5) Thou Shalt Go into the Desert to Find Thy God and a Hot Wife
Header shot Summit of Mount Sinai , Credit Mohammed Moussa 2013 via Wikimedia
We’re taken to a rock carved prison cell at night with Rameses, Nefretiri and Moses. Rameses, for all his denials and hair splitting over whether Moses is his brother or not, could not be more of a classical older sibling (medium jackass) at this point. He has Moses downed and at his mercy and what he does with all this power he has waited for for so long is he makes everyone listen to him monologue and ask rhetorical questions for a bit.
Before announcing that He, Rameses, out of his great munificence is going to let Moses live, and do the right thing in the most assholish way possible.
So, Rameses might deny it, but I’m pretty sure adoption has made them brothers. Still, the whole question of saving Moses is framed in the context of his relationship with Nefretiri (In a 2019 version she’d be the sister they’re both trying to bang). And Moses, I imagine deliberately, has never said that much about it. All the high blown romantic imagery and ‘cannot live without you’s, well that’s all been Nefretiri. Moses just seemed kind of stoked to have a girlfriend.
Also, it’s kind of hard to compare it with not dying suddenly and violently in about 4 hours. Break ups and exile are hard, but decapitation’s harder, you know?
Back at Baka’s
Dathan is taking everything Baka had. His clothing is even grander, he’s hired his brother to be his own Dathan (who has got the sycophancy down from the start). And everyone is suddenly a lot more ethnic at Dathan The Villain’s house than we’ve seen in the honest (white and middle American flavoured) slave pits and hovels. Dathan mimics Baka right down to requesting a change of flower on captive Lilia’s headdress.
And then he does something Baka never managed because Dathan’s lonely virtue is that he’s smarter than Baka ever was. He coerces Lilia into forced prostitution because he has something she wants. She wants Joshua to live.
He leverages Lilia’s obedience. The scene works because of Lilia’s distress, which feels real and immediate and makes this scene hard to watch in a way her scenes with Baka never were. And Dathan is established as our secondary antagonist as he crosses from amoral opportunist to proper evil.
The Fate that Waits for Moses.
Well, there’s the tactless announcement of his biological mother’s death.
The henchman here is the Captain of the guard and he’s played by Henry Wilcoxon – an actor earlier in his career, at this point his main job was Producer and creative/practical collaborator for De Mille.
Rameses dresses Moses up ironically, and names him “The slave who would be king”. Moses then gets a ceremonial dressing up with an ironic robe of estate, Chekhov’s Staff,and one single day’s rations. I mean, take away the days rations and that’s images, actions and language all picked up and deposited here from the crucifixion story, and a retcon over 3000 years in the making.
Captain of the Guard is called Pentaur and he protests that it will take Moses many days to cross the wilderness, if at all. Rameses doesn’t acknowledge this as a problem and commends Moses to his God, claiming…
But wait, apart from the best haircut I’ve seen all movie they’re cutting between Rameses who is clearly on a sound stage and Moses who is in an actual glorious looking desert. As he crosses into the wilderness and we wonder what will befall him we know one thing.
Into the Crucible with a Far too Reliable Narrator
Uncle Cecil is back and he’s narrating redundantly again.
There’s little in the over 3 minute voice over he delivers that wouldn’t be better served by just shutting up and letting the incredible pictures and performance he captured do the same thing on their own. 1956 was a while ago, now. We have split timelines and unreliable narrators in our Art. We don’t need to be led through basic story.
And yet…right at the end, it all starts to work. Every damn time I watch it. Ask the question why I am still drawn to this film, why I felt the need to research its production and director and write about it for months and it’s 10 year old me watching this scene that always comes to mind.
Every time it starts I begin annoyed at Cecil breaking in to narrate again, but come the end there’s something about the depth and drive of the language, the way the score gets its second wind, Heston’s performance,
and it all rises to elevate the scene to a level of serious and measured grandeur that just clicks. It always twangs my reverence node, and that’s basically vestigial at this point. I don’t normally host video, but as I clearly have no distance from this, judge the end of the scene for yourself.
For me, it’s a little bit of magic. It’s a trick where I can see how it’s done -the score, the language, the performance and the incredible landscape when nearly everything we’ve seen for an hour has been on a set, but the trick still just continues to work. And all despite this sequence, when you get down to it, actually being a fairly simple tale of… Man Locates a Well.
The State of Mount Sinai
Some of the filming of this scene happened at Mount Sinai – at least a possible Biblical Mount Sinai: the historical front runner and name holder in Egypt – De Mille and the highest ranking production members stayed at the monastery there.
It was remote and difficult, but it might have been the time during filming when De Mille felt closest to the historical roots of the story. They were out in Moses’ wilderness, and the work was hard but rewarding. De Mille was hugely impressed by the engineering his team got done in such a remote location (The monastery acted like a base camp and they would have to walk up from there to the shooting spots, yet there was still track laid for the camera for the most important shots – 1954 was very pre-steady cam and nothing was portable.), and Charlton Heston won the crew’s admiration with both his willingness to take the required knocks (many takes stumbling and dragging himself over broken ground- he was pretty banged up at the end of it) and despite this, maintaining his thoughtfulness towards others – wiping his footprints clean from the sand if he could at the end of takes. There was a real commitment to succeed against very difficult conditions when they were working here.
De Mille found these location shots absolutely necessary to give the rest of the film weight, or “The scent of the real”.
De Mille had Heston go kind of ‘semi-method acting’ for Moses. He could do what he liked when out of costume, but when in costume he had to act appropriately for Moses- No reading a paper or sitting with a coffee or announcing he was going to pee. He had to be stoic and dignified and largely silent the whole time people could see Moses when they looked at him.
They filmed for three days on Mount Sinai (about a day of filming went on this sequence), in hot days and cold nights, once without water for 5 hours. When they left Sinai the Bedouins that had worked as porters staged The Wolf and The Sheep – an ancient and relatively unchanged dramatic presentation, that De Mille was delighted to imply could have been seen by Moses himself, perhaps on that very spot. He probably got the biggest thrill from believing it himself.
He marched at the head of the group to their shooting spots every morning, but when he climbed the monastery steps to look at the stars one night his friend Henry Wilcoxon noticed that De Mille was suddenly in difficulty, gasping for breath and a bad colour. De Mille refused any assistance, and Wilcoxon was both surprised and concerned. His friend was 73 years old and a long, long way from medical assistance.
If De Mille had the same cardiac episodes at Mount Sinai today, he’d find a hospital a mile down the road from the monastery, right next to two of the five hotels and hotel complexes in the town. St Catherine is an unlikely town, which sprang up in the 1980s in this remote part of Egypt which was a truly forbidding landscape to settle in for most of human history.
In 1967,at the end of six day war Israel occupied the Sinai penninsula, and they and Egypt fought periodic confrontations over it until 1979. The large hotel complexes that sprang up in the 80s and 90s are now quite dilapidated. Rich tourists staying for weeks never appeared in the numbers needed to keep the big hotels going. Near 20 years of increasing unrest and occasional terrible violence have basically made sure of that, so these big hotels still accommodate hundreds of tourists a week, but almost all of them just for one night. People come up the night before by bus, and climb Sinai starting early next morning before returning to wherever they are staying – usually Sharm Al Sheikh. Mount Sinai is a day trip. So the big hotels in St Catherine have been trying to survive on pocket change for two decades and it shows. The smaller hotels and the multiple lodges in and around St Catherine are apparently the place to go if you’re staying any longer and would like some comfort.
Now Mount Sinai is hiked by many times the total number of that 1950s film crew every day, and it’s not an untamed landscape any more. Sections of it are pretty crowded and commercialised.
In 1954, when Heston and De Mille were here the whole town of St Catherine didn’t exist. There were a few Bedouin settlements that co existed with St Catherine’s Monastery, and a couple of other tiny isolated religious settlements. But also in 1954 General Nasser was very keen to signal how different his attitude was to the United States from his attitude to the old European powers, specifically France and the UK whose collective asses he was gearing up to kick heftily in 1956. So the world famous American filmmaker found he could film wherever he needed to. Nothing was too much trouble and of course the Egyptian military would be delighted to help.
De Mille, when he stayed here, stayed in the Monastery of St Catherine, in the room normally reserved for the Archbishop of Sinai and was amused by the brand new modern bathtub that had somehow been delivered and installed for him before arrival.
The Valley where your penis is a Unicorn Horn.
But Moses might have landed somewhere even better.
Imagine a world where just owning a penis makes you a magical creature, to be desired, sought after, and ultimately kind of worshiped. Welcome to the lands of Jethro, stranger, where there is just the one topic of conversation. Their older sister finds Moses when she is gathering up stray members of their flock. Sephorah is played by Yvonne De Carlo and has more carefully arranged hair than her sisters, blue eyes, a dazzling white frock and an air of the pure, clean and sensible Mid West about her.
She tells her sisters what she has found a man and once they have squeed approval, thrown aside their waterskins and rushed over, it’s time for an immediate fashion critique.
While they are examining their Moses in a bower, three rowdy dudes roll up and worry the sheep. Apparently these guys don’t count as ‘men’, because the girls are not pleased to see them. While a ‘get stones’ idea is briefly pursued, Jethro’s girls have apparently not been running battle drills to the extent required to mount anything other than a damn sorry defence of their herd and drawn water.
The daughters of Jethro equate to modern day Israelis so it’s safe to say that if you drop in on this number of Israeli ladies today you’re running into a lot of women that have served in the military. However in this scene, Sephorah’s ‘kind of prod him a bit’ attack, accompanied by a lot of yelling from her sisters doesn’t work out and goodness, isn’t it lucky that the girls have a Moses, who has, incidentally, gone from “out cold and dehydrated” to Jason Bourne:
Sephorah’s sisters all stare at Moses in adoration and then fight each other to wash his feet. In their enthusiasm, they get it all a bit wrong, naturally.
While her sisters crowd Moses, sensible Sephorah goes to see if their father will let Moses stay for a bit, and then we cut to Jethro’s tent. All his daughters bar Sephorah remain unremittingly high pitched and giggly, but Jethro seems fond enough of them. He and Moses to a formal welcome/response that goes down well, and Moses is very upfront about being an escaped slave.
Jethro isn’t really worried about the punishment for harbouring an escaped slave. He’s far more interested in how Moses crossed the desert, and attributes this to God, who we are reminded has no name.
Jethro is played by Eduard Franz, an American actor, but somehow (and I might be getting led by the colouring of his robe, here) Jethro’s accent keeps veering towards Ireland.
Moses is offered a place with Jethro’s tent when they go to the high pastures beneath the Holy Mountain. He’s unsure but gets persuaded that the job isn’t that hard, and is handed off to Sephorah for shepherd training, to the intense disappointment of her sisters.
Lunch and Light Heresy
Sephorah, accomplished shepherd, is bringing lunch to her trainee, because it only takes an afternoon or two for him to take her job, and for her to get relegated to long distance trolley lady.
Nope. He’s still thinking about God. Moses is still raw about slavery, and is planning his own day trip up Sinai, to ask a few pointed questions when God is home.
Sephorah tries to talk him down with the whole ‘ineffable plan’ concept, and then lets it drop that she knows who Moses is. Apparently there has been talk of a ‘Great One’, cast out of Egypt, and Moses is so awesome that has to be him. He doesn’t outright deny it, but says his staff ‘is the staff of a wanderer’. So she asks him to stop wandering and stay with them. And it’s a middle distance staring tournament as we fade out.
The Hero of the Shearing Festival
Jethro’s other daughters are in bright clothes and particularly exited, and for once the reason is not thinking about men. They bring it back to men immediately, as they talk about the men that will be at the shearing festival, particularly Moses. We go into the main tent where everyone else is sodding delighted with Moses, because apparently a lifetime of extravagant wealth managed to teach him incredibly canny, yet absolutely fair negotiating skills. Even the guy he negotiated with is delighted by him.
Back in the women’s dorm, Sephorah walks in.
Sephorah gives her sisters some of her ornamentation and says she will not be dancing tonight, or displaying herself like a caravan’s wares. It sounds like it could be vestigial self respect, a worrying trait to keep an eye on.
Moses has done incredibly well this year. So much so that Jethro has a plan which makes all the Moses talk backstage make sense.
Moses is diplomatic and self effacing, saying that it’s an impossible choice, but Jethro has a plan for that too. Moses is to ‘Consider them as they dance’ apparently. He tells Cohab, whoever Cohab is to ‘Strike a bow’. We cut to the other side of the tent to find there’s been a whole band there, just hanging out.
The dance from there is pretty basic, the point being “Get Moses’ attention anyway you can once you hit the middle”. I’ve got no idea how Moses is supposed to remember whose shawl is whose. Of course it doesn’t matter, because as exited as the attendant sheikhs are at the prospect of Moses’ evening, and as fulsome as his compliments are, Moses was never that into this whole deal. So he makes the best excuse he can,
to the terrible disappointment of Sephorah’s sisters. And then he goes out to, er, ‘tend the sheep’.
Moses, involuntary pickup artist
Disappointingly, Sephorah has had one thing on her mind, and was facing entirely the wrong way to be watching the sheep. No wonder she lost her job to Moses.
Moses is not an asshole, though. He tells her pretty promptly that he chose none of her sisters. And Sephorah guesses correctly why he did not do that. Wait, wait. Is Sephorah, like, significantly gay? Because she’s been very vividly picturing an Egyptian woman with an emphasis on the sensual and appears to be pretty damn into it. I’m looking forward to her and Nefretiri meeting up.
Oh no, (sadly puts aside fan fiction) it’s just a side effect of her character being blatantly written by a dude. Which becomes clear in the next section, where Moses just sits there while this imperiously hot woman just negs the living shit out of herself, for two whole goddamn minutes.
You keep thinking she’s going to stop, but there’s more and more. Moses finally points out that he doesn’t have much either, and asks if she would fill the emptiness of his heart. Sensibly she says that she couldn’t fill all of it.
He puts that bit of string he’s been fiddling with around her wrist, which is some kind of betrothal deal. Sephorah is managing to combine disbelief with adoration and you think they might just kiss when God weighs in with a rumble.
And we cut to Egypt.
Out with the Old
There’s a point where we skip forward years, but it’s hard to tell if it’s here or before the next scene. From a story perspective it could be either, but when we go back to Moses and Sephorah they’ll have been married a few years.
In Egypt, the sun is setting, the throne is empty. Pharaoh Seti is dying. Still he has opinions about his main priest’s pre-eulogy. Anne Baxter as Nefretiri is great, desperate for Seti to stay as long as he can, and not wanting to miss a moment of his presence. Conversely I’m pretty sure Rameses just has a countdown to Pharaoh clock going on in his head.Rameses is apparently gracious enough to recognise Seti’s worth as Pharoah, while of course referring to Seti’s reign as kind of an intro to his own. Seti says no doubt Rameses will make Egypt feared, as he wishes, for Rameses can overcome anything, apart from his own arrogance.
Moses, for both Nefretiri and Seti, was what could have been, for her as a husband and for him as the future of his monarchy. Seti’s breaking of his law is a kind of reconciliation by proxy. And we get this shot at the end of the scene, I assume both for symbolism and because it was just too pretty to leave out.
Meanwhile at Mount Sinai
Moses is making a shofar for his son. Who’s, let’s say around 5 or 6 years old. So it’s been a while. He’s telling him the story of Ishmael, and when his son asks if the God he’s talking about is the same one that lives on the mountain Moses does a great ‘Closeted Agnostic Dad’ impression.
Suddenly Sephorah is calling.
Moses smiles indulgently at his son (Gershom, apparently) tries sounding the alarm on the shofar, tells him to wait there until his mother returns and then the kid disappears for about the next 40 minutes of the film. So, she’s out of her purity costume, they’re co-sheparding and working on her self esteem issues. I approve of this marriage. Although Sephorah’s middle distance staring is apparently getting worse and more random.
Moses finds the man up on a rock, being kept at bay by his dogs. It’s Joshua! And you can tell he’s near death because he barely drops 2 and a half feet to enter this scene. If you think this is too big a coincidence for celestial sat-nav, that’s cool. Joshua says a copper merchant recognised Moses in the tent of Jethro, so he’s actually been trying to get here since he escaped the mines. Moses promises peace to Joshua but Joshua is not up for it, Rameses having really upped the oppression back in Egypt, and the Jews are dying in droves. Sephorah brings water and Joshua, understandably given what he’s been through, is getting a little wild eyed about Moses being chosen to free the people. Moses is not having it. He’s happy with his life and doesn’t see what this has to do with him until…
Hello Moses, It’s Me, God.
And Moses ascends up through some great location shots, with the full Bernstein score lifting him up.
Until he hits some burning bush. Interesting effects here. I’m surprisingly impressed by the burning bush. I first saw The Ten Commandments on TV as a child and this is one effect that has been done favours by better definition and getting back on to bigger screens.
The soundscape is really interesting. The score goes down to a few violins and then fades out very quickly as Moses enters the same space as God. For the first time in the film it’s suddenly silent apart from the noises Moses is making. And when we hear the voice of God (at least this time) it’s Heston’s voice slowed down.
Fascinating idea, De Mille saying that as God spoke to Moses through his mind, it made sense for it to come through in Moses’ own voice. God would be played by a different voice for the return to Sinai, but for this scene it’s Heston himself. And the first thing God has to say is Take Off Your Damn Shoes, Moses, For Thou Art In My Living Room.
He asks God (What he needs with a spaceship, no, sorry, not that) why he hasn’t heard the cries of his people who are enslaved. God says Oh but he has heard (ineffable, don’t you know) and he is sending Moses to free them. Heston has some great line readings showing he is completely willing, but just does not know how he’s supposed to do this.
Once he’s freed the people he’s to bring them back to Sinai to serve God and get the laws they’re going to live by.
Back Down the Mountain
Joshua is recovering and Sephorah is worrying when Joshua spots Moses, coming back to base camp.
And, seriously, the second thing out of Sephorah’s mouth is to ask where his shoes went. Moses is stuck with explaining that the first thing that God said to him was to take his damn shoes off.
Moses is all about the spirituality and could just philosophise all day right now, but Joshua keeps pulling Moses back to the matter at hand asks what God had to say, clearly really hoping for a “Time to Take Egypt” proclamation, and he fishes his wish.
Congratulations, you have reached the intermission of The Ten Commandments.
You may now pee.