With Easter weekend upon us — make that “virtual” Easter, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that has closed churches across the world — there’s no better time to get reacquainted with “The Ten Commandments,” one of the most iconic films of all time, not to mention a film that has played a role in Easter season television viewing for years.
Released last month in a new Blu-ray “digibook,” “The Ten Commandments” is now viewable in a spectacular newly restored version of the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, John Derek, Anne Baxter and Yvonne DeCarlo. The film recounts the biblical tale of Moses (played by Heston in a career-making performance) and his nemesis, the pharaoh Rameses (Brynner), whose worlds collide over the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
The three-disc set also includes a newly restored version of DeMille’s 1923 silent version of the film, a 16-page booklet of photos and facts on both films, the 2011 documentary “The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles,” theatrical trailers, photo galleries and hand-tinted footage of key scenes from the 1923 version. The 1956 version was filmed on location in Egypt and the Sinai with a then extraordinary budget of $13.2 million; it grossed more than $122 million, an incomparable feat at the time.
“It looks great,” said Fraser Heston, Charlton Heston’s son, who, in the film, has one of the most famous movie cameos of all time. “I think they transferred it to 6K from the original negatives. They went back to square one, stripped it and cleaned every frame. Just painstaking work. This now looks like you could just step into the pyramids or the Red Sea and cross with Moses.”
That cameo appearance is one that Heston only remembers from seeing himself on the big screen years after it happened. In the movie, he portrays the baby Moses placed in a basket on the Nile River to escape the pharaoh’s decree that “the first-born of Israel shall die.”
“I’m thrilled to have been part of the film,” the 65-year-old Heston said. “If I live long enough I will be the last actor to have worked with Cecil B. DeMille.”
How he got cast for the role is another story.
“Mom [actress Lydia Clarke Heston] at the time was pregnant with me, and DeMille told my dad if it’s a boy he can have the part of baby Moses. I was born on Feb. 22, 1955, just in time for the film shoot. In fact, the first telegram Mom got [in the hospital] was from DeMille to me saying, ‘You got the part.’
“What people don’t know is that the basket I was in started to sink when we were doing the scene. My dad ran [into the scene] and rescued me. And I learned later on that the on-set social worker [charged with looking after the baby actor as mandated by the industry] was holding me as I’m dripping wet and my father came over, and in his best Moses voice told her, ‘Give me that baby!’ And she did.”
Heston calls the film the first real cinematic epic, and the influence of so many grand-scale epics that followed decades later, such as “Gladiator” and even “Game of Thrones,” due to the film’s ability to captivate an audience, even on the small screen.
“There were no computers, no CGI at the time,” Heston said. “DeMille used every trick in the book to make the film a culmination of filmmaking art of the period. There were no optical effects; all the special effects were done in the camera or with models through clever tricks, like running water backwards and using matte photography. … The film just sucks you in.”
Heston, an accomplished producer, writer and director (he directed his famous father in the 1990 film “Treasure Island” and “The Crucifer of Blood” in 1991) credits his filmmaking skills, in part, to the years he spent on movie sets with his dad, and to his mother’s adventurous spirit.
“I tried to stay out of the way of the directors on his sets but I definitely would ask them tons of questions. My dad turned me over to the stunt wranglers on nearly every film — a pretty good group of mentors. They taught me how to ride, tie knots, mountain climb, fly a plane, scuba dive, fish. So in a big way I was brought up on movie sets.
“My mom was the Indiana Jones in our family,” he continued. “She dragged us up the Great Pyramids in Giza, took us to Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. She took us to every major museum in the world before I was 10. She was a great professional photographer, too. Had several photography books published.”
When it comes to “Ten Commandments” mementos, Heston said he has only one (presumably priceless) “trinket.”
“Dad wasn’t a big memorabilia collector, and he really didn’t wear much in the film outside his [striped] Levite cloth robe and a loincloth when he was in the mud pits. But he did keep the staff he used in the film and he gave it to me. The only thing he said was, ‘Don’t point it at the pool.’ ”
As for the film’s unending appeal, Heston said, “It holds up as a piece of modern filmmaking, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever told — literally.”