Hollywood's found religion again so here's Andrew on The Ten Commandments
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) is the epic by which all biblical epics should be judged. There's something for everyone: romance, drama, melodrama, religious feeling, glorious Edith Head costumes and a wide scope. And, yet, despite so much to choose from and no matter the scene, I always find my eyes settling on Anne Baxter, my pick for MVP and the Best Supporting Actress of 1956 (she wasn't nominated). Baxter’s husky tones and lilting line-readings are so memorable that it's easy to reconfigure the film and the dialogue as a series of actressy monologues...
But this is not so. Nefretiri doesn’t have that many lines altogether. Yet, as good as her scene partners are (Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston do some of their best work) Baxter forces your attention from them to her, so you THINK her scenes are monologues though they’re really not. Her blocks of lines / quasi monologues, often feature classic Anne, growlingly teasing Heston and reciting lines like off-beat poetry.
A shepherd girl. What can she be to you? Unless the desert sun has dulled your senses... 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 odour of sheep?
Old time religion aside, The Ten Commandments is expert melodrama and Anne milks every single consonant. Baxter excelled at playing morally ambiguous women but it's a disservice to remember only the vampy quality of this star turn. Consider her tender and true tears when she learns of Moses’ Hebrew roots, the way her love for her son plays significantly even in incidental moments (note the way she pulls him toward her when Moses's snake is let loose) and she earns the film’s most tender line-reading when she begs Moses, “You will not harm my son”. No matter how religious you are it’s impossible not to feel her earnest desperation.
It’s why her final moment in the film, her sole true monologue, despite representing a thorn in the Hebrew’s side moves me more than any act of true religious fervour. The Pharaoh’s son has died by God’s decree and Rameses has let them go, praying fruitlessly for his son to rise. Nefretiri is both saddened at her son’s death as well as disappointed in Moses (and herself, probably) for allowing it to happen. Anne is glorious when bitter...
He cannot hear you. He’s nothing but a piece of stone with the head of a bird.
Nefretiri is the only non-Hebrew smart enough to realise that the God of Pharaoh everyone else bows to has given her child nothing to hold on to. Her pain gives her clarity and she scoffs at Rameses decree of "I am Egypt." She moves from mournful to mocking in a seond.
Egypt? You are nothing. You let Moses kill my son. No god can bring him back. What have you done to Moses? How did he die? Did he cry for mercy when you tortured him? Bring me to his body. I want to see it Rameses. I want to see it.
Brynner is excellent with Rameses grief, "I cannot fight the power of his god." But, credit to DeMille, this should be the moment where the audience cheers but the film is gnarly enough to have cut any sense of triumph. Moses has been victorious only with the Pharaoh's son as collateral damage. Not a festive moment.
His god? The priest say that Pharaoh is a god but you are not a god. You are even less than a man. Listen to me Rameses. You thought I was evil when I went to Moses, and you were right. Shall I tell you what happened, Rameses? He spurned me like a strumpet in the street. I, Nefretiri, Queen of Egypt. All that you wanted from me he would not even take. Do you hear laughter, Pharaoh? Not the laughter of kings, but the laughter of slaves in the desert.
This is Nefretiri at her lowest - without lover, without child, without hope. Even her costume, though still stylish, is unusually simple. She is now only an angry woman demanding the death of the hero and handing her husband a sword.
Bring it back to me stained with his blood."
Though the film is ostensibly Moses', and she's completely at odds with the religious centre, The Ten Commandments feels slighter when she leaves it and so great is her electricity that you might secretly perversely root for her to get her wish.
The film is a religious epic, but it endures for me as an ornate altar to Baxter's spectacular performance.