Film: The Ten Commandments

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

The last of the great Cecil B. DeMille epics, and a remake of his own 1923 silent film of the same name.

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 Ten Commandments 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.


  • Adaptational Villainy: 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.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • Pretty much the first half of the movie. As the director himself states in his introductory remarks at the start of the film, the Bible skips some 30 years of Moses' life. In Exodus the narrative skips from when Pharoah's daughter retrieves Moses from the water to when Moses kills an Egyptian who is beating one of the Hebrew slaves. De Mille says that the screenwriters had to rely on other writings through history to flesh out this part of the story.
    • The fleshed-out relationship, including a Love Triangle, between Moses and the unnamed Pharaoh in the Bible.
    • 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.
  • Adapted Out: The Nubian princess seen early in the film, according to the DVD commentary, is supposed to be Moses' wife, as he apparently married her during his travels, though this is not mentioned on screen. Not only is she never referred to nor seen again, no reference is made when Moses marries again later in the film.
  • 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.
    • Dathan, who appears in only one scene in the Bible, becomes a major villainous character in the film.
    • Baka the Master Butcher Builder is based on a nameless mook in the Bible. Here, he's promoted to Vincent Price.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Rameses's son could be considered this, but that may not be fair considering he was a kid.
    • Baka the Master Butcher 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 and retained it for the rest of his life. According to the DVD commentary one reason why he was cast was that he looked better bald than some of the other actors considered for the role, including (of all people) William Holden.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: Baka.
  • 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 (no pun intended). 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.
    • Nefreteri goes from being smug and a stereotypical rich girl (knowing the two most eligible bachelors in Egypt are vying for her attentions), to being broken after the final plague takes away her son.
  • 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!"
  • Catch Phrase: "So let it be written. So let it be done." by Rameses. It even gets a reprise at the end of the film (as a literal example of Word of God).
  • 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.
  • 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?) He also attracts Nefertiri, who has his eye for the first part of the film, and the Nubian princess Moses presents to Seti, who seems quite taken by her conqueror.
    • In the Bible, Tharbis was Moses' Nubian bride. note  De Mille wanted to establish this in the film, but realized it was too radical for audiences of his time.
  • The Commandments: Naturally!
  • Dated History:
    • 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. Also, Rameses II did lose his first-born son (the tomb was found).
    • There are also competing archaeological theories that the Hebrews never left Palestine in the time of Joseph in the first place.
  • 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.
    • 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:
      Moses (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.
  • Don't Create a Martyr: Rameses exiles Moses because killing him will turn him to a martyr in Nefertiri's eyes.
  • The Dragon: Dathan to both Baka and Rameses.
  • Dragon Ascendant: Dathan in the finale sequence.
  • 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....
  • 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 are all 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.
    • In a 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 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.
  • 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 Am X, Son of Y: "I am Moses, son of Amram and Yochabel."
  • 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.
    Dathan: To use in your service, son of Pharaoh.
  • 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: Why did nobody suggest stoning Dathan?
  • 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. And Sethi, just for the way he says "stricken" in the above speech.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The various misfortunes and tragedies that Rameses endures are 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!
    • Although generally only seen from a far distance, it's pretty obvious that Rameses' army does this when the sea un-parts.
  • Moses in the Bullrushes
  • Mr. Fanservice: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and John Derek all provide plenty of it.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Anne Baxter's virtually see-through outfits are surprisingly risque for 1956.
  • 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 her nasty taunts "hardened his heart" to keep the Hebrews slaves just so Moses would stay in Egypt.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Herod!: Rameses I ordering the murder of all Hebrew newborns to thwart the prophecy of the deliverer.
  • Not So Stoic: After his encounter with God, Moses is always either very dignified or very subdued, but when he learns what the Pharaoh has planned for the slaves, and realizes what's going to happen, he is horrified and his bearing slips all the way to pleading with God for mercy.
  • Old Windbag: Sethi's court announcer.
  • 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: Rameses has his moments, so much so that it's very hard to dislike him. It's not like it's his fault Moses is more competent and his own father clearly favors Moses over him. He's polite and soft-spoken to other Egyptians, shows genuine sympathy to one of his men when the 10th Plague kills the man's son, is devastated when his own son dies, is ready to kill Dathan for accusing Moses, and deals fairly with Dathan by keeping his word to him instead of just killing him and using his information about Moses anyway. Brynner wanted the character to be complex and multi-faceted, and he succeeded. Take him out of the film and it's a lot less interesting. And it can't be denied that Rameses could have easily had Moses killed instead of exiling him. Sure, he gave an excuse, but you can't watch the scene and the movie without thinking that Moses and Rameses probably grew up together and have a history that's more than being rivals. Like Seti refusing to kill Moses, it's not that much of a stretch to think that Rameses probably just could not bring himself to do it either.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Setting Update: A minor example. Rabbinical Judaism tells us that Moses lifespan corresponds to 1391-1271 BC, telling us the Exodus happened in 1311 BC and thus that the Pharaoh of the Exodus would have been Horemheb, the predecessor of Ramesses I whom we see early in this film. Jerome, on the other hand, gives Moses' year of birth as 1592 meaning the Exodus would have been in 1512 with Thutmose I as the Pharaoh and Ussher gives Moses' year of birth as 1571 meaning the Exodus would have been in 1491 with the Pharaoh being Thutmose II.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the bible and the original film, the Pharaoh/Ramesses died when the Red Sea rejoined.
  • 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 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? (Even if they were all raging atheists, one would not want to tempt fate in jumping into what was clearly a strange phenomena that could have ended at any moment.)
    • After seeing with their own eyes God part the waters of the sea, the Hebrews are quick to question the existence of Him while waiting for Moses to return from Mount Sinai. So they decided to forge a golden idol to worship instead. Bithiah even points this out: "Would a God who's shown you such wonders let Moses die before his work was done?"
    • Nefertiri played into God's plan, as Moses said.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm:
    • 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! 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:
  • 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.