Film: The Ten Commandments

"Thus sayeth the Lord God of Israel: let my people go!"

The last of the great Cecil B. DeMille epics.

This 1956 film from Paramount tells The Bible story of Moses and the Exodus. Charlton Heston plays Moses. Yul Brynner plays Rameses. They are in a Love Triangle with Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), whom Moses might have won, had the matter of injustice to Hebrew slaves not come up. Other important characters are, naturally, Moses's brother Aaron (John Carradine); Sephora (Yvonne de Carlo), daughter of Jethro and Moses's eventual wife; Joshua (Jon Derek); and Liliah (Debra Paget), the woman Joshua loves — who happens to be the sex slave of the overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson, see?).

You know the basic tale — or if you don't, you need either to see this or read the source material. Moses hears the voice of God while out in the wilderness. It ages him about forty years — hey, the film may be long, but to keep the cast of characters constant, the time in which it takes place is compressed. Moses goes to Rameses to tell him that God wants him to let His people go, or else. "Or else" happens. Nefretiri tries to seduce Moses out of this position; it doesn't work...

The film won one Academy Award for its special effects, and was nominated for seven others, including best picture. The majestic score was written by Elmer Bernstein as his first major film project.

The dedicated and curious might want to compare this with The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings. The source material is the same (though this film might've been distilled through an extra novel), but the directions taken with it are very different.


  • Adaptation Expansion: Most notably the fleshed-out relationship, including a Love Triangle, between Moses and the unnamed Pharaoh in the Bible.
  • Anachronism Stew: Mostly averted except for one deliberate case, which falls under Rule of Funny. In the DVD commentary, they mention that the soldier would have said the Underworld or Hades, but it wouldn't have worked so well.
    Dathan: Where are we going?
    Egyptian Soldier: Hell, I hope.
    • Dathan actually does go to Hell.
    • The representative from Troy being dressed as a Roman centurion is also wildly inaccurate, although it is a Shout-Out to The Aeneid, in which the Trojans founded Rome.
      • Also according to Egyptian legend, on his way back to Troy after abducting Helen Paris arrived in Egypt during the reign of Seti II, the grandson of Ramses II. They had chosen the wrong pharaoh for a Priam reference.
    • Likewise, the Egyptian soldier's sword at the very beginning of the culling of the Hebrew boys looks more like a Roman sword than anything else. The real-life Egyptians favored the khopesh, a sword whose blade looks kind of like a lower-case b, adapted from the Assyrian sappara.
  • Ancient Egypt
  • Arc Words: "So let it be written, so let it be done."
  • Ascended Extra: Joshua, who's promoted to Lancer in the film. In the scriptures, while Joshua did eventually Take Up My Sword, he didn't come into focus until they were in the desert, and was implied to be younger than Moses.
    • Also Dathan, who appears in only one scene in the Bible. (See Historical Villain Upgrade below.)
    • Baka the Master Builder is based on a nameless mook in the Bible.
  • Asshole Victim: Rameses's son could be considered this, but that may not be fair considering he was a kid.
    • Baka the Master Builder, on the other hand, is definitely this.
  • The Atoner
  • Badass Boast: By a quietly furious Rameses: "The city he builds will bear my name. The woman he loves will bear my child. So let it be written. So let it be done."
  • Badass Beard: Moses, with the hair to match.
  • Bald of Evil: Rameses. Yul Brynner kept the bald look from The King and I.
    • Dyeing for Your Art: Brynner bulked up for the role of Rameses so that he did not look skinny in contrast to the imposing Charlton Heston.
      • According to the Orrison commentary track, the men were told not to bulk up, merely to get in shape so they'd look good in the skimpy outfits. (This fact makes the painting for the DVD — in which Heston is "bulked up to conform to modern physique standards" — even more ludicrous than it already is.) She says Brynner never worked out in the gym sense, but was very active in everyday life, so this was more or less his natural look at the time. However, there was no getting around the fact that he was seven inches shorter than Heston.note  Blocking and camera angles were used to even things out. It's only noticeable in the scene where Moses sets off the first plague; in one shot, when the water from the jar turns red and Rameses drops it.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: the Trope Namer. Although Baka never actually says those words.
  • Betty and Veronica: Sephora and Nefretiri. Unfortunately, God is the Third-Option Love Interest.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Moses, naturally. (Charlton Heston tended to play a lot of these during his career)
  • Big "NO!"
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Hebrews eventually reach Israel... but for his Wrath, Moses cannot enter the Promised Land.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Rameses sending Moses into the desert to die a long slow agonizing death instead of just killing him quickly and being done with it.
  • Bowdlerise: In the movie, Moses angrily throwing down the tablets results in a chasm that many of the Jews fall into. In the Bible/Tanakh, Moses gets the Levites (priests) to grab some swords and get busy. Killing 3,000 total. To be fair, keeping in the original slaughter makes Moses a Dark Shepherd. And the chasm actually did occur but later, in a different conflict.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Rameses' son.
  • Break the Haughty: Rameses' smugly stubborn defiance of God brings a variety of misfortunes and tragedies upon him. (see Laser-Guided Karma below)
  • Broad Strokes: The movie's approach to the source material in some areas, especially what happened to the Hebrews after the flight from Egypt.
  • Canon Foreigner: Lilia. Nearly every character is based on someone from the Bible, extra-biblical ancient sources, or actual historical figures, but Lilia was created for the film as Joshua's love interest.
  • Captain Obvious: The movie is loaded with this; ex: "Moses' serpent swallows up the others!"
    • Saved them a boatload of money animating that.
  • Catch Phrase: "So let it be written. So let it be done." by Rameses.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Where Moses does not enjoy learning that he is actually a Hebrew, nor does his love interest. This is altered for drama's sake from the original story, which suggests that Moses knew very well while he was growing up that he was Hebrew.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Dathan all the way. From a minor role in The Bible to one of the major characters in the film.
  • The Chosen One
  • Chick Magnet: Moses to a degree—all of Jethro's daughters, with one exception, are trying to catch his eye. Guess which one he ends up choosing for his wife?
  • The Commandments: Naturally!
  • Demoted to Extra: Miriam and Aaron
  • Deadpan Snarker: Seti
    Priest: "Because of Moses, there is no wheat in the temple granaries!"
    Seti: "You don't look any leaner."
    • In addition, the soldier who evicts Dathan.
      Dathan: "Why do you come here? I put no blood on my door!"
      Egyptian Soldier: "Then stone bleeds!"
    • Nefretiri:
      Sethi: "It is pleasing to the gods to see a man honored by his enemies."
      Nefretiri: "And such a beautiful enemy."
    • Moses has his moments:
    (To Baka) "Are you a master builder or a master butcher?"
    • Later, when Moses allows the Hebrews to eat the temple grain:
    Rameses: I don't have to remind you, Moses—the temple grain is for the gods....
    Moses: What the gods can digest will not sour in the belly of a slave.
  • Death Glare: several, but Nefretiri gives a ferocious one to the Ethiopian princess flirting with Moses.
  • Doing In the Wizard: After nine plagues, Rameses informs Moses that he'd learned of a volcano erupting that would explain all nine of those plagues.
    • Interestingly, it is a serious theory that the plagues and the parting of the sea, and the pillar of smoke and flame, and for an encore a scene in Jason and the Argonauts where they get pelted with rocks, are all explicable somewhat by a truly MASSIVE eruption in the Aegean Sea - Antikythera or Santorini. Pretty good reference...
    • It gets better. The Ten Plagues were actually recorded on the stele of Ahmose. The current most probable theory is that a climatic variation caused extremely heavy rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands, resulting in the Nile being choked with red, acidic mud. The river became as blood, fish died, frogs left the river, and so on. The same variation resulted in unusually dry weather in the locusts' spawning grounds, hence the plague of locusts, and the enormous sandstorm that hid the sun. The deaths of the firstborn of Egypt? All those dead fish sank, then the water became supersaturated with toxic gasses, and when they came out of solution, the firstborn sons, who alone among the inhabitants of Egypt slept inside, at ground level, smothered. Everyone else was fine because the custom was to sleep outside, on the roof. Imagine this on a nation-wide scale. They say God works in mysterious ways...
    • Although, in The Movie, since Rameses actually sees Moses turn the water into blood, without a volcano being involved, this comes across more as a What an Idiot moment. (Doubly so since he also saw the water in the jar that he was holding, which had no contact with the river, turning into blood before his very eyes.)
  • The Dragon: Dathan to both Baka and Rameses.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Angel of Death. Rather than being a human looking angel (or The Grim Reaper,) it's portrayed as a cloud of bluish fog descending from the sky in the shape of a creepy hand. It makes sense for the Angel to take on this kind of form, given the nature of its job but still, it's incredibly creepy....
    • Even better: the Metallica song "Creeping Death" is about the Exodus (and specifically to this film), and the title refers to the appearance of the Tenth Plague.
  • Epic Movie: Thousands of extras, grand set pieces and environments, and a running time of 220 minutes.
  • Establishing Character Moment
    • Joshua ziplining from the top of a quarry shows him as the prototypical swashbuckler action hero of the time.
      • And when we first meet him, he's on an upper level just so he can climb down a rope accompanied by a fanfare and let us know what a stud he is.
    • Everyone walks away when Dathan comes sniffing around.
  • Fate Worse Than Death:
    • How Joshua describes working in the copper mines.
    • For Lilia, it is being Dathan's sex toy.
      Joshua: They said you were dead.
      Lilia: To all who I love, Joshua, I am dead.
  • Fanservice: By modern standards, many of the outfits worn by the women in the palace are pretty revealing. In the 1950s, they were pushing the limits of what was allowable on screen.
    • By ancient Egyptian standards, of course, they were way overdressed.
  • Femme Fatale: Nefretiri.
  • Foreshadowing: Moses told Nefretiri that God will use her to work his will. Her manipulations would later backfire and lead to the plague on the firstborn and help the Israelites go free.
    • And, in a sort of a Tear Jerker moment when Moses is disguised and helps a mortally wounded slave:
    Dying old man: Thank you, my son ... but death is better than bondage, for my days are ended; and my prayer...unanswered.
    Moses: What prayer?
    Dying old man: That before death closed my eyes, I might behold the deliverer...who will bring all men...to freedom...(dies)
  • God — or His voice, anyway.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: It's a toss up among Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter. Brynner is arguably the least hammy though; he's actually quite subtle in some scenes.
    • And in universe, the "old windbag" announcer.
    • Honorable mention goes to Vincent Price.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The Israelites were released from their — bondage.
  • Happily Adopted: After he finds his birth family, Moses still assures Bithia he's her son and will always love her. Aww.
  • Heart Broken Badass: Rameses is genuinely devastated by the death of his son.
  • His Name Is...: Seti on his deathbed breaks his own decree by saying Moses's name.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Dathan played a more minor role in the Exodus account, leading a revolt against Moses and getting swallowed up by the ground. Here, he becomes The Quisling, is responsible for the Golden Calf incident, and was responsible for driving Moses out of Egypt to begin with.
  • History Marches On: Most modern estimates put the Exodus in the reign of Thutmose III, not Rameses II. Though to be fair, there isn't clear consensus among scholars and reconciling Old Testament timelines with historical dates is tricky at best.
    • Not to mention there are also competing archaeological theories that the Hebrews never left Palestine in the time of Joseph in the first place.
    • Also, Rameses II did lose his first-born son (the tomb was found).
  • Hollywood Atheist: Rameses. Possibly, Dathan as well.
  • Hollywood Old: Lilia in the final scene is obviously just 23-year-old rising-star-beauty-queen Debra Paget wrapped in a blanket.
  • Human Sacrifice: Lilia nearly becomes one of these during the Golden Calf incident.
  • Humiliation Conga: The plagues set upon Egypt because of Rameses' stubbornness could be seen as this.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Moses's justification for for betraying Sethi. Sethi turns this right back on Moses in ordering his punishment.
  • I Just Knew: Miriam when she warns the women to stock up on water since there will be none for 7 days. It's implied she uses this gift often ("Miriam is always right.")
  • Insult Backfire:
    Ramses: "You have a rat's ears and a ferret's nose."
  • I Want Them Alive: When ordering his men to pursue the fleeing Hebrews, Rameses commands his troops to kill everyone else, but bring Moses to him alive.
  • I Warned You: "If there is one more plague on Egypt, it is by your word that God will bring it." Shoulda kept your mouth shut, Rameses.
  • Informed Attribute: Unless you really believe Charlton Heston is slow of speech and thick of tongue...
    • Nefretiri being more attractive than Sephora. Well, Anne Baxter wasn't a bad looking woman by any means, but Yvonne De Carlo as a supposedly "plain" sheep herder is a little hard to swallow.
  • Intermission
  • Irony: The following quote:
    Sethi: "Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of men for all time."
  • Jerk Ass: Dathan. Dathan. Dathan.
    • Rameses certainly qualifies, as does Nefretiri after she's been married to him long enough.
  • Just Eat Gilligan: So Moses, why don't you wait for Seti to die, be crowned ruler of Egypt, and set the slaves free yourself? Lampshaded by Nefretiri "Will Ramses hear [the slaves'] cries when he is Pharoah?" and Bithiah's "Cannot justice and truth be served better upon a throne?"
    • Except, in Real Life, Ancient Egypt was extremely stiff. The one time a pharoah, Ikhnaten, tried to make significant changes, it didn't end well.
      • In-universe, he'd just gotten away with raiding the temple granaries, suggesting both the willingness and ability to overthrow the established order. His decision to join his fellow Hebrews in the mud pits, and to forfeit his status by telling Sethi the truth about his desire to free the slaves, is more a case of honor before reason.
    • Also, in the film, it is implied that Moses plans to do this, but he is stopped when he gets caught having killed Baka to save Joshua and Lilia.
    • In addition, You Can't Fight Fate.
    • Why did nobody suggest stoning Dathan?
    • Except that though Moses had been raised by the daughter of Pharaoh, he is never said to be part of the royalty. Indeed, the New Testament states that he 'preferred suffer with his people than enjoy the temporary usufruct of the sin'.
  • The Lancer: Joshua
  • Lady Macbeth: Nefretiri to Ramses, once she's decided to become vengeful.
  • Large Ham: Of the World of Ham variety. It has Moses, Rameses, Nefretiri, Baka, The Narrator, and the biggest of them, God.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The various misfortunes and tragedies that Rameses endures are pretty much his own fault due to his defiance of God.
  • Leitmotif: Lilia's theme, "Death Cometh To Me".
  • Locked into Strangeness: Moses gets grey streaks in his hair after seeing the burning bush, and goes completely grey upon receiving the commandments.
  • Love Triangle
  • Mama Bear: Bithiah, although not Moses's birth mother, certainly is the trope. She cautions Memnet that if she ever speaks of Moses's true heritage, she will die. And Bithiah is more than willing to follow through on this threat, Nefritiri just beats her to the punch.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Nefretiri.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": Seen on the side of those who worshipped the golden calf as Moses pass judgement.
    Moses: Those who shall not live by the law, shall die by the law!
  • Moses in the Bullrushes: Of course!
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Pharoah: Rameses I ordering the murder of all Hebrew newborns to thwart the prophecy of the deliverer.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and John Derek all provide plenty of it.
  • Nepharious Pharaoh: Like most works based off the Book of Exodus from The Bible, it has the Pharaoh Ramses as the Big Bad.
  • Never My Fault: Rameses blames Nefeteri for the death of their son because he "hardened his heart" to keep the Hebrews slaves just so Moses would stay in Egypt.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: This hilarious fake trailer.
  • Old Windbag: Sethi's court announcer is kind of the Trope Namer.
  • Oh, Crap: The look on Baka's face when he sees that the slave who is about to strangle him is actually Moses.
    • Moses' birth mother, when she is about to be crushed by the granite she is greasing.
    • Moses himself, when Nefeteri tells him that Rameses has ordered the murder of the Hebrew children, meaning that the Egyptian firstborn, not the children of Goshen, will perish.
  • Papa Wolf: While it may take some prodding Rameses vows to avenge his son's death. It doesn't work out for him.
  • Pet the Dog / Pragmatic Villainy: Prince Moses has no problem using the Hebrew slaves to build the treasure city, but he knows that happier and healthier slaves are more productive. So he increases their rations and gives them one day in seven to rest, and construction thus accelerates.
    Moses: "A city is made of brick, Pharaoh. The strong make many. The weak make few. The dead make none."
  • Playing Gertrude: Both Martha Scott (eleven years older than Charlton Heston) and Nina Foch (one year younger).
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Lilia does this twice in order to save Joshua's life. The first time, it was to Prince Moses. The second time, it was to Dathan. But there was a catch in Dathan's case...
  • The Quisling: Dathan, who is of Hebrew descent but gladly works as an overseer.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Seti listens to both sides before making a decision. However, that decision isn't necessarily in favor of the protagonists.
    • Moses is one of these, particularly when he is in charge of building the city.
  • Refusal of the Call: Moses at first.
  • Say My Name: A motif. People say "Moses, Moses" many times in the movie.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Dathan gives this to Liliah
  • Second Love: Sephora is this for Moses.
  • Sex Slave: Liliah
    • Nefretiri probably saw her marriage to Rameses as this.
  • Shout-Out: Moses's hair and beard are patterned after Michelangelo's sculpture in Rome. (Heston later played Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy)
  • Shown Their Work: According to Katherine Orrison, De Mille's biographer and protégé of De Mille's friend Henry Wilcoxon, De Mille did a HUGE amount of research, using not only the Bible but the Qur'an and various Hebrew traditional texts including the Midrash.
    • Plus, the red-white-black pattern of the Tribe of Levi is actually the pattern associated with the Tribe of Levi.
  • Smug Snake: Baka, Dathan.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: "Beauty is but a curse to our women." Poor Liliah.
  • Something Only They Would Say: Baka realizes that the Hebrew slave is actually Moses when he (Moses) refers to him as the "Master Butcher" — which Moses has called him before. A little too late, as he said this while he was strangling Baka to death.
  • Take-That Kiss: Nefretiri to Ramses and vice versa.
  • There Are No Coincidences: During production, the man who designed Moses' distinctive rust-white-and-black-striped robe used those colors because they looked impressive—he only later discovered that these are the actual colors of the Tribe of Levi.
  • Threat Backfire:
    Rameses: Come to me no more, Moses! For on the day you see my face again...you will surely die!
    Moses: (deadpan) So let it be written.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The Egyptian army following the fleeing Israelites into the parted sea. Did NOBODY realize that God could (and would) solve that little problem simply by letting things return to normal?
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Played straight with Rameses succeeding the relatively reasonable Seti. Technically averted when Dathan is promoted to governor upon Baka's death — while he is certainly a Bad Boss, he's nowhere near as tyrannical as Baka.
  • The Unfavorite: Rameses is clearly this to Moses as Seti heaps praise after praise after praise upon his adopted son while leaving Rameses out in the cold. Granted, he's an evil jerk so he brings it on himself.
  • Unperson: Sethi proclaims that Moses' name be erased from every carving, and never be spoken again, after learning that he is the one destined to free the Israelites. So let it be written, so let it be done! Obviously, that didn't take.
    • In ancient Egypt, this was done to ensure that a person would not only disappear from everyday life, but would have no life after death. De Mille biographer Katherine Orrison says that was the very reason Moses' name was spoken so often in the film. It was De Mille's symbolic attempt to ensure the real Moses could enter heaven.
  • The Vamp: Nefertiri.
  • Whip It Good: Baka.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: Rameses.
    • Moses and Joshua.
  • Woman Scorned: Nefretiri becomes this toward the end.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Nefretiri is considered this when she becomes queen.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Lampshaded by Yochabel, who warns Bithia that, no matter what, if God has a purpose, Moses will be unable to resist.