The Birth of Two Nations

What is the secret charm of a 57-year-old biblical spectacle to millions of Americans around Passover and Easter, when Cecil B. De Mille’s 'The Ten Commandments' is a perennial television favorite?

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Cecil B. De Mille’s "The Ten Commandments" was a huge success when it was first released in 1956. It made an astonishing $43 m. But it continues to be popular today - it is the only religious epic that is regularly broadcast on U.S. television during the Passover and Easter holidays each year. Why is this so?

The answer lies first in the film's universalization of the significance of Passover for its 1950s American audiences. Passover was reinvented as an American story of freedom harmonizing fittingly with the new Cold War faith in religion and spirituality.

Implicit comparisons were made in the film between the textual bases of American freedom (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) and biblical law (the Ten Commandments) in order to universalize the sources of American freedom and to highlight their importance as worthy successors to the Holy Scriptures.

But, at the same time, the film was de-Judaized and drained of any specifically Jewish content. This was extremely evident in its promotional materials, which severed the story from its particularistic ethnic and religious origins as a Jewish moment of freedom.

“The Most Significant Human Drama Ever Lived!” proclaimed the headline banner of the film’s poster. It continued thus: “Cecil B. De Mille has recorded, for all ages, the dramatic story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, bringing to life through the medium of the motion picture screen, this inspiring theme.”

The original theatrical trailer emphasized famous non-Jews, such as Michelangelo and Van Dyck, and removed any identifiable Jewishness and Judaism from those Jews it felt duty-bound to include, such as Philo, Josephus and Jesus.

Nowhere was the Passover story’s specifically Jewish/Hebrew/Israelite nature mentioned. Indeed, the film was not only promoted as a “human drama,” but also its appeal to non-Jews was explicitly stated: “Cited by leaders of all faiths as a spiritually enriching experience making the Bible thrillingly alive.”

De Mille made no attempt to understand Jews or Judaism, leading to cardboard characterizations, and where Jews do appear in the film they do so more out of necessity than choice.

The casting of Charlton Heston as Moses clearly intends to depict him as a Westerner. In the trailer, for example, De Mille compares him to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, commenting on their physical likeness.

The cumulative result of the Americanization of the film was that the Jewish features so central to the biblical story were watered down and neutralized. Passover’s role as the formative moment of Hebrew/Israelite nationalism and religion is conveniently forgotten.

The second reason for hijacking the story lay in the time of its production. Released in the midst of the early Cold War, the film could not help but allude to that context.

In its opening narrative, De Mille described it as “the story of the birth of freedom.” He then identified this freedom with the American struggle during the Cold War: “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? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

Not only were the specific ethnic/religious markers downplayed, but also the values of the film were relocated within those of the West. The film’s values are undeniably Western. The Middle East is reconstituted as the Middle West and the Promised Land is conflated with the United States. Indeed, the film was actually shot in the California desert. As Moses, Charlton Heston is even posed to resemble the Statue of Liberty as he carries the two tablets.

The third reason is the long-held American fascination with Moses, the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Exodus provided inspiration for the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and the other revolutionary leaders called themselves “Israelites” who were throwing off the yoke of the “Pharaoh” in their “Promised Land” during their war of independence from Britain.

On the day American independence was declared, July 4, 1776, a committee comprising Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was appointed to design an official seal for the new republic.

The design proposed by Franklin showed the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea as Moses led the Israelites to freedom, with the motto, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

The Liberty Bell was inscribed in English with God's instruction to Moses: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). As a testament to this influence, a marble relief of Moses is in the House of Representatives.

What’s more, the decision to locate the capital of the United States outside the territory of the individual states was influenced by the precedent of Jerusalem, which was not situated within the land of the individual 12 Jewish tribes.

Finally, De Mille produced a thrilling spectacle at a time when American screens were awash with them. He took his 1923 version and amplified it into an epic of Biblical proportions.

Where it had originally been merely two-strip black-and-white, it was now in glorious full three-strip Technicolor; where it had once been silent, it was now in full stereophonic sound; where he once had only the most rudimentary of facilities (the splitting of the Red Sea was achieved using Jell-O gelatin), he now had vastly improved special effects; and where it had been restricted to 35 mm film it was now in full 70 mm widescreen Vista Vision.

Not until 1956 did De Mille possess the technology and vast financial resources - the $12 million budget of "The Ten Commandments" broke spending records of the time - needed to bring the Bible to life. Perhaps even better than the original.

So the Passover story was connected to the precise moment of American nationhood as well as the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. And the Exodus provided a prophecy of the end of the Cold War in its depiction of a liberator defeating an evil dictator.

Moses won the struggle for freedom, demonstrating the power and might of belief in God over the futility of atheistic totalitarianism. Thus Passover was universalized as an “inspiring theme” to win the Cold War.

As a consequence, the Jewish origins of "The Ten Commandments" were subsumed and replaced within a Cold War faith in freedom that rendered the festival drained of any specifically Jewish content for an American audience.

Charlton Heston as Moses in "The Ten Commandments."Credit: AP Photo/American Movie Classics, FILE

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