance made for license poetic (such as Ramses II — father of some 150 children — having but a single wife and child). The costumes, for instance, were largely spot-on correct, as was most of the architectural detail (again, allowance made for poetic license). The only truly tacky thing in the detail department was the absurd, Ted Turner Production Really Bad Beard given Moses at movie’s end. I keep hoping that for the next release someone will take a digital pen to those closing frames, and give the departing Moses a beard worthy a prophet of his stature.

And what about the actors? Pretty much perfect casting all round, actually. Charlton Heston, from whom even the great Orson Welles could not coax a nuanced performance, could not have been more perfectly cast. Other than Heston, no-one then (or now, for that matter) had the required on-screen bearing necessary for a role so mythically heroic. And if his performance lacked nuance, well, so what. There was little nuance called for. One might even say it was part of the role’s job description. Ditto the role of Ramses, in which role Yul Brynner did his born-for-it king thing to perfection. In like manner much the same could be said for all the principals, all of whom were, at worst, competent (if hammy) actors, and at best, thoroughly convincing, as was perennial screen villain Vincent Price most particularly in the role of the nasty and lecherous Master Builder, Baka.

And the cinematography? First-rate throughout, of course, which is just what one expects of a Hollywood product. The technical side of Hollywood movie-making, then as now, is so superb it could, if its personnel were so inclined, make even a rank beginning director appear a seasoned pro. And while a few of the many vaunted special effects were a bit tacky even then (the two cartoony “pillars of fire” most especially), they were no more so than were the vaunted video-game-tacky special effects of, say, Star Wars, a movie made some twenty years later.

All this, however, is but mere fussy detail. What’s really notable about this movie is its quality of telling an heroic, mythic saga in the earnest, literal, and straightforward way sagas have been told and retold around hearths and campfires for millennia prior to our era; a quality reinforced by DeMille’s occasional voice-overs. In those bygone eras, if the storyteller really knew his stuff, and his narration, sung or spoken, was properly keyed to the sensibilities of his audience, he could be counted on to stimulate the imagination of that audience into generating images in an at once individual and collective theater of the mind wherein the saga would, in vivid images as recognizable and familiar to one’s neighbors as they were to oneself, spring into glorious, palpable, larger-than-life life.

DeMille at his biblical-epic best, as he was in The Ten Commandments, was just such a storyteller who not only knew how to straightforwardly tell a Judeo-Christian heroic saga keyed to the sensibilities of his audience, but provided that audience as well with vivid realizations of images effectively latent in their imaginations since earliest childhood, and by so doing bring to life for them that heroic saga in all its palpable, larger-than-life glory.

Should I really have felt (feel) ashamed of liking such a movie?

Not in my saner moments.

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