Something must be done on this board, several months and next to no comments. Perhaps no one is watching silent films, but I've just seen Demille's original Ten Commandments at long last, and for numerous reasons it didn't live up to expecations, but at least we can open the floor for discussion.
Spectacle for spectacles sake is the defining theme of Cecil B Demille's work. Huge sets, exotic locales, and a little bit of moralizing to serve as a conscience. His films are always infected with a fervor for whatever he sees as the public taste. There is a religious tone to most of his films, a way of counteracting the excess of his stories. In many ways his original adaptation of the Ten Commandments seems like a defining film for him. One that mixes his love of all things spectacular with a modern tale of morality set in a world of sin. The main story of this film doesnt seem to have a hell of a lot to do with the Ten Commandments. Simply a tale of one man with no morality or conscience who gets whats due him.
The story is somewhat biblical, and not just the part about Moses. This is a film about two brothers, one dutiful and god fearing, the other reckless, greedy, and atheist. Like most biblical stories there is a woman between them, and she too succumbs to the ways of sin and debauchery. Truth be told the bible is typically sexist and depicts most women as vile corrupters. Mary here isnt a sinner particularly, instead shes the other type of biblical woman, one whos weak and goes along with whatever men tell her. The role is one of weakness and stands somewhat typical of many moral stories.
The prologue is what has remained the most memorable and discussed aspect of the film. It can be seen as a direct link to Demilles better remembered 1956 remake. The story is rushed however, by the time we see Moses hes already inflicted 9 plagues on the Egyptians, certainly not as dramatically thrilling as Hestons Let my people go war cry. As ridiculous as many people thought Heston looked in 1956, Moses in this version is even more theatrical. Granted that Moses was played by a much older actor, but just as comical today. The performances, particularly in the Egyptian story are far over the top, even more than usual for silent films, but what in a Demille film isnt over the top?
The modern story is a little more subdued. It is an allegory, but a not very fascinating one. Richard Dix plays the good son and proves why he was a better actor without dialogue. He represents the Moses of the modern world. The one who aims to do right at his own risk. His mother is a terrible nag, and one cant blame her other son for wanting out of that house. She however seems to walk around with that look of complete depression common with religious people. Shes never seen happy in the film, and how could she be, anyone quoting the bible every other sentence cant possibly be pleasant. Yet in Demilles moral world we should feel compassion for this holy woman. It is a story that may have seemed rather modern, but is shamefully out of date.
Other aspects of the film remain relevant today. The greatest of these are the shady construction practices. It is not uncommon for builders to downgrade significantly for cost. Here the results are tragic, but then again what was his miserable mother doing there in the first place? As always tales of infidelity will remain timeless, as will financial ruin, and the immorality of the rich and powerful. In many ways things havent changed, but can someone explain how a princess came cutting out of a burlap sack from Leper Island?