Every year since 1973, the American TV network ABC airs this film on Easter, or Passover. In 1999, when for some reason ABC chose not to televise it, they received numerous irate phone calls from people accustomed to watching it every Easter than they have for any other film they have ever telecast.
According to Hollywood lore, while filming the orgy sequence that precedes Moses' descent from Mount Horeb with the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments engraved, Cecil B. DeMille was perched on top of a ladder delivering his customarily long-winded directions through a megaphone to the hundreds of extras involved in the scene. After droning on to the extras for several minutes, DeMille was distracted by one young woman who was talking to another woman standing next to her. DeMille stopped his speech and directed everyone's attention to the young woman. "Here," DeMille said, "we have a young woman whose conversation with her friend is apparently more important than listening to her instructions from her director while we are all engaged in making motion picture history. Perhaps the young woman would care to enlighten us all, and tell us what the devil is so important that it cannot wait until after we make this shot." After a moment, of silence and temporary fright, she spoke up and boldly confessed, "I was just saying to my friend, 'I wonder when that bald-headed old son of a bitch is gonna call 'Lunch!'" DeMille stared at her for a moment, paused, then lifted his megaphone and shouted, "Lunch!"
Because of the numerous scenes that required multiple cameras to be running simultaneously, Paramount had the Mitchell Camera Corporation build additional VistaVision cameras for this production. Decades later, these cameras were highly sought after by special effects companies due to their ability to produce large area negatives on standard 35mm filmstock.
In the initial Egyptian sequence, Nefretiri is referred to as "the throne princess" who "must marry the next Pharaoh." According to ancient Egyptian royal custom, this implies that she is Seti's daughter, who is expected to marry his successor, regardless of her kinship to that man. (The real Nefretiri's parentage is unknown.) But if Seti was explicitly identified as her father, it would be clear that in the end, Ramses married his sister in an incestuous union. This was evidently seen as inappropriate for a 1950s audience that would certainly include children. As a result, Nefretari was only called "the throne princess," without any explanation.
Cecil B. DeMille suffered a heart attack during the production after climbing 130 feet to check a faulty camera perched on one of the giant gates used during the exodus sequence, as it was occurring. He took two of days off and then, against his doctor's orders, returned to work to complete the film.
Until the release of The Passion of the Christ (2004) in 2004, this film was the highest-grossing religious epic in history, earning over $65.5 million in 1956. This translates into a current-day value of $446 million, adjusted for inflation.
As a publicity stunt, Cecil B. DeMille had public displays and monuments of the Ten Commandments erected around the country. Known as "decalogues," most of them were placed in, on, or near government buildings.
Last film directed and produced by Cecil B. DeMille, who, despite his fame and success for numerous Biblical spectacular films, won his only competitive Oscar for producing The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and not for any of his signature costume epics. He also won an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1950.
The Paramount mountain at the beginning of the film was a stylized version of the studio's logo. The mountain retained its conical shape but with a red granite tone and a more angular summit under a red clouded sky to suggest the appearance of Mount Sinai for this single motion picture. Its circle of stars faded in with the announcement: "Paramount Presents - A Cecil B. DeMille Production."
One day in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, a casting director for this film approached Jack Peters and his son Jon Peters to ask if Jon wanted to appear in the film, as multitudes of people with dark hair and complexions were needed to cross the Red Sea. Jon was chosen to ride a donkey and lead a goat by rope. He was so excited that he refused to wash off the makeup when he went home that night, so he would not have to put it back on the next day.
Considerable controversy exists over who supplied the voice of God for the film, for which no on-screen credit is given. The voice used was heavily modified and mixed with other sound effects, making identification extremely difficult. Various people have either claimed or been rumored to have supplied the voice: Cecil B. DeMille himself (he narrated the film), Charlton Heston and Delos Jewkes, to name a few. DeMille's publicist and biographer Donald Hayne maintains that Heston provided the voice of God at the burning bush, but he himself provided the voice of God giving the commandments. In the 2004 DVD release, Heston in an interview admitted that he was the voice of God.
Another plague was filmed but was not used, according to the commentary on the 50th Anniversary DVD in 2006. This was the plague of frogs leaving the muddied Nile, coming up onto land, frightening and chasing Nefretiri and other Egyptians through their chambers of the palace. Cecil B. DeMille felt that the scene was not frightening enough and might even be considered somewhat humorous he omitted it from the final cut.
The fiery "hailtones" that fell from the sky in the background were actually animation, as were the hailstones that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The "hailstones" that fell onto the pavilion of Rameses' palace were actually pieces of popcorn that had been spray-painted white; their advantage was that they were light, wouldn't hurt actors they were hit by them, and could be swept up and used again if needed in other scenes.
Audrey Hepburn was originally slated for the role of "Nefretiri". Cecil B. DeMille reluctantly decided to pass on her after it was judged that she was too "slender" (i.e., flat-chested). Anne Baxter, who was eventually cast in the role, had originally been a contender for the role of "Sephora."
Producer/director Cecil B. DeMille had his 75th birthday during the production of this film, making him the oldest working Hollywood director at the time. He later suffered a heart attack on the set, returning only two days later. He planned on making another epic production after this film was completed, but he died in 1959, before he could direct or produce another, making this his final film.
Originally, when Elmer Bernstein was orchestrating the music to accompany the Great Exodus of the slaves out of Egypt, the music was mournful. Upon hearing it, Cecil B. DeMille ordered him to replace it, substituting joyful, upbeat music to announce the Hebrew slaves' joy, getting their freedom.
When Yul Brynner was told he would be playing Pharaoh Rameses II opposite of Charlton Heston's Moses and that he would be shirtless for a majority of the film, he began a rigorous weightlifting program because he did not want to be physically overshadowed by Heston. This would explain his buffer-than-normal physique during The King and I (1956), the film he made just after this one.
Although by 1956 virtually all widescreen epics were being filmed with stereophonic sound, The Ten Commandments (1956) was not filmed in stereo. This makes it the only mid-to-late fifties Biblical epic not made that way, even after stereo had become the norm for spectacular widescreen epics. The sound was remixed to stereo for later releases.
Because the only widescreen process that Paramount used at the time was VistaVision, the screen process used for the original release of this film was not as wide as those used for processes such as CinemaScope and Todd-AO.
The illusion of the Red Sea parting was achieved by large "dump tanks" that were flooded, then the film was shown in reverse. The two frothing walls of water were created by water dumped constantly into "catch basin areas" then the foaming, churning water was visually manipulated and used sideways for the walls of water. A gelatin substance was added to the water in the tanks to give it more of a sea water consistency. Although the dump tanks have long since been removed, the catch basin section of this tank still exists today on the Paramount lot, directly in front of the exterior sky backdrop, in the central portion of the studio. It can still be flooded for water scenes, but when not being used in a production, it is an extension of a parking lot.
The film is usually very slightly edited for TV transmission, although because of numerous and lengthy commercial breaks, most showings clock in at close to four-and-a-half hours. Its length is 3:40, three hours and 40 minutes, commercial-free and continuous on two DVD's. This has led to some humorists commenting as if it had been "trimmed to seven commandments".
Apart from Charlton Heston, almost no one in the leading and major supporting parts were actually Paramount contract players. By 1954, when the film began shooting, most of the studios had dropped their contract players due to sweeping changes in the industry and competition with television.
When Woody Strode reported to work, he presented Cecil B. DeMille with an antique Bible that Strode's wife had found. DeMille was so impressed with the gift he not only gave Strode two parts in the film but told Strode that if he ever wanted a part in a future DeMille film, all he had to do was ask. Unfortunately, this project was DeMille's final film due to declining health.
This was Cecil B. DeMille's only movie made in widescreen. Four years had elapsed between DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and this film, by which time widescreen films had become standard practice. In 1952, when "Greatest Show" was released, all films, except for This Is Cinerama (1952), were still being made in the old non-widescreen Academy ratio.
In adjusted-for-inflation gross, this movie is the top grossing movie in the US that has not benefited from multiple releases. It is generally in the top 3 to top 10 of all-time top grossing films (depending on who made the list and how they accounted for re-releases), adjusted for inflation.
Special Effects Property Master William Sapp created the effects that turned the waters of the Nile red. Red dye was pumped into the water through a hose at the point where Aaron touched the river, with his staff. Sapp also created the vessel that was used by Rameses' priest in an attempt to restore the waters. The vessel had two chambers: one that was filled with clear water and which was located near the vessel's opening, while the other chamber was filled with red-dyed water was located near the bottom of the vessel. As the vessel was tipped to empty its contents, the clear water poured out first, and as the vessel was tipped further, this released the red-dyed water into the "river" on the sound stage. There were six of these vessels that were made for the film, but only two were used during production. The reverse shot showing the red water extending out into the sea was created through animation onto shots of the Red Sea that had been photographed in Egypt.
Legend has it that Anne Baxter's character's name was changed from Nefertiti to Nefertiri because Cecil B. DeMille was afraid people would make "boob" jokes. In reality, DeMille was sticking to history: Rameses II's queen was actually named Nefertiri. Nefertiti, by contrast, lived about 60 years earlier and was the queen of Amenhotep IV (named Akhenaten later in his reign). Both names mean "Beautiful".
There is a longstanding rumor that future Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was an extra in this film, possibly playing an Egyptian soldier. In her book "My Lucky Stars", Shirley MacLaine recalls asking Castro if he indeed was in the film, and she received an ambiguous answer.
When asking the Egyptian authorities for permission to film there, Cecil B. DeMille was pleasantly surprised to find out they were fans of his film The Crusades (1935). "You treated us [Arabs in the film] so well, you may do anything here you want," they told him.
Produced at a then-staggering cost of $13 million, the film went on to become Paramount's biggest-grossing movie to that time. For years it ranked second only to Gone with the Wind (1939) as the most successful film in Hollywood history.
Despite being credited as costume designers, John L. Jensen and Arnold Friberg did not work primarily in designing any costumes. Jensen was the lead sketch artist, and only worked in sketching out designs for certain costumes. Friberg was primarily hired to design the film's titles, which were hand lettered and photographed over a colored leather background. Friberg also contributed sketches regarding the costuming. The costume for Moses as a shepherd was patterned after one Friberg had already painted, a portrayal of an ancient prophet for "The Childrens Friend", a magazine published by the Primary Association, the children's organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Friberg is a member.
During the early part of principal photography, Yul Brynner was still on Broadway starring in "The King and I". All of his shots on the actual Egyptian locations were done in one day after which he had to fly back to New York.
Several shots that appear throughout the movie are shots that were matted together from scenes shots on location in Egypt and scenes shots at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Most notable scenes featuring this multi-location matte-shooting are the scenes which Moses and Sethi watch the Obelisk being raised; the slaves in the background were shot in Egypt, the foreground with Moses and Sethi shot in Hollywood, and the background pylons being matte paintings.
Gloria Swanson was originally cast as Memnet, but she was then having difficulties getting a backer for a musical stage version of Sunset Blvd. (1950) so she had to depart from the project (the musical was abandoned in the early 1960s, even after a cast album was recorded during out-of-town tryouts).
According to author Simon Louvish in his Cecil B. DeMille biography "Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art", the role of Moses was originally intended for (and first offered to) William Boyd, who had also played the coveted role of Simon the Cyrene in DeMille's silent film The King of Kings (1927). Boyd was obliged to decline the role in "The Ten Commandments" due to his commitment to the production of his enormously popular Hopalong Cassidy (1952) television series; he could not take time off from shooting that series to appear in this film. DeMille was persuaded to hire Charlton Heston for the role after being presented with a statuette likeness of Moses by the Israeli government, and noting Heston's resemblance to the statuette.
The effect of clouds that appear over the Red Sea was accomplished using a "cloud tank". A glass tank is filled with water and paint is poured into it. By varying the density of the paint, and the salinity of the water, it is possible to get several distinct layers.
Charlton Heston's newborn son Fraser Clarke Heston appeared as the infant Moses. According to DVD commentary by Katherine Orrison (a protege and biographer of Henry Wilcoxon, who played Pentaur in the movie and served as associate producer), Cecil B. DeMille deliberately timed the filming of his scenes for when Fraser Heston was about three months old--the age of baby Moses when his mother put him in the basket on the Nile, according to the Old Testament.
The original script had Moses place his hands on Joshua's head to ordain him as Israel's leader, but several crew members objected because no such action was recorded in Deuteronomy, where Moses hands over leadership to Joshua. Arnold Friberg (an ordained minister himself) pointed out that the ordinance was recorded in Numbers 27 and the scene was revised back to the original script.
Before opening credits at the theaters director, 'Cecil B. DeMille' gave a speech, introducing the film saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, this may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the film begins, but we have an unusual subject, the story of the birth of freedom, the story of Moses. As many of you know, the Holy Bible omits some 30 years of the life of Moses' life.from when he was a three-month old baby and was found in the bulrushes by Bithiah, by Bithiah, the daughter of Pharoah and adopted into the court of Egypt, until he learned that he was Hebrew and killed the Egyptian. To fill in those missing years, we turn to ancient historians, Philo and Josephus.Philo wrote at the time Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth and Josephus wrote some 50 years later and watched the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. These historians had access to had access to documents long since burnt destroyed - or perhaps lost like the Dead Ses Scrolls. The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God's law, or whether by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story, created 3,000 years ago. The story takes three hours and thirty-nine minutes to unfold. There will be an intermission. Thank you, for your attention."
The pillar of fire, which kept the Egyptians from getting closer to the Israelites just before they crossed the Red Sea, was not achieved through the use of actual flames, but was instead, an animated fire. Of all the special effects in the film, it is the one that looks the least realistic to modern audiences, and probably seemed just as unrealistic in 1956.
The "Ten Commandments" of the title are repeated several times in the Bible. The most famous version are in Exodus 20. The King James Version of this passage is as follows: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. COMMANDMENT 1: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. COMMANDMENT 2: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. COMMANDMENT 3: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. COMMANDMENT 4: Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. COMMANDMENT 5: Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. COMMANDMENT 6: Thou shalt not kill. COMMANDMENT 7: Thou shalt not commit adultery. COMMANDMENT 8: Thou shalt not steal. COMMANDMENT 9: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. COMMANDMENT 10: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." (They are listed in Deuteronomy 5, also).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When Rameses places the dead body of his son (Eugene Mazzola) onto the arms of the statue of Sokar, the body changes from Eugene Mazzola's actual body to a wax dummy. The statue was unable to support Mazzola's body weight, and it was also difficult for Mazzola to remain motionless, as if he were dead, after he was placed on the statue.
At the end of the movie, after Charlton Heston as Moses has turned over leadership of the Israelites to Joshua, he watches as the Israelites march into Caanan. At this point, Moses was supposed to have been enveloped in the fog coming down from the mountain, but the effect was never completed. As a result, Moses is shown to be standing there watching the Israelites go, and this is closer to what is related in the actual Bible than what Cecil B. DeMille originally intended.
At the concluding scene, when when Moses is saying goodbye, he gives Eliazar the 5 books (Torah) he had written under the direction of God. What Charlton Heston is actually holding in his hand is a worn but modern-day portfolio. Heston said he tried to get Cecil B. DeMille to make them scrolls, which would be more suitable for them, but DeMille refused.