Iconic Bible Story Retold in Series of Blockbuster Films
Since the advent of the motion picture in the late 1800s, the Bible has provided inspiration for American and international films. This was especially the case in the earliest days of the movie business when Bible stories, such as The Life and Passion of Christ (1903), Adam and Eve (1912), Joseph (1914), and David (1917), were adapted to the big screen.
Few Bible stories, however, have captured the imagination of filmmakers and moviegoers alike more than the Exodus-based account of Moses, and no director has been more influential in bringing that story to life than the legendary Cecil B. DeMille.
After directing 50 silent films between 1914 and 1922, DeMille held a competition to give his fans a chance to choose the topic of his next movie. The winner was F. C. Nelson from Michigan who simply wrote, “Make the Ten Commandments” along with this caution: “You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you.”
Considered one of Hollywood’s first epic productions, DeMille recreated ancient Egypt on some sand dunes 175 miles north of Los Angeles. The set was immaculate and lavish for that era. It featured four 40-ton statues of Ramses II, and was populated by 2,500 extras and 3,000 animals. According to The Telegraph, DeMille sent a copy of the Bible to everyone on the studio with this note:
“As I intend to film practically the entire book of Exodus, the Bible should never be away from you.”
After filming several more Bible-inspired films, including King of Kings and Samson and Delilah, DeMille decided to remake The Ten Commandments at the urging of his fans:
“The world needs a reminder, they said, of the Law of God,” he responded.
In 1956, the story was brought back to life, and this time in Technicolor and with sound. Charlton Heston was cast as Moses, and the film was primarily shot in Egypt. Other Hollywood stars featured were Yul Brynner as Rameses and Anne Baxter as Nefertari. DeMille, 72 years old during production, fought through the 90-degree temperatures and a massive heart attack to complete principal photography.
The opening of the film featured a narration that paraphrased parts of the Bible’s creation story, and described the plight of the Israelites as Egyptian slaves. It also depicted some of the most iconic parts of the story, including baby Moses’s rescue in the Nile River (Exodus 2:1–10), the Ten Plagues (Exodus 7–13), the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19–20). One of the most memorable scenes takes place when God audibly speaks to an exiled Moses through a burning bush and commands him to rescue the Israelites (Exodus 3).
The Ten Commandments was a huge box-office success with $65.5 million in ticket sales, which still makes it one of the Top 10 films of all time when adjusted for ticket price inflation. Although often criticized for his filmmaking skills and noted for his highly eccentric personality, DeMille pointed back to the original intent for directing the groundbreaking motion picture.
“Our intention was not to create a story,” he said, “but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created 3,000 years ago—the five books of Moses.”
Just over 40 years later, Exodus was brought back to life in the award-winning animated film Prince of Egypt (1997), and was more recently depicted in Ridley Scott’s controversial Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). It’s hard to argue, however, that those films and many of the other successful Bible-themed movies would have been possible without DeMille who Billy Graham once referred to as a “prophet in celluloid.”