Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Ten Commandments (1956)
On July 11th, 1920, the enigmatic Taidje Khan was born on a craggy island in Russia to Mongol parents. He would go on to become a radio announcer in occupied France, a nude model, and the pharaoh that refused to let Moses and his people go.
That last job was in Cecil B. DeMille’s larger-than-epic epic about Charlton Heston’s beard and its theological powers to turn staffs into snakes and free a people from bondage by parting the waters of the Red Sea. With powerful eyes that held their own against the seasoned Heston, Khan made for an imposing young co-star as the evil, gold headdress-ed Rameses the Second.
Taidjie Khan and his Mongol heritage is a fake name and a fake story, but it’s a story that Yuliy Borisovich Brynner loved to tell the press to make himself seem even more exotic. Looking back, his Russian birth, early career and booming voice that echoed inside that shaved skull of his seems like it would have been plenty to keep the press on their toes.
I can imagine the stories now: a young, attractive Russian man leaps out of nowhere to launch a movie career with two huge films in the same year. One of those films was The King and I, where Brynner reprised the Broadway role he had made famous for the few years leading to the film’s release. The second film was The Ten Commandments, which you may know from its perennial Easter presence on your television.
On the 90th anniversary of Yul Brynner’s birth, I find it fitting (although I was also tempted to write about Cool Runnings) to celebrate an incredibly iconic role in his career that is in no way his most famous.
The film tells the slightly Biblical story of a young boy who is sent down the river by Hebrew parents who didn’t happen to want their first born son’s head cut off at the legal will of a paranoid Pharaoh. The child is found by the daughter of said Pharaoh and grows up in the glittery shadow of royalty. He doesn’t stay in that shadow very long, though. He emerges as a charismatic general named Moses (Heston) who is loved by all except his brother Rameses II who will eventually take the throne and the woman Moses loves. Then, all heaven breaks loose when Moses finds out his true heritage and is told by God (in the form of inflamed shrubbery) that he must free the enslaved Hebrew people and lead them to a land of milk, honey, box office success, and Academy Awards.
If you were told this story as a child in Bible school or in your parents’ living room, then you know how sprawling and awe-inspiring it is. The story of Moses and the Exodus is the first tale of true hardship and triumph in the Bible that borrows some elements from The Epic of Gilgamesh and stands as a model for the Christ story that would come later. There’s a black crown-wearing villain and a white haired hero brandishing two stone tablets.
Of course, there’s a clinical element to the written word here that gets left in the dust of the film. DeMille was a man of large tastes, and here, he takes a classic tale of Good vs Evil and highlights the best verses with the splendor of the time period and the sheer brassiness of each character that comes into the fold.
Heston (who impressed the director with his knowledge of Ancient Egyptian History (bone up for your next audition, theatre majors)) commands the screen with the gruff brutality of a man on the largest of missions. His stentorian subtlety is so Orson Wellesian that even when he’s feigning weakness and unsureness in the face of God, it seems likely that he’ll break the act at any moment and proclaim, “Just kidding. I’ve got this one, Big Guy. No sweat.”
It’s shocking that a dirt avalanche wasn’t created when he whispers.
As for the birthday boy, Brynner held his own so thoroughly against Heston that audiences unfamiliar with his Broadway fame must have been pleasantly surprised by his raw emotional force. As a modern audience who has seen the bulk of his long career, we are robbed of that viewpoint, but it’s important to remember that at the time of the film, Brynner was a budding nobody sparring against The Savage.
Despite it being just one segment of the four hour-long film, Brynner’s Pharaoh enduring an upstart slave and his God’s plagues is the most memorable. However, it’s the Bible that has the edge over the movie here. Why? Because there were some plagues that DeMille couldn’t figure out how to do. In fact, the elements left out from the original story are, regrettably, pretty fantastic. Here’s a short list of amazing things from the Bible that would have been incredible on the big screen:
- God doesn’t send the Angel of Death for the tenth plague, and even though it might have seemed cheesy, a character called the Angle of Death should never be left out of anything.
- No plague of frogs on screen. Fortunately, Paul T. Anderson took care of this oversight with Magnolia.
- In the movie, DeMille opted to show the earth opening up and swallowing the sinners of the camp whole (but he couldn’t figure out how to drop frogs from the sky?) while in the Bible, Moses commands the righteous to take up their swords and kill all the sinners unmercifully. Earthquake versus Hebrew slaughter is a tough choice, I’ll admit. Both are pretty fantastic.
- No one in the movie bursts into song when the Pharaoh and all his Egyptians are killed.
Those details aside, the film is a masterful work that tells a beautiful story. It is dated, yes, but Heston and Brynner have the kind of acting style that makes you shut up and listen while the production design that’s bathed in bright colors, desert sweat, and crimson opulence grabs the eyeballs and doesn’t let go.
Beyond its brilliance, it’s also the second pillar that Brynner’s career was built on. He’s a phenomenal actor who rose to prominence by playing two hard-hearted rulers and would go on to become a Western icon, an action star, and a dramatic mainstay. We have the honored ability to rewind that career all the way back to the beginning to see the roots of the actor he’d become. You can watch The King and I if you’d like, but for my money, celebrating the man’s life and career on the 90th anniversary of his birth is done best by allowing him to stop you in your tracks with the humanity he instills in a truly evil man faced with a choice between political victory and the life of his child.
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