According to Hollywood lore, while filming the orgy sequence that precedes Moses' descent from Mount Horeb with the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are 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 an embarrassed pause, the young woman spoke up and boldly confessed, "I was just saying to my friend here, 'I wonder when that bald-headed old fart is gonna call 'Lunch!'" Nonplussed, DeMille stared at the woman for a moment, paused, then lifted his megaphone and shouted, "Lunch!"
When Yul Brynner was told he would be playing Pharaoh Rameses II opposite Charlton Heston's Moses, and that he would be shirtless for a majority of the film, he began a rigorous weightlifting program because he didn't 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. Heston would later submit that Brynner gave the best performance in the film.
Legend has it that Anne Baxter's character's name was changed from Nefertiti to Nefretiri 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 Nefretiri. Nefertiti, by contrast, lived about 60 years earlier and was the queen of Amenhotep IV (named Akhenaten later in his reign). Nefretiri means "beautiful companion" in Egyptian.
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. Gelatin was added to the tanks to give the water a consistency like sea water. The dump tanks have long since been removed, but the catch basin still exists 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. When it's not being used in a production, it is an extension of a parking lot.
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.
No one received on-screen credit for the voice of God. 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, including: Cecil B. DeMille (who also narrated the film), Charlton Heston, and Delos Jewkes. DeMille's publicist and biographer, Donald Hayne, maintains that Heston provided the voice of God at the burning bush, but Hayne provided the voice of God giving the commandments. In his 1995 autobiography and an interview on the 2004 DVD release, Heston said he was the voice of God.
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. He took two of days off, then returned to work, against his doctor's orders, to complete the film.
Charlton Heston's newborn son Fraser C. Heston played 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 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.
Cecil B. DeMille's 75th birthday fell during the production, making him the oldest working Hollywood director at the time. He planned to make another film after this one, but he died in 1959 while it was in preproduction and a week after he made an on-camera announcement about his upcoming film. The film would have been about the Boy Scouts and was to have starred David Niven as Scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell.
Although the film crew traveled to Egypt to shoot significant portions of the Sinai, Exodus and Red Sea sequences, most of the film was actually shot at Paramount Pictures' sound stages in Hollywood. Footage from Egypt was also used for backgrounds.
Because numerous scenes required multiple cameras to run simultaneously, Paramount had the Mitchell Camera Corporation build additional VistaVision cameras for this production. Decades later, the cameras were highly sought after by special effects companies because they could produce large area negatives on standard 35mm film stock.
Originally, when Elmer Bernstein was orchestrating the music to accompany the Great Exodus of the slaves out of Egypt, the music was mournful. Cecil B. DeMille ordered him to replace it, substituting joyful, upbeat music to announce the Hebrew slaves' joy, getting their freedom.
The fiery hailstones that fell from the sky in the background, and the ones that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, were actually animation. The hailstones that fell onto the pavilion of Rameses' palace were actually pieces of popcorn that had been spray-painted white. That they were light, wouldn't hurt actors, and could be swept up and used again.
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 Sethi's daughter, who is expected to marry his successor, regardless of her kinship to that man (the real Nefretiri's parentage is unknown). However, if Sethi was explicitly identified as her father, it would be clear that in the end, Rameses 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, Nefretiri was only called "the throne princess," without any explanation.
Several scenes were matted together from scenes shot on location in Egypt and scenes shot at the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. When Moses and Sethi watch the Obelisk being raised, the slaves in the background were shot in Egypt, the foreground with Moses and Sethi was shot in Hollywood, and the background pylons were matte paintings.
Charlton Heston personally requested that Cecil B. DeMille let him be the voice of God, at the scene of the Burning Bush, and DeMille agreed. According to a Jewish legend, God spoke to Moses this first time in the voice of his father, Amram, so as not to frighten Moses more than necessary.
When Woody Strode reported to work, he gave Cecil B. DeMille an antique Bible that Strode's wife had found. DeMille was so impressed that he gave Strode two parts in the film and 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.
According to the commentary on the 50th Anniversary DVD in 2006, the plague of frogs was filmed, but not used. Frogs left the muddied Nile, came up onto land, and chased 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 comical, so he omitted it from the final cut
When adjusted for inflation, this is the top grossing movie in the U.S. that has not benefited from multiple releases. It's 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.
On screen, and before the opening credits of the movie, director and producer, Cecil B. DeMille walked out from behind curtains, to a microphone and 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-months old baby, and was found in the bulrushes by, by Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh 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 Judaeus and Flavius 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 documents long since burnt, destroyed - or perhaps lost, like the Dead Sea 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 3 hours and 39 minutes to unfold. There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention."
During the early part of principal photography, Yul Brynner was still on Broadway starring in "The King and I". All of his Egyptian shots were done in one day, then he had to fly back to New York City.
The Bible never identifies any Pharaoh by name. However, this film, and all versions of the story that have followed it, make Rameses the Pharaoh that Moses has to escape from. The only evidence supporting this is the claim in Exodus that the Hebrews built the city of Rameses, and that it was named for the Pharaoh. It could have easily been named for the Sun-God, Ra. Some experts believe that the Pharaoh of Exodus was Thutmose III (also spelled Thothmes III), about 1 or 2 centuries before Rameses II.
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."
Produced at a then-staggering cost $13 million, it became Paramount's highest-grossing movie at that time. For years it ranked second only to Gone with the Wind (1939) as the most successful film in Hollywood history.
Edward G. Robinson said Cecil B. DeMille saved his career by hiring him for this movie. Robinson had been almost blacklisted for his left-wing political activism, and offers of work had dried up as a result. DeMille hiring Robinson for this film undermined the Hollywood blacklist.
Audrey Hepburn was originally slated for the role of "Nefretiri". Cecil B. DeMille reluctantly decided to pass on her after she was judged "too slender" (flat-chested). Anne Baxter had originally been a contender for the role of "Sephora."
In the original script, Moses placed his hands on Joshua's head to ordain him as Israel's leader. Several crew members objected because no such action was recorded in Deuteronomy, where Moses hands over leadership to Joshua. Arnold Friberg, an ordained minister, pointed out that the ordinance was recorded in Numbers 27, and the scene was revised back to the original script.
The orgy sequence was so difficult to film partly because Cecil B. DeMille wanted it to look like an orgy without showing anything onscreen that was inappropriate for children. This led to seemingly contradictory direction for the actors, who were trying to be tame but were then told that they didn't look like they were having an orgy.
Apart from Charlton Heston, almost no 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.
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 wouldn't have to put it back on the next day.
The effect of clouds that appear over the Red Sea was accomplished using a "cloud tank", A glass tank is filled with water and that 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.
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.
Gloria Swanson was originally cast as Memnet, but she left because she was having trouble getting a backer for a musical stage version of Sunset Blvd. (1950). The musical was abandoned in the early 1960s, even after a cast album was recorded during out-of-town tryouts.
The film is usually edited very slightly for television transmission. Because of numerous lengthy commercial breaks, most showings clock in at close to 4:30. The DVD release is 3:39 on 2 DVDs, leading some humorists to comment that it had been "trimmed to seven commandments".
Despite being credited as costume designers, John L. Jensen and Arnold Friberg did not work primarily in costume design. Jensen was the lead sketch artist, and sketched 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 costume sketches. 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.
As a promotion for the film, Paramount's publicity department gave grants to state and local governments to post stone tablets of the Ten Commandments on public land. Decades later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued to have some of these removed on the grounds that placing the Ten Commandments on public property was "an establishment of religion" that violated the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The scene in which the slaves are working in the brick pits under a sweltering sun was actually filmed on an ice-cold soundstage, so the mud did not dry under the studio lights. The scantily clad actors were actually freezing during filming, and had to be covered with oil to simulate sweat.
Joan Crawford wanted to play a small role in a DeMille film, so DeMille offered her the part of Bithiah, Moses' adoptive mother. Coincidentally, Crawford's longtime rival, Bette Davis, was interviewed by DeMille for the role of Memnet, Bithiah's slave. In the end, neither actress was cast in the film and the roles went to Nina Foch and Judith Anderson, respectively.
According to Simon Louvish's biography "Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art", the role of Moses was first offered to William Boyd, who had also played Simon the Cyrene in The King of Kings (1927). Boyd declined the role due to his commitment to his enormously popular television series Hopalong Cassidy (1952). DeMille was persuaded to hire Charlton Heston after the Israeli government gave him a statuette likeness of Moses, and noted Heston's resemblance to the statuette.
In the scene in which God writes the Ten Commandments, the voice says "Lord thy God." The Hebrew written on the stones is actually the Tetragrammaton in ancient Paleo Hebrew letters. According to modern-day archaeologists, the English translation would be "Jehovah."
Some scenes were filmed in Egypt in 1955. Relations between the United States and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser did not become fraught until the following year, when Egypt formally recognized China's claim to Taiwan and began importing Soviet weapons via Czechoslovakia.
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 Rameses' priest used in an attempt to restore the waters. The vessel had two chambers: one filled with clear water, located near the vessel's opening, and one filled with red-dyed water, located near the bottom. As the vessel was tipped to empty its contents, the clear water poured out first, then the red-dyed water. Six vessels 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.
Anne Baxter and Yvonne De Carlo, the film's two leading ladies, had always wanted to act in a Cecil B. DeMille film. Baxter became a DeMille fan after watching Samson and Delilah (1949), while De Carlo admired DeMille since the time he considered her for a supporting role in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944). In their autobiographies, both actresses say that they didn't mind the small salary they were paid for their work in the film; all they wanted was the privilege to play a role in a DeMille film.
Cecil B. DeMille and Yvonne De Carlo became very good friends; he admired her acting talent and beauty, and she had always wanted to act in one of his films. DeMille cast her as the female lead in his next production, The Buccaneer (1958), but De Carlo declined because she was already pregnant with her second child. He understood and they remained friends.
In an interview, Debra Paget said: "Of course, Cecil B. DeMille was a great director - I worked with him for a whole year on my personal favorite film, The Ten Commandments (1956). That picture took two years to complete. Unfortunately, all my scenes were shot in Hollywood - only Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner had to go to Egypt. But it was an ordeal, just the same. I was wearing the same costume for 3 or 4 months! They wouldn't clean it, because it was supposed to look dirty! I like animals, but goats, camels, cows and dogs in the dust-blah! The goats would be chewing on my costume. DeMille personally chose me for the part. He told me he felt the hand of God was always on my career! I did Omar Khayyam (1957) later - but it was nothing like this."
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 an animated fire. Of all of the visual effects in the film, it is the one that looks the least realistic to modern audiences, and probably seemed just as unrealistic in 1956.
Cecil B. DeMille's last film. Despite his fame and success for numerous Biblical spectacular films, he won his only competitive Oscar for producing The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). He also won an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1950.
DeMille was disappointed when he found out that neither he nor Elmer Bernstein received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Score, respectively. But the film won DeMille many special awards, not only from the film industry but also from Christian and Jewish organizations. Bernstein later said, "I would say that the work on The Ten Commandments was singularly the most exciting project of my entire life."
Special effects man William Sapp was not involved with creating the burning bush, which was handled by John P. Fulton. Sapp was critical of the result, pointing out that it was not a "burning" bush at all, but a glowing one. He claimed that if he'd he crafted the bush, it would've burned on-camera.
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. However, VistaVision had higher resolution and a flat, undistorted image.
Shortly after the intermission, Rameses accepts homage from an ambassador of King Priam of Troy, a reference to the doomed ruler of Troy in Homer's Iliad. The destruction of Troy is generally dated to 1190 BC based on both archaeological evidence and the writings of the ancient historian Eratosthenes. Rameses II ruled from 1279-1213 BC, meaning that the city of Troy would've been standing during his reign.
DeMille's first and favorite choice for the part of Lilia was MGM contract player Pier Angeli, but her studio refused to loan her to Paramount. Wilcoxon suggested Debra Paget, who was under contract to 20th Century Fox. DeMille signed Paget for the role, but Fox demanded that John Derek (another Fox star) be cast as Joshua or else there would be no deal. DeMille had already signed Cornel Wilde for the role of Joshua, and reluctantly had to go back on his word and give the part to Derek.
By the time they appeared in the film, four cast members had either won or received Academy Award nominations: Anne Baxter (Best Supporting Actress winner, 1947); Nina Foch (Best Supporting Actress nominee, 1955); Martha Scott (Best Actress nominee, 1941); and Judith Anderson (Best Supporting Actress nominee, 1941). After the film's release, two cast members won Academy Awards for other films: Yul Brynner (Best Actor, 1957) and Charlton Heston (Best Actor, 1960). Edward G. Robinson posthumously won an Academy Honorary Award in 1973. Overall, the film stars four Oscar winners (Baxter, Brynner, Heston, and Robinson) and three Oscar nominees (Foch, Scott, and Anderson).
In one scene you can see a weathered, brown, stepped pyramid. This is not an error. There were several pyramids of this style which were from hundreds of years before the time of Moses. The one seen in the film was presumably the largest, which would make it the pyramid of Djoser.
Inspired the Metallica song "Creeping Death," from their 1984 album "Ride the Lightning." They were watching the movie and, in the scene with the 10th Plague, killing of the first born, bassist Cliff Burton said, "Whoa, it's like creeping death!" The song tells the Passover story, and Metallica's music publishing company is called Creeping Death Music.
H.B. Warner: Amminadab, an old Israeli man about to die in the desert, during the Exodus sequence. At the time of filming Warner was as frail in real-life as he appears in the film. Cecil B. DeMille wanted Warner to play The Blind One so badly that he arranged for an ambulance to pick Warner up at his nursing home and bring him to the set for his cameo.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
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. Moses was supposed to have been enveloped in fog coming down from the mountain, but the effect was never completed. As a result, Moses is shown standing there, watching the Israelites go, close to the story as related in the Bible.
When Rameses places this son's body into the arms of the statue of Sokar, the body changes from Eugene Mazzola to a wax dummy. The statue couldn't support Mazzola's body weight, and it was difficult for Mazzola to remain motionless after he was placed on the statue.
At the concluding scene, when Moses is saying goodbye, he gives Eliazar the five books (Torah) he had written under the direction of God. Charlton Heston is actually holding a worn, 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.
Moses and Rameses' final meeting, in which the slaves are freed and Ramses learns his own son has died, was the last shot filmed during principal photography. Cecil B. DeMille wanted the last day's work to be on a special moment.