It's time again for that annual Easter weekend event, the marathon 4½-hour showing of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" on ABC.
Why ABC shows it on Easter is beyond me, since the story really is about Passover. Fortunately for the network, Passover and Holy Week overlap this year; but that doesn't usually happen. This year, I propose a drinking game: Every time a character utters an outlandish line, you take a drink. For instance:
"Catch a lotus, and you catch a wish!"
"Are you a master builder or a master butcher?"
"A charging chariot knows no rank!"
And my favorite: "Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!"
Needless to say, "The Ten Commandments" doesn't have anything to do with religion. It's about what most Hollywood religious movies are about: sex, sex and more sex, all dressed up in Biblical trappings. And DeMille was the master.
The most elaborate scene is the big orgy going on at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses is up on the summit getting the tablets. It took more than three weeks to film, and, according to Charlton Heston's autobiography, the process was so grueling that one of the female extras was overheard complaining, "Who do I have to (sleep with) to get OUT of this movie?"
Incidentally, Heston wasn't DeMille's first choice to play Moses. He wanted William Boyd, television's Hopalong Cassidy, but Boyd turned him down. Anne Baxter wasn't the first choice to play Nefretiri either. Audrey Hepburn was slated for the role, but DeMille vetoed her at the last moment for being "too slim" (Cecil liked his leading ladies voluptuous). The movie is a treasure trove of bad acting, and the worst has to be Heston himself.
There's a long-standing rumor that one of the 25,000 extras was a young man named Fidel Castro playing an Egyptian soldier. In her autobiography, Shirley MacLaine said she asked Castro about it when she met him, and she received an ambiguous answer.
So how did DeMille achieve the movie's crowning special effect, the parting of the Red Sea? Simple: They poured 300,000 gallons of water into a tank and then played the film backward.
Incidentally, you won't see the entire movie on Easter Sunday night. Even 4½ hours (including commercials) aren't long enough for the whole thing, so ABC always cuts a few minutes here and there to squeeze it into the time frame, leading one critic to quip, "It's been trimmed to seven commandments."
DeMille wasn't the only offender. Sex-and-sandal movies have been a Hollywood staple since the silent era.
But if you're in the mood for a truly religious film, a handful do exist. Among them: "Monsieur Vincent" (about Saint Vincent de Paul), "Francis of Assisi" (which affected actress Dolores Hart, who played Saint Claire, so deeply that she quit Hollywood and became a nun), "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "The Passion According to Saint Matthew" by Pier Paolo Pasolini and -- believe it or not -- "Monty Python's Life of Brian," which has more true spirituality in any given five minutes than "The Ten Commandments" has in 4½ hours.
Happy Easter and Happy Passover, too.
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.