This insanely anachronistic bit of dialogue was uttered by Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri to Charlton Heston in the 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments.” Cecil B. DeMille’s second retelling of the Passover 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, including the new ABC mini-series that concludes tonight. For some, DeMille’s film eclipses even the Bible. “I don’t need to read the Haggadah,” I remember telling my horrified grandfather as a kid at our seder table. “I already saw the movie!”
The Haggadah is the book that Jews read every year at their Passover seders to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Did you know that the name of Moses never appears once in a traditional Haggadah? Moses was said to have omitted his name from the story out of sheer humility. He wanted God to get all of the credit for the deliverance of the Jewish people. Charlton Heston’s Moses, however, was about as humble as Benito Mussolini. His performance as the Hebrew leader was larger than life and I can barely think of a scene in which Heston did not appear. And just in case there was any doubt 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 the Passover holiday. I would even say that for many Jews, this annual viewing is a tradition on par with eating gefilte fish and removing chametz from the home. And yet, in spite of its important role in the pre-holiday frenzy, “The Ten Commandments” is the most goyishe Jewish film ever created. Charlton Heston may be playing the liberator of the Hebrews, but this Evanston, Illinois native is the quintessential Goy Boy. 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 in roles ranging from John the Baptist and Michelangelo to Brigham Young and Nazi butcher 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-Goy 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 shiksa 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!”
Nevertheless, while working on “The Ten Commandments,” DeMille called on one of the most influential Jewish leaders in Hollywood. Rabbi Edgar Magnin of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was known as the “rabbi to the stars” for decades, and his beautiful temple was funded by the Jewish heads of the major studios (I visited the synagogue recently and marveled at the Warner Brothers mural that still encircles the grand dome). Rabbi Magnin, who once lived a block from our house, acted as a consultant on DeMille’s film and the two must have had a friendly relationship. In the above letter, DeMille thanked Magnin for his kind birthday wishes. Or were Magnin’s wishes really a curse? DeMille may have begun his 78th year “with renewed vigor” but he’d be dead a few months later. “The Ten Commandments” was his final film.
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: You have a rat's ears and a ferret's nose.
Dathan: To use in your service, son of Pharaoh.
Rameses: Now speaks the rat that would be my ears.
Dathan: Too many ears tie a rat's tongue.
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.
Moses: Your fragrance is like the wine of Babylon.
Nefretiri: I'm the beggar, Moses. Begging you to hold me in your arms.
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.
Nefretiri: You need have no fear of me.
Sephora: I feared only his memory of you.
Nefretiri: You have been able to erase it?
Sephora: He has forgotten both of us. You lost him when he went to seek his god. I lost him when he found his god.
Baka: Will you lose a throne because Moses builds a city?
Rameses: The city that he builds shall bear my name, the woman that he loves shall bear my child. So let it be written, so let it be done.
That last brilliant line rivals Brynner’s own “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” that he made famous four months earlier when the movie version of “The King and I” opened. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people confused Brynner’s two most famous roles and believed that 19th century King Mongkut of Siam was wandering around Ancient Egypt 3000 years in the past. Though both rulers were despotic egomaniacs I felt sorry for them by the end of the films. Charlton Heston and Deborah Kerr both succeeded in emasculating poor Yul. I’m no scholar of Ancient Egypt but I strongly doubt that any Pharaoh ever stated, as Brynner’s Rameses did in utter defeat, “His God…IS…God!” Oy.
When he filmed “The Ten Commandments,” Charlton Heston was a liberal Democrat and was even considering a Democratic run for the Senate. Like his Democrat pal Ronald Reagan, Heston would make a whiplash-inducing turn to the right, eventually becoming the President of the National Rifle Association and working for pro-life groups. These later leanings of Heston’s were probably more in line with Moses’ political affiliations. Though socially liberal (Moses’ fight against slavery mirrored Heston’s support for civil rights), both had a religious zeal that could rival any fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher.
Watching the new version of “The Ten Commandments” last night, I was even more struck by Moses’ blind fanaticism. In this take on the story, we hear God as a voice inside Moses’ head. That voice could have told him to murder his closest loved ones and Moses would have dutifully obeyed. Is that holiness or a bad case of paranoid schizophrenia? Dougray Scott’s Moses, looking like a cross between Jesus of Nazareth and magician Doug Henning, seemed far more psychotic than Heston’s self-assured Hebrew leader. I shouldn’t say too much about the new film, however, since I was only able to stomach about 40 minutes of it. I haven’t watched anything on broadcast TV (without the fast-forwarding capability of TiVo) in years and I found the constant commercial interruptions intolerable. In this day and age, with most people zipping through the commercials with their remotes, can’t they think of a better way to pay for their shows without interrupting the story every five to ten minutes?
This version of the Exodus is supposed to be more authentic but I’m not buying it. It is definitely more violent. The constant savagery and bloodletting makes DeMille’s epic look like a Shirley Temple movie. No one is spared the wrath of this tortured, neurotic Moses. If his own people act out in some way against their Lord, there’s only one answer: Death! And I’ll take DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea any day, accomplished by flooding two huge “dump tanks” in the Paramount parking lot and then showing the film in reverse.
I never thought I’d find myself longing for Charlton Heston. Where’s that stubborn, splendid, adorable fool when we need him?