Few films have packed as hearty a punch for American political culture as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. With the Cold War heating up and a fervent anti-communist sentiment sweeping the nation, the film burst onto the scene at a time when religion—especially Christianity—became a central rallying point, pitting America’s “divine purpose” against “godless Communists.” Enter DeMille, a director with a penchant for the spectacular, who released the nearly four-hour remake of his 1923 silent film of the same name, this one starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharoah Ramses II.
The Ten Commandments is “one of the most significant epic films ever made,” in part because it tapped into America’s Cold War self-perceptions, according to Loren P.Q. Baybrook, editor-in-chief of Film & History. The movie was “a declaration from Hollywood that American values, as opposed to Soviet values, were part of the longest history of moral principle,” says Baybrook, noting that its success was due, in no small part, to the way it artfully Christianized the film’s religious content. DeMille, whose German-Jewish mother converted before marrying his Episcopalian father, cleverly used the term “Hebrews” instead of “Jews” in order to appeal to his largely Christian audience.
To promote the film, DeMille—who harbored strong anti-Communist feelings—teamed up with a Minnesota judge named E.J. Ruegemer, a member of a Christian service organization called the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE). Starting in 1951, Ruegemer had spearheaded a movement to distribute copies of the Ten Commandments for public placement in courtrooms and schools, believing that “if mankind would heed those Ten, it would be a better world in which to live.” At least 10,000 prints had already been distributed when DeMille joined the cause, helping dozens of local FOE groups raise money to erect statues of the Ten Commandments. Ruegemer, DeMille, Heston and Brynner attended dedications for many of the 150 granite Ten Commandment monoliths that were constructed in 34 states and Canada. It was great publicity for the film, which remains the fifth-highest grossing film of all time in inflation-adjusted terms.
The publicity stunt had a lasting legal legacy, says Baybrook. “After the film, because of its success, the monuments were left there, and it became entrenched in our concept of public spaces and the public consciousness that the Ten Commandments are part of the American psyche.” That the statues were located in public venues throughout America sparked decades of lawsuits, which by 1980 had made their way up to the Supreme Court. The cases continue even now, pitting religious Americans and political conservatives who want them displayed as a symbol of morality against those who maintain that their presence in public and legal arenas compromises the separation of church and state. The high court has generally ruled that replicas of the Ten Commandments do not belong in public venues if they explicitly endorse religious values. But the widely publicized court cases, propelled by charged political rhetoric, have transformed the Ten Commandments into one of the nation’s most controversial symbols.
The Ten Commandments continues to influence American culture more than 50 years after the director’s death. Broadcast on television most Easters, it has become one of the main sources of American knowledge about the Exodus story. By now, the image of Heston as Moses and the film’s presentation of a thundering God, voiced by Heston himself, are seared into American minds.
Adapted from the Moment article by Niv Elis