Passover at the Movies
For many, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” has become an important part of the Jewish holiday
“Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” That insanely anachronistic bit of dialogue was uttered by Anne Baxter’s Egyptian Queen Nefretiri to Charlton Heston’s Moses in the 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments.” Cecil B. DeMille’s second retelling of the story (he first filmed the Biblical tale in 1923) is the campy benchmark against which all other cinematic depictions of the Exodus will forever be compared. This is the biblical story that is the focus on the Passover holiday which starts tonight. For some, DeMille’s version eclipses even the Bible. “I don’t need to read the Haggadah,” I remember telling my orthodox grandfather as a kid, “I already saw the movie!”
The Haggadah is the book that Jewish people read every year at their Passover meals, called seders, to tell the ancient story of the Exodus from Egypt. The name of Moses never actually appears in a traditional Haggadah. He was said to have omitted his name from the story out of sheer humility, wanting God to get all of the credit for the deliverance of the Jewish people. Charlton Heston’s Moses, however, was about as humble as Mussolini. His performance as the Hebrew leader was larger than life and I can barely think of a scene in the film in which Heston does not appear. And just in case there were any doubts about the true savior of the story, Charlton Heston also supplied the voice of God in the film. DeMille was no shrinking violet either. The tagline for his film was a modest “The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History!”
I like to watch “The Ten Commandments” every year as I get ready for Passover. I would say that for many Jews, this annual viewing is a tradition despite the film’s questionable pedigree. Charlton Heston may have played the liberator of the Hebrews, but the actor was about as Jewish as Rick Santorum. True, he won an Oscar for his post-Moses role as the Jewish Ben-Hur, but his decidedly non-Jewish looks and persona were used to great advantage later on in roles ranging from John the Baptist and Michelangelo to Brigham Young and Josef Mengele.
As a matter of fact, despite the prevalence of Jews in Hollywood, you’d be hard pressed to find a single Jewish actor in DeMille’s film. Moses’ right-hand man Joshua was played by über-Gentile heartthrob John Derek who is best known for his series of successively younger wives (Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, and Bo Derek) who looked so much alike they could have passed for grandmother, mother, and daughter. Moses’ sister Miriam was played by Olive Deering, the first wife of Leo Penn (father of Sean) who also played a catty anti-Semite in “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Moses’ mother Jochelbel was played by the very Gentile Martha Scott (the original Emily in “Our Town”) who repeated her role as Heston’s Jewish mama in “Ben-Hur.” Jewish slave girl Lilia was played by 50s starlet Debra Paget who usually appeared as Indian squaws, Arab princesses, harem girls, or South Sea maidens. The great John Carradine played the role of Moses’ older brother Aaron. Carradine was the ex-preacher in “The Grapes of Wrath” and played Gestapo henchmen in no less than four different films. Sultry Yvonne DeCarlo took on the role of Moses’ loyal wife, Sephora. DeCarlo would play Mary Magdelene a few years later before hitting the big time as Lily Munster. Indeed, the only bona fide Jew I could find in “The Ten Commandments” was Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) who was deliciously evil as Dathan, the self-serving Israelite who betrays his own people.
Is it dangerous to base my understanding of Jewish history on the work of an anti-Semitic film director? Okay, that slanderous label may be unfair but DeMille was unable to shake it following the release of his controversial 1927 film “King of Kings.” That silent blockbuster was the first film to leave viewers with the impression that the Jews, not the Romans, were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and it was thought to have ignited a new spate of pre-war anti-Semitism in this country. Under pressure from Jewish groups, DeMille added a title card that exonerated the biblical Jews but the prickly director didn’t help his case when he angrily responded to charges by Jewish critics by stating, “If Jesus were alive today, these Jews might crucify him again!”
If the casting of the Jews in DeMille’s epic raised the hackles of the Anti-Defamation League, the actors playing the Egyptian characters in DeMille’s movie suffered no less of a genetic mismatch. Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s Sethi was clearly the whitest Pharaoh ever to grace the screen. With tall, blonde Nina Foch as Egyptian Princess Bithiah and Anne “Eve Harrington” Baxter as Queen Nefretiri, DeMille presented an Egyptian royal family that could have passed for the court of King Gustaf of Sweden. At least Yul Brynner’s Rameses II had a more authentic look, despite the fact that Brynner was born in Vladivostok, Russia, quite a trek from the North African Kingdom of the Pharaohs.
But who cares about authenticity when you’re watching one of the most gloriously absurd epics ever filmed? How could anyone resist such dialogue as the following?
Nefretiri: You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool!
Moses: The man stupid enough to use you as a footstool isn't wise enough to rule Egypt.
Rameses (to Nefretiri): You will be mine, like my dog, or my horse, or my falcon, except that I shall love you more—and trust you less.
Nefretiri: Oh, Moses, Moses! Why of all men did I fall in love with the Prince of Fools? Why must you deny me and yourself?
Moses: Because I am bound to a God, and to a people, and to a shepherd girl.
Nefretiri: A shepherd girl? What can she be to you unless the desert sun has dulled your senses? Does she grate garlic on her skin or is it soft as mine? Are her lips chafed and dry as the desert sand or are they moist and red like a pomegranate? Is it the fragrance of myrrh that scents her hair or is it the odor of sheep?
Moses: There is a beauty beyond the senses, Nefretiri.
Many dramatic licenses were taken in the story to up the drama. I’m no scholar of Ancient Egypt but I strongly doubt that any Pharaoh ever stated, as Yul Brynner’s Rameses did in utter defeat, “His God…IS…God!” Oy.
But I still love the film and am happy to have Cecil B. DeMille as my spiritual guide. Happy Passover, movie lovers!