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Film / The Ten Commandments (1923)

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You cannot break the Ten Commandments — they will break you.

The Ten Commandments is a 1923 silent film, best known for inspiring the more famous 1956 remake. Both versions were directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and the 1923 version entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2019.

While the 1956 film is devoted entirely to the Book of Exodus, the 1923 version confines the Exodus scenes to the first fifty minutes, in a section referred to as "the prologue." As a result, only a small part of the Exodus story is actually covered, beginning with Moses' return to Egypt and ending with the destruction of the Golden Calf. Additionally, the first nine plagues are essentially skipped over, with only a couple brief mentions indicating that they took place off-screen.

After the prologue, the film moves on to the intended main story, which takes place in the contemporary 1920s and seeks to illustrate how the Ten Commandments are still relevant in modern times. This story follows and contrasts the lives of two brothers, one who follows the Ten Commandments and another who does not. John, the believer, stays loyal to their pious mother, and is content to work as a simple carpenter. Dan, the cynical atheist, wins the heart of Mary, a more well-meaning atheist whom both brothers love, and he finds material success as an amoral businessman. But ultimately, of course, Dan's rejection of Biblical law brings him to ruin.

The Biblical prologue is widely regarded as the superior part of the movie, and is much better remembered as well. It's no surprise then that DeMille chose to jettison the modern story when he remade the film in 1956.

Tropes in the Prologue:

  • Anachronism Stew: During the Exodus, several Israelites carry staffs topped with the Star of David, but the Star of David didn't become a Jewish symbol until The Middle Ages. For that matter, the "David" referred to in the name is from a later part of The Bible. This mistake was averted in the 1956 remake.
  • Ancient Egypt: Most of the prologue takes place here, of course. The film benefited from being released during the "Egyptomania" craze that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb.
  • Artistic License – History: Ramses is portrayed as dying in the prologue. He outlived his firstborn son by forty-one years.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Takes care of the Golden Calf and its worshipers. The analogous scene in the 1956 version replaces the lightning bolt with an earthquake.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Rameses commands Moses to do this. Moses refuses, saying, "I kneel but to one, the Lord God of Israel — who hath smitten the Egyptians with nine plagues, because thou dost not let his people go!"
  • Nepharious Pharaoh: What else would you expect from an Exodus adaptation?
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: "But the people had forgotten their god, and were set on mischief and corruption. And with noise of singing and clashing of cymbals, they stripped themselves — and bowed down and worshipped the Golden Calf."
  • Splash of Color: A few scenes are wholly or partially in color. Unfortunately, this color is not included in some prints of the film.
  • Title Card: Notable because the prologue has intertitles that are appropriately Egyptian-themed. The modern story switches to more generic intertitles.

Tropes in the Story:

  • Betty and Veronica: Mary and Sally, from Dan's perspective. John and Dan, from Mary's perspective.
  • Bribe Backfire: After John discovers that the church they're building is structurally unsound, one of Dan's lackeys offers to pay him off for keeping his mouth shut about it. John responds by giving the man a punch in the face.
  • But Not Too Foreign: Dan's mistress Sally Lung is a "Eurasian" of French and Chinese parentage. The mixed ancestry seems to serve no purpose other than avoiding a depiction of outright miscegenation. Apparently, that would be too evil even for an adulterous affair condemned by the film.
  • Catch Your Death of Cold: Humorously referenced. When a cash-strapped Dan tries to convince Sally to give back the pearls he gave her, she replies, "Poor Sally would catch cold, without her pearls."
  • Disappeared Dad: The absence of John and Dan's father is never explained.
  • The Dutiful Son: John, while Dan runs off with Mary.
  • Foil: The four main characters, in various ways. Besides the more obvious opposition of the Christians (John and the mother) versus the Atheists (Dan and Mary), there is also the distinction of the mother being a rigid Christian who preaches God's fear while John is the good Christian who believes in love and forgiveness; and the distinction of Dan, who is the evil atheist who is defiant and immoral, and Mary, who is the good-hearted atheist that is really indifferent to religion (until she converts).
  • The Fundamentalist: John and Dan's mother. Even devout John thinks her outrage at dancing on Sunday is a little extreme. With her dying breath, she admits her mistake of teaching Dan to fear God rather than to love Him.
  • Giving Them the Strip: At the beginning of the story, when Mary is a starving waif, Dan catches her stealing his hot dog. She escapes by letting him have her cloak.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: This is a movie about the Ten Commandments, so adultery is bad as a matter of course. To drive home the message, it turns out Sally had leprosy that she didn't tell Dan about.
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned: The morality represented by the Ten Commandments was "buried with Queen Victoria" according to Dan.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Dan, big time. Mary somewhat less so, but she's converted at the end.
  • Love Triangle: Both brothers love Mary.
  • Phoney Call: While hiding Dan from the police, Mary tries using this trope to explain who they heard her talking to.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: John, whom the writer of the movie remarks is "not a sissy, and not a goody-goody", just an ordinary fella who is a true believer.
  • Rich Sibling, Poor Sibling: The movie was made long before televangelists popularized the Prosperity Gospel, before even the Cold War equating Christianity with capitalism, so you have the atheist sibling as a crooked entrepreuner that parlays his godless amorality into material wealth, and the Christian sibling as modest, but honest carpenter.
  • Right Way/Wrong Way Pair: John and Dan, respectively.
  • Sacred Hospitality: As good Christians, John and his mother take in Mary when she's a homeless waif. Notably, this act of morality is actually not covered by the Ten Commandments.
  • This Is Reality: This occurs when Sally is reading a newspaper article about her escape from Molokai. In a Freeze-Frame Bonus, one line mentions that the situation is "almost worthy of a movie plot."
  • The Vamp: Sally seduces Dan, encouraging him to cheat on his wife with her.


Video Example(s):


The Silent Red Sea

The parting of the Red Sea in the 1923 silent version

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Main / PartingTheSea

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