The Ten Commandments – Cecil B. De Mille 1956 (Part 9)

9) Thou shalt cause some effects

God is a dad level trip planner

At the very, very end of all the lunch and commemoration instructions in Exodus Chapter 13 (King James Version) God turns to route planning.

In Exodus Chapter 13 verse 17 onwards God decided on the original, somewhat twisty route and feels the need to explain why it is so twisty. It’s so the Israelites could avoid a lot of war, because he was worried they might wuss out if they had to go through a war zone, and damn me if subsequent events don’t prove he was pretty much right. They were to go to Succoth and then to Etham (on the edge of a wilderness, apparently).

And by the time they left Etham (and it could have been from when they left Egypt, this might be just when it gets mentioned) the Israelites had the variable pillar of cloud/fire as their travel buddy. Cloud by day, fire by night: One pillar, binary setting.

Ocean’s 500 BCE

Exodus Chapter 14 KJV describes a supernatural heist with a hell of an end set piece, and an awful lot of whining, designed by an ineffable type deity, that apparently really just wanted to be Danny Ocean. And it’s funny, because I’ve never really seen that version.

I bet you’re wondering how we got here, well…

It all starts with the setup:

“…encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baalzephon” (Exodus 14:2) at which point Moses presumably asked if God was shitting him and God said, No, Mosey, those are real places.

And they get there, and sure enough those places exist, and then the story and God leave the Israelites behind in that untenable tactical position to go harden Pharaoh’s heart (Dead child motivation was a late story development for Pharaoh, it’s not in Exodus) and stir up some Egyptians.

But there’s a lot more to the Exodus version. The pillar becomes reversible, shedding light for the Israelites and darkness for the Egyptians, somehow keeping them moving but separated overnight. God also moves the sea overnight with a real strong East wind, so it’ s not sure that the Egyptians even know they are pursuing the Israelites on to a sea floor when they do. The Exodus version is wild.

In the 1956 version Joshua and Caleb are at the edge of the camp one evening and hear the mass hoofbeats approaching. Joshua is the first to spot the approaching army.

And he tells Caleb to warn the northern tents, and goes down to warn Moses himself, blowing his horn. Down at the cool elder’s tent Moses and the other elders have apparently been making sand models of their terrible tactical situation.

You’ll see how we could be doomed from here, here or, and here. We really should have been goi…what was that?
She’d know it anywhere.

Lilia, what are you still doing with that asshole, let alone unconvincingly grinding corn for him on your knees while he considers a beard trim? Joshua passes by, tells this group the news and rides on. Dathan is instantly into some doubt sowing.

Will this random thing I’ve pointed out solve all our current problems? No! Well let’s get back to slaving, then! Who’s with me?

Joshua rides down to the water side to find Moses is a lone island of chill in all this barely repressed panic, who tells him to bring everyone down to the waterside.

You’re coming at me like it’s Standard Tuesday. It’s going to be fine. Hit on this, maybe.

Pharaoh’s chariots showing up adds a lot of weight to Dathan’s words and now there’s a pro stoning Moses sub group,

and they’re set off like Moses is certifying a Democratic election victory.

Being on Pharoah’s Team sucks

Rameses and army roll up and Rameses can’t help noticing the obviously terrible tactical situation the Israelites are in.

His God is terrible at this. What? You’re looking at me like there’s an ominous cloud formation or something behind me.

Dathan and his mob reach Moses, and are just trying to get a chant of ‘stone him’ going (I mean, from Dathan’s point of view, this is the chance he’s been waiting for) when Pharaoh’s troops arrive. Dathan gets some of the lines of the doubting Israelites in this scene, particularly his opener here (Exodus 14:11).

And Moses responds with Exodus 14:13, but pithier, because no one beats Moses in spontaneous scripture unless it’s God.

You know I don’t like to embarrass the pillar of fire, but its intro has been held up until the most dramatic moment, and it is the least spectacular of this film’s special effects.

Hi, I’m here, and a basic animation, apparently. I will exist for the next few minutes as a sound effect, and maybe a little lighting, thank you.

Still, that’s OK, because all it has to do is stop one of the most useless generals of all time. Rameses, halted by the fire, doesn’t even bother with a verb for his chariot driver. He just yells “Through it!” and then when the chariot fails to move through the fire he throws down his spear like a five year old whose toy has stopped working and has a brilliant idea.

At least not with a sodding whip.

Great one. I know that when you’ve got a hammer every problem looks like a nail and you’ve been in the family slaving business a while, but you whip a fire and you just get a whip that is maybe on fire now.

No, Great one, it doesn’t hurt the fire.

Not even a little bit.


A Moment on the Promontory

The Israelites are watching, and Cecil does one of his little moments really well, as two little kids in makeshift hammocks on the side of a wagon watch, wide eyed, the apocalypse level shit going on before them.

The pillar of fire has really turned the argument. Dathan is getting less traction but that doesn’t mean he’s going to shut up.

The gargantuan supernatural guardian fire? If I said “Six hours, tops” would you believe me?

So then it’s time for Moses to lay it down and give us…

The Red Sea Shot

Paramount, The Ten Commandments 1923, De Mille.

Two 60,000 gallon water tanks dumped over a curved steel form, and then the film was run backwards for the draining effect. And, yes, the final model of the path through the water is brought to you, in many ways, by Jello.

You might, like 1923 Pharaoh, be emphatically not here for this one, but that’s a whole lot of gelatin getting melted on a big table and an actual special effect of some conviction from 1923. The feature film as a concept was less than a decade old when it was made and that’s almost a century ago, now.

Dreamworks, Prince of Egypt, 1998, Chapman, Hickner, Wells

Moving forward nearly eighty years, the Dreamworks version would like to state that after the 1956 film version scared a lot of subsequent versions, ahem, out of the water, that the animated version from the turn of the millennium did not come to play, it came to win.

It’s mesmerising, an insanity inducing scale, kind of O’Keeffe, and everyone needs to be here for it. Are you getting its best non euclidean side?

Fox, Exodus: Gods and Kings, 2014, Scott

The Red Sea crossing is one of the more interesting moments of this 2014 film. So that makes it rare enough that we should probably stop by and take a quick look. It came 10 years after the 2004 tsunami, and so it could rely on its audience having some basic knowledge. This movie could throw in markers for a tsunami type event and trust that the audience would get enough to connect it, and so this movie God gets to step back and be a clock maker for a bit.

Moses has been having a long night of the soul, and in the early hours he sees a meteor falling overhead, but there’s no flash and he is woken later by a huge flock of seabirds and the murmur of possibly wondering folk, and we might just have had our seismic triggering event, an ineffably safe distance away.

The actual crossing of the Red Sea is caused by a massive water drawback, making the fish easier to get to, hence the seabirds all around and looking out Moses can see the hilt of the sword he threw in the ocean during his faith crisis last night. Rocks start to appear.

The current gets faster and stronger and shallower, and everyone needs to get up and ready to cross right now.

Gods and Kings alone in the big film adaptations throws out Exodus 14:22 KJV (also largely repeated in 14:29):

“And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”

I mean it’s in the text and most versions treat it as scripture, but Gods and Kings throws the visual opportunity of that wall of water out because that means it can get in an amazing quasi natural event. It also makes the near biblical numbers this adaptation deals with practicable. Because every other adaptation has a slow crossing in a narrow corridor of water. In Gods and Kings the sea is very rapidly (but slowly against every other filmed adaptation) pulling back from the whole area.

There’s too many people to get them through a water corridor (and no pillar of fire this version). It’s hard for them to decide when to go but the clock is surely ticking.

So in Gods and Kings it becomes a mass crossing event.

With a new kind of tension and pretty damn spectacular, on its own terms.

Paramount, The Ten Commandments, 1956, De Mille

Often imitated, and parodied, it got all that attention and remained a touchstone because this scene was so far ahead of its time. The industry of the time just didn’t expect you to, for example, demolish a lot of buildings and design and build a massive pool with 12 tanks that could release 360,000 gallons of water for one shot, but if the shot was worth it (and it saw a lot of use afterwards), De Mille would totally do that.

From the Making of documentary on Youtube – discussion of the Red Sea effect starts around minute 52.

He’d take technology as far as it could get him, and then spend the expertise and time and work of his teams to push what they had far beyond what was currently considered a good or even a great finish. They really poured the work on to get past current limitations in their form.

When only miraculous will do

The sides of the water were shot from above in fragments and painstakingly put together using many soft egded mattes. The blue screen Henston and the extras stood in front of for the main shot was a massive for the day twenty five by eighty feet. The final shot contained thirty four negatives. Whatever could be done at the time had to stand being massively scaled up for The Ten Commandments.

The three biblically overwhelmed ladies in slow motion movement is a bit of a choice, but they have impact, and overall it’s a triumphal cinematic moment whose impact would last for decades and you could feel him reaching for through the Jello in 1923.

Dathan and family look sus. Everyone else is delighted.

Over on Pharaoh’s side, the parting of the sea certainly has an effect. Pentaur asks if maybe they should back off, after all, man cannot do battle with a god.

I’ll be right there with you. We’ll go down by this road, or that road.

So Rameses is not put off by multiple miracles, certainly hope he has a plan. A bit much to hope for ineffable, still it’s got to be something solid.

Meanwhile, Joshua both starts and exhorts the Israelite multitude with a line I know some robust American military leader must have used at the start of a battle.

And you yell something like that I think you have to be the first down into it.

And hell yeah, they’re Amer..Israelites so they do just that.

By the time they are at least 20 minutes into the victorious trudge through a sea bed, community singing has started.

The main thing is not to stop. So a guy picks up a small cart by the axle when he sees someone halted by equipment failure. Look! there are Nubians, they’re still Exodusing.

And there’s Joseph! He’s mummified and he’s still Exodusing.

Dathan’s still plotting and fearful but he’s still Exodusing. For the love of god keep moving, or we die. We all know this is untenable, just one foot in front of the other, you’ll be fine.

De Mille uses the people singing a stately version of Joseph’s song, but it fades in and out and for the most part the sound for this section is the surrounding roar of water and a whistling wind.

As the Israelites start reaching the other end, Joshua gets Moses to stand up on the rock, where people can see him and have hope.

and awe for the thigh burn section. Come on Exodus, you’re nearly through. Pick up those glutes, House of Levi.

Well, the Charioteer Pension benefits are weirdly great

Meanwhile, with Exodus God supplying a reason for some real ineffable timing, the pillar of fire at the other end starts to go out just when it needs to.

Oh dear, cannot stay…burning much longer…cough.

Of course, when the time comes to go down into the crossing, the plan gets modified a bit.

Living with the shame is acceptable if it’s me. That is worse than death for a Pharaoh.

No, this is the wrong kind of soldiering for a Pharaoh. Go down and achieve total victory and bring me my opposing leader to ride back with in chains. I will wait here. That is the plan.

These shots are contrasted with the Israelite exit at the other end, and given urgency by the chase music. Bithiah passes her final test of wokeness. She’s put children in her litter chair and is carrying another one, but she has to hand him over so she can help carry her litter herself.

That’ll do, Egyptian Princess, that’ll do.

The Egyptians are terrified but covering a lot of ground quickly.

That the shots look as good as they do is down to painstaking colour correction work, matching the location shots to studio. Optical supervisor Paul Lerpae remembered working 16 hour days for a year on the Ten Commandments, slowly and by tiny degrees getting everything as right as it could be.

The Clash

The groups seem destined to meet as an adorably counterproductive child starts dragging on its elder’s belt, yelling:

And panic overtakes the back section, who start to run as best they can for the top. Meanwhile, back in the Exodus version:

Source Curious?

Which has to take place over at least a night and some of a morning, God is stealing the Egyptian’s chariot wheels (Exodus 14:25). And the Egyptians are, in fact, trying to retreat at this point. Still, they are coming to slaughter a civilian population on the orders of an idiot, so there’s limited sympathy (of course, we also tend to forget all the heart hardening that God was indulging in).

Meanwhile, in the face of repeated miracles, and safe on the rock, whatever the problem is Dathan is still trying to sell returning to slavery as the cure.


But clearly, God had set up a trap element, and it was waiting for Moses to spring it shut.

Finished off with a pretty spectacular real wave upon the cast.

From then on it’s a tale of reaction shots.

Rameses you lost your whole damn army. You could commiserate with your right hand guy but you got him killed too. You’re finally an important enough character to survive this bit, but all you’ve got left is the guy holding your horses, trying very hard not to make conversation or eye contact with you right now.

Wow. That is going to be an awkward chariot ride home.

On the other side, the Israelites are appropriately grateful and worshipful.

And we are cool with being bait, as long as you’re here in the clutch, God ,you’re awesome.
And the Life of Brian continues to live rent free in my head.,

Back Home

Can I just say that Nefretiri’s mourning outfit is fantastic. The high contrast, the simple and elegant draping,

oh yes, also actual human emotional moments if we must.

it’s all great. Nefretiri hears Rameses approaching, and she turns ready to shower him with bitter, unmeant praise if he has been successful and get some real emasculation time in if he has been unsuccessful.

Rameses stands, glowering in the doorway, and then approaches her, looking for all the world that he means to collect on that vow to kill her,

but he never kept up his end so emasculation it is.

The final scene for Rameses and Nefretiri ends with his admission of total defeat and acknowledgment of God’s divinity, and Anne Bauchens, the editor gives them both a slow fade out into the fires of Mount Sinai.

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