THE TEN COMMANDMENTS REVIEW: "A Viewer's Journey Through the Wilderness"
Anyone familiar with the life of Moses – from when he was a baby being placed in a basket on the Nile River, to his death in Moab (just outside of the Promised Land) 120 years later – will be pleased with how the movie The Ten Commandments captures all of his major life events. All of the main parts of the Moses story are accounted for (and then some). Well, all of the main parts except for one – one huge part, as a matter of fact, that accounts for 1/3 of his life is missing. The forty years that the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, is conspicuously absent from this beautiful film.
Or is it? That is to say, it only seems as though the arduous journey through the wilderness -- where the Israelites are not sure if they going to make it -- is not depicted in the film. Just because the journey through the wilderness is not explicitly shown, does not mean that it is not implicitly felt. This is the brilliance of this movie, and I will explain what I mean by this shortly. First let me set the stage for you.
It is natural to think that a movie made over sixty-five years ago, would not hold up compared to our modern movies and their amazing special effects. Obviously the special effects used in this movie – for instance, for the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, or God as a pillar of fire – did not have the privilege of today’s modern advances that is true. Nevertheless it does not make them any less impactful. The acting is exceptional, and does a good job helping the viewer see past any possible technological gap. What is more, because of the lack of special effects that more modern movies have come to rely upon, this film has to work twice as hard to show you what it is trying to depict. And that extra work pays dividends. For example, the morning after the first Passover, when Pharaoh finally frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the scene to show you how thousands of Israelites are beginning the Exodus, and all of things they are taking with them on the journey, is powerful and profound. All of the people, supplies, livestock, order/chaos, it is all larger than life, and quite moving in its sheer breadth.
This scene is emblematic of the film as a whole. It is too much and almost too much to contain. The Ten Commandments is literally the only movie I have seen in my life that is so long that it actually has an intermission point in the middle. This movie is over three and a half hours long, and like I said it left out 1/3 of the life Moses. But, again, to make my previous point – it was not really left out.
Let me use a very famous piece of literature to illustrate my point here. Many have said that the length of the great American novel, Moby Dick, is part of its brilliance. A book that is that long, and so densely packed with allusions, is symbolic of the whale itself and the sheer magnitude of what the crew was up against. In other words, a reader working their way tirelessly through the lengthy novel is analogous to the tireless struggle of the crew against their massive foe. It is along these same artistic lines, that The Ten Commandments makes us feel the struggle of the Israelites in the wilderness. After finally getting to the end of this cinematic journey (artistically analogous here to the journey in the wilderness) we see Moses die.
I rented this movie in order to watch it. The digital rental only lasted for 48 hours from time you start the movie. In that time, due to my busy schedule, I only made it through two and a half hours before my rental expired. So, unfortunately, I had to rent it again just to finish it. I only mention my personal experience with the movie because I believe that it tells a story about the film itself. The first point is that the movie was obviously good enough (having seen about 2/3 of it) that I was willing to rent it again to finish it. I mean, I had yet to even see the parting of the Red Sea or to when Moses receives the 10 commandments from God. But also, the movie is so long I literally struggled to make it through it in time. This struggle is artistically symbolic (although, let me make it clear not at all actually comparable) with the Israelites struggling to make it through the wilderness. In other words, After finally getting to the end of this cinematic journey (artistically analogous here to the journey in the wilderness) we see Moses die. This is why this film is so good, and why it still holds up over six decades from its release – it not only shows you scripture, its makes you feel it (as much as any movie could).
A third of the movie was still unseen when my rental expired and as I said a third of Moses life is missing from the film. Make of that coincidence what you will. What it tells me is that as always art imitates life – and this art (i.e. film) does an excellent job of imitating (i.e. capturing) the life of Israel’s greatest prophet.