This Saturday, millions of Americans will tune into the annual Passover/Easter tradition of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. If the past is any example, the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time will be the most watched show on television that night. But the three-hour, thirty-nine minute epic -- the most-watched movie of the 1950's -- may be the least understood film of its era.
Recently, as part of a coast-to-coast journey looking at the role of Moses in American history for my book, America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story, I was offered exclusive access to DeMille's private papers and personal memorabilia collection. They portray a man obsessed with Communism and determined to turn the biblical prophet into an ardent Cold Warrior. For a figure the Founding Fathers proposed be on the U.S. seal who later shaped everything from the Statue of Liberty to Superman, Moses's reinvention as a Cold War icon was an important milestone in Americans' 400-year love affair with the greatest prophet who ever lived.
Herewith are ten secrets of The Ten Commandments.
1. Cecil B. DeMille's mother was Jewish. Cecil B. DeMille was born on August 12, 1881 to Henry DeMille, an Episcopal lay minister and playwright, and Matilda Samuel, who was born a Sephardic Jew and converted to her husband's faith. In his autobiography, DeMille fondly remembers his father teaching Bible classes but never admits his mother was Jewish.
2. DeMille made a black-and-white film of The Ten Commandments in 1923. The Exodus scenes were filmed in the dunes California, and DeMille airlifted hundreds of Orthodox Jews from New York, because he believed they would make the most "authentic" Israelites. But on their first day on set, the extras were forced to fast because the commissary served ham for dinner.
3. DeMille kept a never-before-seen secret diary of his screen tests. He tested Audrey Hepburn for the role of Moses's love interest, Nefertiri ("Not pretty but a very cute personality," he wrote.) But DeMille found her breasts too small for the voluptuous costumes and the part went to Anne Baxter. DeMille's analysis of Charlton Heston was especially tough. "Has a sinister quality," he wrote in 1950. "You believe him. But he's not attractive." He goes on, "Find out if he has some humor. Everything I've seen him in he's dour."
4. Charlton Heston's robe was color-coordinated with the desert. In my tour of Heston's private collection, I tried on the robe Heston wore while splitting the Red Sea. (At 6' 2" I turn out to be the same height as Heston, but I resisted the temptation to spread my arms.) The robe is burnt-orange robe with the vertical tan and brown stripes. DeMille chose the color because he knew darker colors would prevent the actors from blending into the sandy background.
5. DeMille used his movie to spread an anti-Communist message. In an extraordinary gesture left out of the television version, when the curtains parted, DeMille himself appeared on the screen. "The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God's law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? The same battle continues throughout the world today." In the midst of the Cold War, DeMille's message was clear: Moses represented the United States; the pharaoh represented the Soviet Union. To drive home his point, DeMille cast mostly Americans as the Israelites and mostly Europeans as the Egyptians.
6. Politics even entered the Ten Plagues. DeMille depicted three: turning the water into blood, hail, and killing of the first-born sons. For the blood, he used a garden hose with dyed water. For the hail, mothballs were considered too fragile, he used popcorn. The tenth plague was often portrayed as an angel with a bloody knife, but DeMille thought the image wasn't scary enough. He chose a green fog that swooped down out of the sky. In the age of duck-and-cover drills, the fog was meant to evoke a nuclear cloud.
7. The months-long shoot in Egypt was particularly arduous, especially for DeMille. He suffered a heart attack, and he had to have his daughter chaperoned. The latter didn't work. Cecilia DeMille had a much-discussed love affair with Yul Brynner's chariot driver. The resulting scandal was such a sensation it was reported in TIME Magazine at the time.
8. As part of his plan to spread biblical values, DeMille persuaded Paramount to pay for granite monoliths of the Ten Commandments to be placed in public squares across the country. Over 4,000 were made. One of these monuments, in Austin, Texas, became the basis for the Supreme Court decision in 2005 that allowed the Ten Commandments on public property if they had a secular purpose. A publicity stunt for The Ten Commandments became the basis of landmark U.S. law.
9. The critics hated the film. It was released on October 5, 1956. One critic tagged it "Sexodus," another "epic balderdash." The New Republic deemed it "longer than the forty years in the desert." But audiences loved it. The film earned $34 million in its first year, second only to Ben Hur for the decade. By 1959, it had been seen by 98.5 million people. Today, its inflation-adjusted total ranks fifth all time, behind Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, and The Sound of Music.
10. The Ten Commandments reflects the union of Americans and Moses. In the final scene, Charlton Heston blesses Joshua, then proceeds toward the summit of Mount Nebo, where he quotes the Liberty Bell -- "Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" -- even though this quote is from Leviticus, three books earlier. Then Heston raises his hand and recreates the pose of the Statue of Liberty, which was taken from the moment Moses receives the Ten Commandments. DeMille parades Moses through the great icons of American history until he becomes the embodiment of America enlightening the world.