"Moses, you splendid, adorable fool!"

What Mel Gibson owes to Cecil B. DeMille, whose "Ten Commandments" endures nearly 50 years after its scandalous opening.

Published April 1, 2004 8:59PM (EST)

ABC's airing of Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epic "The Ten Commandments" this Sunday will be the network's 24th broadcast of the film in 31 years. Almost every one has been timed to fall on either Palm or Easter Sunday, turning this glitzy, sexed-up production of the foundational Jewish story of deliverance from Egypt into a Christian Holy Week tradition. The "Ten Commandments" broadcast has also often coincided with Passover, when Jews retell that same story during a ritual dinner. Around the country, doubtless more than one family has wound down its Passover Seder amid empty Manischevitz bottles, watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea.

The film still generally wins the night's top ratings; last year it won both the adult and kid markets, with an average of 10.6 million viewers. And its influence stretches further than anything Nielsen can measure, though especially to modern eyes it's little more than a load of camp, with outrageous costumes and overacting, which is never more apparent than in the bedroom scenes between Moses and Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. "Oh Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool," she tells the prophet, who has spent the afternoon making bricks with his enslaved Jewish brethren. "You can worship any God you like, as long as I can worship you." TV Guide dubs the movie "a great big wallow, sublime hootchy-kootchy hokum." In a recent article on "The Passion of the Christ," Variety cites a Hollywood "axiom" that you can't make films about religion, "unless it's a harmless Cecil B. DeMille-type biblical saga."

The comparison between DeMille and Mel Gibson, however, is an improbably rich one. DeMille also thought he was creating a serious religious film -- a potential proselytizer -- and promoted it as rigorously as Gibson has "The Passion." DeMille deflected criticism of his racy portrayal by claiming he was creating an accurate representation of the Bible, just as Gibson has claimed immunity to charges of anti-Semitism and excessive violence. And long before Gibson invited audiences to "Share the Passion of the Christ" by purchasing promotional "Witness Cards" and crucifixion nail jewelry, DeMille conflated religious fervor and marketing finesse in remarkable ways. "The Passion's" impact can't yet be accurately measured. But nearly 50 years after the release of "Ten Commandments," DeMille's 70th and final picture has endured, launching a legacy of myth and intrigue that critics and scholars have had a difficult time penetrating.

Cecil's father, Henry DeMille, had aspired to be a minister. Though he delivered lay sermons at St. Stephen's Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was talked into playwriting by his wife. "[I]n the church he might be able to speak to thousands," Cecil explained in a 1951 interview, "through the theater he might be able to speak to hundreds of thousands -- and then when I came along the mantle fell on my shoulders in a new form which was the motion picture, and I was able to reach hundreds of millions."

Sex was DeMille's way or roping in wider audiences. "Hit sex hard!" was his frequent order to screenwriters. He dubbed the Golden Calf scene of "The Ten Commandments" -- a sultry bump and grind of sweaty Israelites -- "an orgy Sunday-school children can watch." But his critics were unable to reconcile the professed piousness of DeMille's vision with his vulgar showmanship and savvy. They constantly sought to expose his claim to a "unique ministry" of film as self-aggrandizing sham. To others, his films were "a fraud that enabled immorality to hide behind the protection of the Holy Book."

"I imagine that criticism will always follow him," says James D'Arc, a film scholar and curator of DeMille's archives at Brigham Young University. "But those who worked with him never doubted the fact that he was a believer, and that he was sincere about what he was doing."

There were also many instances of religious leaders and strident believers praising DeMille's work, and the director relays them in his "Autobiography." DeMille writes, after "The Ten Commandments" he received too many complimentary letters for him to single out one or two, "[b]ut there is one thought that runs through them like a refrain: 'This picture has made God real to me.'"

DeMille's eccentricities and penchant for exaggeration likely have fueled critics' distrust. They also made the careful management of his image difficult for his staff. In his memoir "Yes, Mr. DeMille," DeMille staffer and "personal representative" Phil Koury writes that the 1951 interview above was intended to settle ongoing confusion among staff members. "We were never quite certain whether the facts in the last interview were final or official, changing as they did from time to time," Koury writes. Even Cecil's older brother, William, didn't remember their father reading to the boys every night from the Bible and American history -- another of Cecil's favorite anecdotes.

"True or not ... it was DeMille the showman responding to an intuitive faculty for drama," Koury writes, "and more important, having those things accepted that pleased and edified him most."

For her oral history of the making of the movie, "Written in Stone," Katherine Orrison interviewed the film's producers, writers, actors, costumers, set designers, soundmen and others, ghostwriting the recollections of each. Orrison has since contributed commentary to the new DVD of "The Ten Commandments" (released March 9, at the height of "Passion" buzz). The man brought to life in "Written in Stone" is by turns a warmhearted mentor, a truculent boss and precisely the ridiculous-sounding cinematic missionary DeMille claimed to be. Regardless of the many glitzy and sultry liberties he took in the film, DeMille was intensely committed to research. His staff pored over the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, and the work of early historians Philo and Josephus. The script was heavily annotated, with chapter and verse cited in the footnotes of every page, according to writer Jesse Lasky Jr. Some costumes were made at UCLA on re-creations of ancient Egyptian looms. DeMille's head researcher, Henry Noerdlinger, did so much back-reading he later published his own book on the subject.

"He was a veteran of all kinds of arrows shot at him by critics," says D'Arc. DeMille knew that "skimping on research" would leave him susceptible to more attacks.

But he also became notoriously self-righteous about his research. A qualm with one of his biblical pictures, he claimed, was a qualm with history and the Good Lord Himself. "The Ten Commandments" begins with a mini-lecture by DeMille, shot in a dignified-looking private library, where he vouches for the holy truth and historic truth of what's to follow.

"Naturally Mr. DeMille liked to have the historians on his side," Koury writes, "and usually they were." But DeMille also "claimed he was making history," and when Noerdlinger's tireless research contradicted his vision, he would fall on a single, often vague historical reference as justification. Thus, according to "research," Delilah in "Samson and Delilah" (1949) could wear a crowd-pleasing bra.

DeMille once defined religion as "faith in God and belief in Divinity. I don't think that the practice of forms is necessary in religion." If we look past form, past kitsch, past cheap sex, past arrogance, and take DeMille's religious fervor and earnestness at face value, "The Ten Commandments" emerges as a strange work of faith by an almost delusional autocrat. Attacked by critics who belittled his spirituality and sincerity, DeMille is a tragic figure -- an absurd tragic figure.

"I know I'm made fun of," he told Donald Curtis near the end of his life. (Curtis was both a bit player in the film and, later, a minister.) "I know they call 'The Ten Commandments' 'The Sexodus' ... But my ministry was making religious movies and getting more people to read the Bible than anyone else ever has."

But the skepticism that undermined DeMille's career-long religious project continues to color his legacy. In addition to the famous case of Judge Roy Moore's Alabama courtroom, there have been numerous recent battles over granite replicas of the Ten Commandments displayed on public property -- in Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Texas, New York, and other states. In December 2002, Slate reported that nearly half of the monoliths being disputed by the ACLU were from a set of 4,000, donated in the late 1950s by a peculiar partnership: the nonsectarian charitable organization the Fraternal Order of Eagles, and the film director Cecil B. DeMille, who "wanted to promote his movie." A great many articles written about the contested Eagle monoliths implied or stated outright that DeMille's involvement was strictly promotional. As proof, they noted that actor Yul Brynner (Pharoah Ramses in the film) had spoken at the very first monolith's dedication ceremony, in Milwaukee in 1955. Charlton Heston dedicated another in North Dakota.

"They've got it all wrong," Sue Hoffman told me, exasperated. Hoffman has spent the last two years researching a book on the history of the Eagle monoliths. She has tracked 160 of them and is confident the figure 4,000 is exaggerated. She also says she confirmed that the actors who appeared at dedications -- there were only three -- donated their time. The program was decentralized and grass-roots-based. Local Eagle aeries raised the money for each monolith, and their exact locations were agreed upon with local governments. Furthermore, Ten Commandments monoliths continued to be placed through the 1960s, well after the film's release. Though the dedications coincided with local openings of the film in some cases, and the Eagles endorsed the movie in a mailing to their members, she says the DeMille-Eagles partnership was hardly the publicity juggernaut alluded to in the media.

DeMille, though, was smart enough to reach out to the Eagles while his film was still in production.

In 1954, DeMille was filming in Egypt. Everything about the production was epic, especially for its time. (Fifteen thousand extras and crew members contributed to the Exodus scene.) Egypt's splendor, the "Holy Ground," and possibly his own extravagant sets had inspired a spiritual reaffirmation in DeMille. Another likely cause was the heart attack that struck the 73-year-old director on Take 3 of the Exodus shoot. (Again, a convoluted story: Some claim that DeMille recovered after a few days of heavy praying. The version in DeMille's "Autobiography" is, uncharacteristically, the less romantic one: To save the production, he defied his doctors and took a "calculated risk.")

DeMille heard about the Eagles printing keepsakes of the Ten Commandments for juvenile courts and schools around the country. (Hoffman suspects these earlier versions are partly responsible for the figure 4,000.) In a letter written at the foot of Sinai and published in the Eagles' magazine, DeMille, with his typical melodrama -- the fervor that feels like artifice, but might be fervor -- endorsed the program:

"To guide young people in today's complex world," he wrote, "we need all the light that expert knowledge and advanced scientific techniques can give. But most of all we need the Divine Code of Guidance which was given to the world ... the Ten Commandments. They are older than Moses, older than this mountain, because they are not laws: they are the law."

He telephoned the program's conceiver, Minnesota Juvenile Court Judge E.J. Ruegemer. Ruegemer, who is now 102, could not be reached for this article, but has recounted elsewhere that DeMille sought to expand the program. He proposed brass plaques. Ruegemer suggested full-blown sculptures, hewn from Minnesota granite.

Elkhart, Ind., a small "City With a Heart," erected a Decalogue in front of its City Hall on Memorial Day, 1958 -- roughly a year and a half after the film's release. In 1998, a passing cyclist enlisted the Indiana Civil Liberties Union to sue the city for the removal of the Decalogue -- and damages -- arguing that its display violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The case was brought all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in 2002, refused to hear it. The monolith was removed and placed on private property. (Hoping to avoid a similar lawsuit, Milwaukee voluntarily removed its Eagle monolith -- the one Yul Brynner had dedicated -- from in front of City Hall.)

William F. Buckley Jr. claimed in 2001 that the planned defense in the Elkhart case hinged on DeMille's less-than-altruistic involvement. (Buckley, too, claimed DeMille was "promoting his movie" and that the DeMille-Eagle partnership was a way to "combine publicity for 'The Ten Commmandments'" with the elevation of public morals.) The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative group representing Elkhart, would argue, in Buckley's words, "The Ten Commandments tablets had nothing to do with the propagation of religion ... It had to do with commerce!" It was a piece of film marketing. Elkhart resident Bob Weaver helped assemble the Elkhart Ten Commandments Committee to defend the monument's display. He confirms that this defense was considered, but abandoned. Weaver felt DeMille's involvement -- whatever it was -- was inconsequential to both the case and the monolith's meaning. (He referred to the film as "Moses or whatever.")

Perhaps because DeMille's involvement had no official bearing on the case, assumptions of his self-interest were never questioned and therefore never fully went away. In a recent phone interview, Elkhart defense attorney David New (not of the ACLJ) referred to the monoliths in passing "as part of 'The Ten Commandments' promotion" and "to promote the film." Even the amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court by the ACLJ cited DeMille's involvement as "perhaps self-serving."

But as with much of what DeMille left behind, the "truth" of the tireless showman's intentions is perhaps unknowable: It's hard to argue that the monoliths were the publicity blitz they're portrayed as, though they surely did something. DeMille likely knew that such a large-scale charitable act, done alongside the Eagles, would help his image as the benevolent public servant he claimed and wanted to be. Which is not to say he wasn't. According to James D'Arc, DeMille donated all profits from the film "The Ten Commandments" to charity, and signed residual profits entirely over to his cast and crew -- to whom ABC has written almost annual checks for over 30 years and will again after Sunday's broadcast.

By Jon Mooallem

Jon Mooallem has written for the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe Ideas section.

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