7) It is Time For The Horror Show, which comes with God’s Set Menu
But First, The Bouncing Blame Trickshot
Last recap we left counting down to the biggest, baddest, most horrific plague, big ol’ Number Ten, courtesy of Rameses’ arrogance and cruelty (His order for Let’s Kill the First Born II), God’s immovable stance on ironic punishment and Nefretiri’s aggressive swaying of Rameses just when he was going to give in. Which is kind of interesting because that’s not how it all goes down in the Bible. The unnamed Pharaoh starts a cruel jerk and ends a cruel jerk, but he’s about ready to fold around the time the burning hail (plague 7) arrives. He hardens his own heart from time to time, and is an asshole, but from that point on it’s God with a heavy thumb on the scales repeatedly hardening Pharaoh’s heart, right after a plague when Pharaoh goes “Wow, that was intense, I should probably let those slaves go” but before God sends Moses in to ask if Pharaoh’s going to let the slaves go yet. Why does God do this? Well, according to the King James Version, Exodus 10:1-2
1) And the Lord said unto Moses, go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him:
2) And that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord.
So “Reputation, dominance, and to make sure you never forget this huge favour I did you”, apparently. There is no insidious Queen whispering in Pharaoh’s ear, just God, and no ironic ‘Get done unto you what you were going to do unto others’ aspect because Pharaoh doesn’t order any attack on the other side’s first-born, God just really wanted to end his set with the ‘killing the first born so no one sodding forgets”
This story got told and re told while civilisations rose and fell, and we got more civilised and started having time for empathy, and then film got invented and when it comes to filming the Ten Commandments the medium really drives home the point that plague 10 involves killing a shitload of people, including an awful lot of children. If the filmmakers want to go in on the horror and shock of it, then doing it for reputation, dominance and on a bit of a whim is now a really terrible look for God. So here, quite a lot of the blame for Plague 10 has shifted to the brutal, cruel slave owner and his harlot of a wife.
Who was ready to keep a nation hostage so she could get back with her ex, but who has just rushed to Goshen, once she realises that her actions have threatened Moses’ son.
Pick Up Yer Fan Fiction
Nefretiri’s ego having been invited in, given a chair and offered refreshment during that intriguingly breathless and dramatic intro, the conversation tends pretty civilised for two women both in love with the same guy. Of course, one of them being a Queen would be a brake on the instinct to tip some dirty water over or head or give her a good slapping with the back of the carding comb, but the ceasefire gets ratified when Sephorah, in response to Nefretiri’s probing questions about her marriage, points out that they have both lost Moses.
Sometimes the homespun wisdom just drops some gold and requires that you sit your expensive ass down. Sephorah is saying that the fight is over for both of them, and Moses’ relationship with God has ended both of their personal hopes and dreams. Sephorah’s right, but Nefretiri still likes her chances, and she has one pretty good move left. She tells Sephorah about Rameses’ Killing of the First Born II Plan, and offers a ‘Get out of Goshen Free’ card if Sephorah and her son leave right now.
As a side note, while you can’t hear her, you can see Sephorah’s mouth is moving as they cut to the evening shot of a moving caravan. It’s a rare bumpy edit from Anne Bauchens, who edited every film Cecil made from 1915 onwards and was the first woman to be nominated for the Best Editing Oscar (Cleopatra 1935) as well as the first woman to win it (North West Mounted Police, 1941). For her to leave it this rough makes it look like a change made pretty late in the production process.
And that shot also tells us that Sephorah has accepted the offer and time has moved on in order to set up the next scene, which is in exactly the same location, but later.
Moses arrives home, from a hard day of insurrection organizing and having picked up some lavender on the way home.
To find an empty house and Nefretiri’s silver fly swatter on his kitchen table. He stands there, looking at it for a moment, kind of trying to put 2 and 2 together. Because he somehow failed to notice the silver draped, completely in his eyeline and actively wiggling Nefretiri, who is winding up to vault herself one last time at Moses.
It fails and she has to explain where Sephorah and Moses Jr. have gone. She explains the plot of “Killing of the First Born II” in the kind of dialogue we’ve come to expect.And of course when realisation hits Moses, he’s knocked off his feet a little. He knows that his tag team partner is an ineffable deity, and the last thing they did was promise Rameses that the next threat out of his mouth would be the next plague to hit Egypt, and for the rest of the scene Moses is just trying to deal with the scope of what that means.
Moses is poleaxed by the news, but manages to explain God’s reversal plan to Nefretiri- that it is not his son that was going to die…
Nefretiri either can’t or won’t understand that there is nothing that Moses can do, that Rameses called it, and now God has to play it. Then we get a great ‘Prophet Declares the Doom’ moment from Moses.
She tries for one last high flown romantic moment with him, which Moses punctures by saying, just very gently, that she needs to go and see her son. Anne Baxter makes Nefretiri so very brittle with a hint of unstable at the end of this scene.
At the end, Moses is doubled over, his table punch of grief having left him in a suitably penitent position to ask God, one last time, if there’s not another way to do this.
The Worst Storyline
Lilia is currently a slave, threatened into sex and some kind of bound relationship with Dathan. The threat Dathan holds over her is to have Joshua killed, a threat that was more alive when Joshua was in slave-jail or in the copper mines but is still valid.
Right now, as Joshua comes up to Dathan’s house on the evening of plague night, she is strumming a lyre and is jamming the most depressing music she can think of. The hook is “Death cometh to me”, sung in a weirdly deep voice with Lyre strumming. It’s impressively bad, even for improvisation. Still, Lilia is in a really bad place right now, so maybe she gets to make really terrible music to inflict upon the world. She is delighted to see Joshua, who will give us our perspective of the plague as it hits, as he’s out and about putting the mark on doors so God leaves those homes alone. He and Lilia are apparently both first-born so he needs to get this mark done and she’s very worried that he’s out tonight.
Lilia is very down, and even argues against Joshua painting the door. She says she doesn’t have much to live for.
Dathan appears at the window, play acting the abusive boyfriend as he tells Joshua to sod off with his lamb’s blood, and repeats that Lilia’s with him ‘of her own free will’ – at least she’s willing to vaguely stand by that interpretation so Joshua doesn’t find out she’s been selling her vagina to Dathan to try and keep Joshua alive.
I’m presuming the ‘why’ of that is to stop Joshua from trying to kill Dathan, and probably some more guilt.
Dathan’s solution is to close the curtains, so Joshua paints the door anyway. And while he’s doing it the atmosphere very deliberately changes, the light changes. It starts to occur that perhaps Joshua has been out too long tonight. The score turns into real threatening horror from the old school.
And the visual, with its lurid red and green against a sickly yellow moon must have been the kind of thing Cecil, a pioneer of the silent era, had dreamed about being able to show in his movies for decades.
And hey, Joshua needs to quit gawping and get his ass home. Also he’s wearing a lot of layers for Egypt and somehow none of them are even trying to cover his chest. He’s clearly compensating for the fact that it’s the first scene for Joshua that he hasn’t entered from a height. He must be maturing as a character.
But back at Moses’ home things are getting weird.
Old School Thanksgiving
It’s kind of unfortunate that an attempt in the next scene to include some actual Jewish tradition in the film fails so hard. The use of a kind of melodic text that goes along with reading the Torah is an actual Jewish tradition, that certainly got included in several forms of Christianity, but whenever those vocal intonations are paired with an English translation it just always sounds a bit odd.
It’s also a task given to a guy who is in a room with people who are otherwise talking normally, and he’s been given one of the least lucid Psalms to keep bringing into the conversation.
There is a little boy that we shall call Timmy-Eleazar. Timmy-Eleazar has respectful questions to ask his elders, who are keeping everyone safe through their righteousness and practice of religious certainty. The answer to his latest question gets interrupted with the arrival of soldiers at the door. But it’s only Bithiah, Moses’ mum.
Bithiah’s bearers get invited in warmly too as “All who thirst for freedom may enter”, which is an enlightened opinion someone should write down a rule for, or something.
Everyone kind of grudgingly accepts Bithiah, until she says she is going to join them on their journey out of Egypt. And the general objection is on religious grounds. The princess of Egypt is not of their faith (and isn’t it their religious zealotry that’s keeping them safe tonight?). Moses is determined upon acceptance regardless of colour, culture or creed, but then the whole argument gets sidestepped neatly as Bithiah expresses an interest in Moses’ calling and becomes a conversion prospect.
The shrieks outside on the street bring everyone back to the moment, as the star of the evening is stalking up Main Street.
The mist effect doesn’t come across that well in GIF format, but you can see the way it slowly creeps up towards the camera. The individual in the doorway at the beginning can be heard saying
“Don’t…Don’t come out” in a suitably creepy way. Does wonders for the atmosphere.
The effect was made with hot oil that contained green vegetable dye being poured into a fogger. The sets had a shallow gully in the middle of the streets and the fog was slightly heavier than air. They then moved it through the set using fan blowers.
Joshua is dapping through the night like he’s the youngest of 8, and decides to nip across the street in front of the killer fog that he sees kill someone right in front of him. Then he swings open the front door and leans on it to get it all the way open, as nonchalantly as if he were carrying a surfboard and basically saying “Hey! Anyone want to have a look at the killer fog floating by?”
The little old lady in blue is Aaron’s wife Elishiba, and played by one of De Mille’s long term mistresses, Julia Faye. She was one of the last of his female companions, as Gladys Rosson, his personal assistant and the uncredited producer of most of his movies had died in 1953, Jeanie McPherson, his scriptwriter had died back in 1946, and his wife Constance was surviving but largely lost to Alzheimers by this point.
Moses assures her that it will, and then Timmy-Eleazar has a question about the menu, that gets interrupted as the horror and panic noises outside escalate into an honest to goodness chariot crash. (I think one of those horses must have been firstborn)
And everyone keeps talking because Timmy-Eleazar had a menu question, and according to the bible, menu questions are super-important. The verses in Exodus anticipating the plague are amazingly heavy on cooking instructions for your first Passover food, and when to eat what kind of bread, what you’ll be wearing when you eat it, and what you tell people when they ask you about it…and yeah somewhere in all the worship etiquette the smiting of the Egyptian’s first born gets done in a single verse.
We leave Moses’ house, where the shrieks outside continue and the occupants remain scared but resolute and knowing that whatever happens, they have really comprehensive cooking instructions.
Over at the Egyptian’s Place
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Palace, Pharoah and his commanders are hanging out on a balcony. They’re all trying a little too hard to be obviously unafraid. Rameses wants to know if his commanders are afraid of a night mist and some unsung hero from the middle of the pack points out that it’s more about the death shrieking that surrounds them, right now.
It’s Pentaur that notices the fog silently coming in from the street. Rameses decides to start taking control of the situation, before his men panic, and calls up an aide to organize tomorrow’s attack (Although how the hell Rameses men were supposed to figure out who was first born is never mentioned.). The fog starts to drift in as Rameses gives his instructions and as the aide walks away he stops.
And then collapses, delivering a message of dire portent before he dies: “Let the Hebrews go, Great one, or we are all dead men.”.
Pentaur picks him up from the ground. Rameses confirms that the aide was Pentaur’s son. Rameses realises the significance, and marches straight to his son’s room.
In the Biblical version, we only know about Pharaoh’s personal loss because it says “from the first born of Pharaoh” doesn’t say male or female or any other detail, the death of a child of Pharaoh is more implied than anything else.
Cecil started by introducing us to Pharaoh’s son in the 1923 version of the Ten Commandments and Pharaoh’s child became a son, then an only son, and either with lines or significant screen time or both in every filmed version thereafter.
Because in about 2 or 3 days Pharaoh’s character has a serious motivation problem. He has to come haring out of the Palace with an army in tow and against all reason and experience suddenly change his mind yet again, and put everything into to recapturing or killing the Israelites.
Back in the day and the Bible, God just needed to harden they guy’s heart again, and the maddened puppet screamed forth on cue. In all the filmed versions, the death of his child provides amazing motivation for a more human Pharaoh.
The boy is not dead yet, but is fading, despite the doctors in his room.
Rameses shows up and wow, he and Nefretiri are hot off the blocks assigning blame to each other. Nefretiri is still convinced that Moses can and will, somehow, save her son. Rameses is not so sure, but summons one of his captains to take his fastest chariot and bring Moses to him.
A little later Moses walks into a very different throne room. The lighting is subdued and the fires in the braziers glow a sickly green. All that can be heard are distant screams and cries from the people of Egypt. He walks in to find Rameses, no royal crown, no attendants, just sat on his throne in a reasonably plain dark robe, finally and at long last ready to surrender. Rameses wants to point out what an utter blight Moses has been to his life first, before he gives the order for them to go. Moses very gently points out that it’s not really anything that Rameses or Moses have done to free the people, but God.
And them Moses walks away, and you can hear the hope and joy rising in his voice at the birth of his nation, the score agrees and surges in with triumph, and then Nefretiri rounds the corner, the corpse of her son in her arms. Moses’ world is just beginning, and Nefretiri’s has collapsed. And no matter what critical raised eyebrows Anne Baxter got for what was a decidedly campy portrayal, this moment from her is just right. Nefretiri is a woman in shock, arms outstretched, not quite able to give up her son even after handing him over. Rameses takes his son, and pleads with his god for the life that has been taken.