Ethics Quote of the Week: Moses (Charlton Heston) in “The Ten Commandments”

The evil that men should turn their brothers into beasts of burden, to be stripped of spirit, and hope, and strength – only because they are of another race, another creed. If there is a god, he did not mean this to be so.

—-Moses, as played by Charlton Heston and scripted by seven writers, in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” answering to the Pharoah Seti’s question, “Then why are you forcing me to destroy you? What evil has done this to you?”

The Ten Commandments“The Ten Commandments” is so extravagantly fun and entertaining that, I must confess, I never watched it as an ethics film until tonight, as ABC once again broadcast the Biblical epic on an Easter weekend. This quote especially struck me as remarkable for a film made by an infamously rigid conservative, DeMille, in 1956.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus. The next twelve months were tense, difficult days in which the entire U.S. population was undergoing a wrenching cultural debate regarding human rights.  On Dec. 6, 1955, the civil rights boycott, led by Marin Luther King, of Montgomery city buses began. January 1956 saw Autherine Lucy, a black woman, accepted for classes at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the first African-American ever allowed to enroll.  On Jan. 30, the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed in Montgomery. February 4 saw rioting and violence on the campus of the University of Alabama and in the streets of Tuscaloosa. Lucy had to flee the campus, and the university’s Board of Trustees barred her from returning. On the 22nd of that month, warrants were  issued for the arrest of the 115 leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott. A week later, courts ordered Lucy readmitted, but the school expelled her.

When “The Ten Commandments” was released into theaters, all of this was far from resolved. (The United States Supreme Court decided in favor of the Montgomery bus boycotters,  ruling bus segregation illegal, on November 16.) This was a civil rights movie with a strong civil rights message packaged as a Bible spectacular, and it could not have been better timed.

There is a lot of ethics to ponder in the movie, much of it unrelated to civil rights, but focusing on ethical conflicts like loyalty, gratitude, and whether the ends justify the means. For example, when Moses is considering giving up his royal status (and likely ascension to the throne of Egypt) to join his people, the Hebrews, as slaves, Moses is asked by Nefertiri, his lover and future queen, if he wouldn’t serve his people better by achieving power as an Egyptian monarch than by accepting the fate of his heritage. Good question! The film is also almost as much a teaching aid for avoiding lousy leadership techniques as “The Walking Dead.” Ramses, played by the film-stealing Yul Brenner, is incapable of making a smart decision, or sticking to any decision. He lets his emotions and the chiding of his bitter wife confuse his perception; he is weak, then harsh, then weak again. He’s also really, really slow to catch on: when you’ve had flaming hail rain down on you, you’ve seen the Red Sea part and have had your army blocked by a pillar of flame, I think it might begin to occur to you that you’re seriously outgunned by the opposition. But no, as soon as the pillar evaporates, Ramses send his charioteers into the path between the miraculously suspended walls of water, never considering the rather obvious possibility that the Red Sea could unpart and drown his forces, especially since there is every reason to believe that the agency doing the parting is not fond of him or Egypt generally.

In this sequence, in fact, he’s even worse than Rick Grimes. When his lieutenant says, “Uh, Pharoah? Our adversary appears to be a god. Let’s get out of Dodge,” Ramses, who has promised his bitter harridan of wife that he would kill Moses with his own spear, stubbornly replies that “It is better to be defeated by a god than to return in shame.” Then, when that really safe-looking path through the middle of the Red Sea opens up, the Pharoah suddenly pulls himself over to the sidelines, saying that the impending slaughter of the Hebrews (after all, the army just has to get through that path before gravity starts working again) is “work for butchers, not for a king,” conveniently sparing his own neck when the waters come tumbling down.

But I digress. For all its campy acting, lurid spectacle and dubious history, “The Ten Commandments” presented an important human rights message in a very attractive, entertaining and popular package.

Atta boy, C.B.!

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: Moses (Charlton Heston) in “The Ten Commandments”

    • To which he would respond:

      “You’re fired, find me a lieutenant who will lead this charge”

      Or

      “You know, that Moses fellow is so bad after all, lets see how things go for him.”

      • Ahhh… but this was Ramses the Great! From the earliest days of his career as a war lord, he made a big deal about leading from the front. Thus, I’d provide him with a “gentle” reminder. And if he did relieve me… that would make TWO survivors. Then- naturally- I’d whack his head off, throw the carcass in the Red Sea (with those of my late battalion!) and carry back to Thebes the double crown and crook & flail of Egyptian royalty. “See?”, I’d say. “The Pharaoh gave his life in his duty, but commanded me as an adoptive son- his own having died because of the accursed Hebrews- to carry on in his stead… and to tame (I mean marry) his voluptous queen. So let it be written… etc,, etc.”. Moses can have the 40 years in the wilderness. I get Egypt and all the goodies. Don’t laugh, either. It’s mentalities like this that make history!

  1. Nefertiri, the witch, had bad advice for Moses. Luckily he didn’t take it.

    I learned early from my father, who was high in the administration of a Protestant denomination (and a PhD. philosopher), and who could have been elected a Bishop if he had played his cards right. When one day I suggested to him that he should play the right game (stay out of the Civil Rights Movement, e.g., and DON’T do things like march from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King — too controversial at the time), so that he could actually be elected Bishop and then would have the real power to make the kind of positive change he wanted to make. His answer to me was, “I’m only afraid that if I played the game well enough to be elected Bishop, by the time I got there I might have forgotten what I wanted to do with that power in the first place.”

    God or no God, too few people (like elected officials, e.g.) stop to think what they give up — and who they owe — to get elected, and what it does to their attitudes, ethics, and behavior when they get there.

    Moses saw the same handwriting on the wall. Stay an Egyptian long enough and pretty soon you’ll start liking it enough to forget your heritage and your grand plans for freeing the Jews.

    Ethical issues aside, the movie is also occasionally a hoot. E.g., I’ll never get over his Moses’ behavior — and that hair! — after he went to the mountain to meet “he who shall not be named.” I ruined this scene forever for my husband, when his wife said, “Moses, your hair!” And I responded for him, “Do you like it?” It was kind of like pointing out to people that in “The Wizard of Oz” Judy Garland’s pigtails kept changing length — sometimes short, sometimes long — and now I know people who can’t stop paying more attention to her pigtails than to the rest of the movie…

    But I digress. The courage of Cecil B. deMille is absolute; and despite the current inability (or because of that inability) for Hollywood to create this kind of uber-spectacular — with all its casting problems and occasional hilariousness — this classic is worth seeing more than once.

  2. It’s such a great film, Jack. Another is TNT’s “Abraham”. Pharoah is humanity opposing God to no avail. Our arrognce knows no bounds.

  3. This has been one of my favorite films ever since I watched it with my father as a little girl. I’ve seen it many, many times since, but never thought of it as an allegory for civil rghts. It’s an interesting and eye opening perspective.

  4. Speaking of Egypt, my friend Sarge983 pointed out:

    What used to be the breadbasket of the Roman Empire is now the largest importer of wheat in the world.

    Great article from City Journal on how one facet of the ‘improvement’ over Mubarak has manifested itself:

    Pharaoh Weeps

    • There are now sixty plus million people living in Egypt. Yet, they use much the same agricultural methods that the ancients did. They also compounded the problem when Nasser blew their budget (and our’s) in building the Aswan High Dam. It stopped the periodic flooding, all right. But it also prevented the deposition of new, rich soil by those floods that kept the Nile Valley so fertile. Concurrently, it led to increased pestilence! It’s been speculated that, if Israel was in a final extremity from an Egyptian invasion, all they’d have to do is put a tactical nuke on the dam and let the resultant flood wash away the bulk of inhabited Egypt. It would, too.

  5. I got the opportunity to tell Charlton Heston face-to-face what “The Ten Commandments” movie meant to me. This was at a book signing for his autobiography. He was just signing each book and sliding it across the table with no interaction with the buyer. When it was my turn I spoke up and said: “Mr. Heston, the most intense religious experience I have is each time I watch “The Ten Commandments” . ”
    He paused, then looked up at me and with a broad smile, said “Why, thank you, sir, that’s very nice to hear.”

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