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Ten Thoughts While Watching DeMille’s "The Ten Commandments"

This past Sunday, April 5, I joined thousands of other viewers by watching the regular Easter broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie, “The Ten Commandments.” It’s cheesy, bombastic, and pretty ridiculous, but so much fun. I always find something new every time I watch it, probably because it’s such a BIG movie – literally thousands of extras running around, which makes sense considering DeMille was the Golden Age of film’s James Cameron. I scribbled down some notes while I watched, which I thought I would share: if they make you look up the film on your cable provider’s On-Demand menu, my work here is done.

1.  Are those?…Yeah, those are definitely nipples protruding in the scene where Nefertiri plays senet (an Egyptian board game) with Pharaoh Seti, and they aren’t Seti’s. You can clearly see them through that gauzy dress. Since this was filmed in the fifties, I figure that can’t be intentional, maybe the screen is doing something funny. Hello, Google. So I found conflicting reports – one site says that DeMille wanted a special bra with built-in nipples made for Anne Baxter to wear, to make it look like she was busting out of her dress. Another site says that those are legit her nipples, and that the censors must have had a bad day and missed them completely. Either way, it’s totally hilarious, and a nice reminder that what passes for nothing today (on screen anyway) was whole other matter in 1956.

2. Yul Brynner, you wear those Egyptian costumes like nobody’s business. You were the reason I rooted for Rameses to win when I was ten and watching this on TV. Seriously though, how many actors today could get away with rocking a sidebraid, blingy gold jewelry, and a kilt? And look totally badass while doing so.

3. Anne Baxter’s performance as Nefertiri makes me wonder what her screen test for this role was like. She’s so campy I get secondhand embarrassment for her. Out of all the overblown performances in this movie, she takes the cupcake. If she threw her hips from side to side any more violently, she would have dislocated something.

4. How did Pharoah’s daughter pass off Moses as her kid? Why couldn’t they have included that interesting tidbit in the movie? One day, she’s mourning the loss of her husband (as well as her apparent infertility) and the next day, she shows up at court with a baby. Is this more of a biblical issue or a storytelling one? So many unanswered questions.

5. Here’s another unanswered question: how the hell is Nefertiri related to Seti? Like what is her claim to the throne? Why must she marry the next king? According to the Google, DeMille meant for Nefertiri to be Seti’s half-daughter in the film, making her marriage to the next king a necessarily incestuous union, which was fairly commonplace among Ancient Egyptian royalty. However, DeMille rightly concluded that this bit of squick would not be well-received among audiences, who would leave the theater with visions of three-eyed babies and genetic disorders dancing in their heads, rather than the FX marvels that they had seen. So, he never alluded to it in the film, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions. I prefer to think of Nefertiri’s parentage as a veiled mystery – maybe she got floated downstream in a basket just like Moses, and was raised from infancy in the palace.

6. Those little Egyptian T-shirts crack me up. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean. For the most part, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous and accurate to the period. But in a few scenes, there are some costume choices that today just look…bad. Example: Moses’s one-shouldered, leather top with broad stripes of brown and black. That is some RuPaul’s Drag Race type stuff. I can’t see it without laughing out loud.

7. Cedric Hardwicke (don’t even giggle) really played Seti well. I mean, the English accent is a little distracting, and he kind of looks like a member of Parliament involved in live action roleplay, but other than that, totally believable. If you need a comparison study, look at John Turturro’s Seti in the god-awful 2014 movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

7.  Um…why couldn’t Moses just sneak back into Egypt when Rameses banished him? The Hebrew slaves are ignored by the Egyptians for the most part, in the sense that they are always covered in mud and dying of abuse, so it seems perfectly logical that instead of dealing with that drag of a desert, Moses just hightail it back to Goshen and hide out for a while. Obviously that would be a whole different movie, but it does make me wonder.

9. I keep waiting for someone to break out into song. I know this isn’t a musical, but every once in a while, it feels like it should be. Rameses should sing a Scar-like number, a la’ “The Lion King.” Maybe in my mind I’m merging “The Ten Commandments” and “The Prince of Egypt.”

10. There are a few awkward cuts in the movie where it’s obvious that footage was either edited out clumsily or scenes were spliced together poorly. I’m hoping for deleted scenes. Maybe one day, someone in a studio storage locker will find a canister of film left over from this movie, and it will contain bloopers, deleted scenes, and other bits and pieces left over from “The Ten Commandments.” Fingers crossed.

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  1. I think I can respond to 4 and 5.

    4) How did Pharoah’s daughter show up with a kid? As Pharoah’s daughter she is wealthy and powerful. She can probably travel and stay anywhere in the kingdom she desires, if the moved somewhere far from Seti to “mourn” her husband she could pass off a fake pregnancy and at some later date show up with a son she then raises in the palace.

    5) We don’t know who Nefertiri’s parents were, but they were certainly important in some way. Marriages among royalty often secured peace or trade agreements between peoples or other political alliances. That Nefertiri was pledged to marry the next Pharoah makes it clear the marriage provided something valuable to the kingdom. It’s possible that Nefertiri was of the same family lineage of the Pharoah Ay who passed on his kingdom to Haramheb. Haramheb was childless and chose Ramesses I to succeed him. Ramesses I had a son Seti I and a Grandson Ramesses II to secure the line but Ramesses I and Haremheb were not related. It’s possible that among the agreements between Haramheb and Ramesses I was that Nefertiri would wed the younger Ramesses to protect the family line and to help legitimize the 19th dynasty.

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