The Pharoah of Egypt has decreed that to prevent any saviour rising from the ranks of the Hebrew slaves the Egyptians rely on to build their cities, all the first born, male children should be put to death. One mother works out a way of sparing her infant by placing him in a basket and setting him adrift on the waters of the Nile. The baby's sister watches him to see where the basket heads, and as she wades through the rushes, she realises that it has been picked up by the Pharoah's daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch), who is so enchanted by the find that she claims the child as her own. Her servant Memnet (Judith Anderson) warns of repercussions as she notes from the swaddling clothes that the child is Hebrew, but Bithiah will hear none of it, and years later, Moses (Charlton Heston) is a prince of Egypt, with only the rivalry of his brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) standing in his way of taking his place as the next Pharoah...
For his final film, Cecil B. DeMille - who was probably the most famous producer and director of his age - deigned to remake one of his earlier hits. Now, The Ten Commandments of the nineteen-twenties had been a pretty long film at over two hours, but apparently it wasn't enough for Cecil, and this new version lasted almost four hours. You can see why he went back to the Biblical tale, as in his original attempt Moses and the Exodus had only taken up the first half of the film, the other part being a contemporary and pious story of two brothers, one righteous and the other a blasphemer. It was leavened by a spot of New Testament message, but in 1956 it was Old Testament all the way.
In his signature performance, Heston marked himself as the man to go to for earth shattering significance, and he speaks the frequently ridiculous dialogue with admirable conviction. Brynner is his equal, even making you feel sorry for Rameses despite his proudly evil ways, and as Nefretiri, the woman who comes between them, Anne Baxter is a lot of fun in a bad girl role. Those phoney, Biblical sounding lines groan with portentousness and can be highly amusing to listen to (my favourite line being, "God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils!" - Charlton should have landed that line for himself), but the overall feeling is of great weight that makes watching it something of a trudge.
In fact, it's over two hours until Moses catches sight of the burning bush, and after he does it's intermission time. If you're looking forward to seeing the special effects bringing the plagues and parting of the Red Sea to life, then you'll have a long wait. In the meantime, Moses must reconcile his life as a pampered prince with his newfound knowledge that he is in fact Jewish, and his people toil under the cruel yoke of slavery. When he receives this news, he seeks out his true mother, and makes a major decision: rather than lay claim to the throne, he will give it up and work as a slave. Rameses has been hearing mutterings of the Hebrews waiting for a "deliverer", and it doesn't take him long to figure out who that is.
Nefretiri wants Moses to return to his old life, as she now has to marry Rameses instead. The prince sends Moses away lest he cause trouble, and the outcast spends days and nights in the wilderness until he is found by a family of Bedouins, including Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo looking luminous) who becomes his wife. But the call of the Israelites cannot be ignored... Although there's a lot in The Ten Commandments that can be regarded as campy, there's one thing it takes commendably seriously and that's the death of the first born that God visits on the Egyptians. This helps to emphasise the uncompromising nature of the deity, and adds a depth of emotion too, but it's the spectacle most will be wanting to enjoy, and John P. Fulton's Oscar-winning effects work is generally superb, especially the most famous sequence of crossing the Red Sea. However, the final act does make it look as if the Hebrews were an ungrateful bunch to the extent of rejecting their God and their saviour after all they had done, which must have made this Moses wonder why he bothered. Music by Elmer Bernstein.