I'm no Biblical scholar, but I'm pretty sure the 11th Commandment was, “Thou shalt show The Ten Commandments every year on network television on or around Easter Sunday.”
Every year, sometime around April, deeply religious as well as deeply secular viewers find themselves faced with the possibility of sitting down on the couch and absorbing 220 minutes worth of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 masterpiece The Ten Commandments. It's as sure a sign of spring as the first red-breasted robin.
ABC, having landed itself such ungodly Sunday night hits as “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey's Anatomy,” is quite expectedly choosing to stick with its usual Sunday night lineup. As a result, The Ten Commandments has been bumped to a pre-Easter Saturday night warm-up slot. Now you can watch all three-and-a-half hours of the movie and eat your Easter ham around the table with your family. (Traditionally speaking, you were required to wait until after the Plagues to take a dinner break.)
ABC tried to make up for this year's programming slight (Teri Hatcher = better ratings than Moses) by broadcasting a brand-new miniseries version on April 11 and 12. ... Thanks, but no thanks, guys. Dougray Scott as a wishy-washy Moses with a Scottish accent just doesn't cut it for me. In the Biblical acting stakes, you just can't beat the mighty intonations of doom coming from Heston's beard-bedecked lips. Plus, the 1956 version has got all-star casting down to an art: A pre-“Addams Family” Yvonne de Carlo as sexy Sephora; a pre-Bo Derek John Derek as Joshua, Edward G. Robinson as some sort of Chicago gangster/slave master; Vincent Price, John Carradine, Anne Baxter, Debra Paget and--oh my, yes--Yul Bynner as the Pharoah Rameses.
Of course, the film's fine casting sets up some interesting quandaries. Charlton Heston's Moses or Yul Brynner's Pharoah? It's a tough call. Heston's got the voice, but Brynner cuts a mighty suave figure in that miniskirt. Plus, DeMille lenses the Egyptian scenes with such Leni Riefenstahl-esque reverence, you get the impression he's straining to side with them--if only Pharoah had offered the slaves better workman's comp. Given the evidence at hand, I think I might have stuck with Pharoah.
The acting is, of course, broad and stiff. You'd never mistake the film for an accurate historical picture, what with its eye-popping colors, its kitsch and its PG-rated orgy (which, famously, took three days to film). Still, add up the grandiose proclamations (“Let my people go!”) and the magnificently cinematic imagery (the Red Sea? C'mon!), The Ten Commandments just feels Biblical.
DeMille was always more interested in the majesty than the morality, and he more than delivers, offering his audiences sweeping melodrama, kick-ass old-school special effects and chest-heaving sex appeal. (It's hard to tell who's more in love with Moses, Anne Baxter or John Derek.) So, whether you're into Easter for the resurrection of Our Lord and Savior or just for the bunny-shaped chocolate, The Ten Commandments is a must-see annual event. Bring your own deviled eggs.