HomeEntertainmentWhy ‘The Ten Commandments’ remains the granddaddy of all biblical epics |...

Why ‘The Ten Commandments’ remains the granddaddy of all biblical epics | CNN


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Netflix trots out a drama/documentary hybrid this week titled “Testament: The Story of Moses,” mixing a Turkish production with religion experts discussing the biblical story. The three parts total more than four hours.

If you’ve a mind to invest that kind of screen time in Moses, though, accept no substitutes, especially with the granddaddy of all biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments,” just around the corner, keeping its annual date with viewers on ABC.

Indeed, watching Netflix’s modern knockoff only heightens a sense of appreciation for DeMille’s efforts at a different time in the evolution of the movie industry, when TV was still relatively new and special effects hadn’t reached their digital heights.

There are plenty of reasons to savor the original movie, most of them having to do with the casting, some of it campy and awful in a truly wonderful way, some just plain spectacular.

As Moses, Charlton Heston brought a sense of conviction to this epic role (see also “Ben-Hur”) that anchored the movie in a way few actors could, before or since. Yet at the top of the heap look no further than Yul Brynner as Moses’ rival and eventual foe Rameses, who tells his reluctant bride-to-be with princely swagger and sexuality, “You will come to me whenever I call you, and I will enjoy that very much. Whether you enjoy it or not is your own affair… but I think you will.”

On the other end of the spectrum there’s Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, Moses’ first love and Rameses’ reluctant bride when he ascends to pharaoh. Famous for her role in “All About Eve,” Baxter chews through much of Egypt, repeating “Moses” so often (as in “Oh Moses, Moses”) that one might be forgiven for concluding that’s both his first and last name.

The supporting cast is equally delicious, including Edward G. Robinson sounding like he’s in a gangster movie and still stealing every scene he’s in as the traitorous Dathan, Vincent Price as pharaoh’s master builder and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Rameses’ father, Sethi, who loves Moses more than he does his own son.

ABC has aired the film more than 40 times since 1973, making it a solid Easter and Passover staple. Already 220 minutes long, the broadcast window with commercials has ballooned to four hours and 44 minutes, spilling out of primetime before Moses can descend from Mount Sinai with the you-know-what.

Although broadcast TV doesn’t possess the only-game-in-town clout that existed when ABC first showed the movie, “The Ten Commandments” has remained a potent draw, perhaps because it’s the kind of film that can be watched – certainly in bits and pieces, if not all the way through – over and over. Last year’s telecast averaged more than 3 million viewers opposite NCAA tournament coverage, which it will face again this year.

DeMille, of course, became practically synonymous with lavish, star-studded costume productions, starting with a silent version of “The Ten Commandments” in the 1920s and including “Samson and Delilah” in the ‘50s.

Even by those standards, “The Ten Commandments” stands apart, both for its visual effects (the parting of the Red Sea is still a landmark sequence) and the soap-opera qualities wrapped up in the Moses-Nefretiri-Rameses triangle.

Given that, even with broadcast television having become a shadow of what it was, there’s something reassuring about seeing the movie return year after year, marking the calendar in a way only a few Christmas specials and movies can rival.

As TV traditions go, perhaps that’s why this one has proven so enduring. Or as Brynner’s Rameses might say, “So let it be written. So let it be done.”

“The Ten Commandments” will air March 30 at 7 p.m. ET on ABC.

“Testament: The Story of Moses” premieres March 27 on Netflix.

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