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

Seven years ago, while  watching the annual showing of “The Ten Commandments ” on ABC, I realized how advanced its civil rights message was for its time, and what an interesting and instructive ethics movie the epic was. This post was the result. I’ve edited it a bit.

The movie hasn’t been shown yet in 2020 ; it’s scheduled for the weekend before Easter, which is late this year.  I never miss it, and if you watch the film with your ethics alarms primed, you might see it in a whole new dimension.

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“That 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 the Pharoah Seti’s question, “Then why are you forcing me to destroy you? What evil has done this to you?”

“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.

Less that a year earlier, on Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama 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 of Montgomery city buses, led by Rev. Martin Luther King , 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 Montgomery home of Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed. 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 problems involving loyalty, gratitude, whether the ends justify the means, and the burdens of leadership. 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, and one that is never answered.

The film is also almost as much a teaching aid for avoiding lousy leadership techniques as early seasons of “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 from 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 sends 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, the feckless leader of the survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Like the Pharoah, Rick is unprepared to deal with extraordinary leadership challenges that he never anticipated or prepared for.  In “The Walking Dead,” it’s a world without laws, governed by survival ethics. In “The Ten Commandments,” its a human rival with a supernatural ally.

When Ramses’ 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 is “work for butchers, not for a king,” conveniently sparing his own neck when the waters come tumbling down, killing his troops.

For Moses’ part, he epitomizes the man with a mission so important and all-consuming that he abandons his duties to his family without any hesitation or guilt. It is the curse of the Great Man (or Great Woman), choosing the greater good over those who need and trust you.

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.!

18 thoughts on “From The Archives: “Ethics Quote of the Week: Moses (Charlton Heston) in ‘The Ten Commandments'”

  1. I just got done re-watching “Ben-Hur” (the 1959 version), and plan to re-watch “The Ten Commandments” next. (We have both films on DVD; however, my desktop computer (and my laptop too) lack optical media drives, so I sprang for the digital version on Amazon Video (“Ben-Hur” last week, and doubtless “The Ten Commandments” this week). It looks like you also did an Ethics Alarms post about “Ben-Hur” (probably about the 2016 remake), and I’ll have to read that, too.

  2. I remember as a child being struck by the inclusion of the Nubians leaving Egypt as well as the Hebrews. The message to was clear. Freedom wasn’t just for one people, but for all.

    He made great film spectacles. For this scene alone De Mille will always have a place in my movie loving heart.

  3. Truly “The Ten Commandments” was a great film with Yul Brenner doing a splendid job as Ramses. Amazing cinematography with the Red Sea parting and a thrilling film to watch in 1956. I will probably watch it again this Easter.

  4. I had the opportunity to tell Charlton Heston how I feel every time I watch The Te n Commandments. I told him it is the most intense religious experience I ever have. This was at the signing for his new book. He graciously smiled, looked up, and said “Why, thank you, sir that’s very nice to hear.”

    • And a particularly slimy Vincent Price! And the pre-Lily Munster Yvonne De Carlo! And the stunning Debra Paget, dressed like a BC Playboy fantasy! And a hilariously miscast Edward G. Robinson! And the scenery chomping Ann Baxter! And Mr. Gower from “It’s A Wonderful Life” in his final screen appearance!

  5. I will always think of Heston as one of the great “hero” actors, of whom someone like Mel Gibson (for a while the reigning king of modern epics) is just a pale shadow. He was actually a very interesting person, who went through four stages of political development. He was actually fairly liberal and an early supporter of the civil rights movement (in fact there’s a fairly famous photo of him in the 1963 civil rights march with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte) at the time a lot of these films were made. And, if you look at his filmography, a lot of his films have at least some civil rights messaging to them. In Ben-Hur he gives up being a Roman nobleman to return to his heritage, yet embraces Christ’s message and does not turn to violence at the end. In El Cid he spares the Moorish noblemen and later presents them to the king of Castile as allies against the Almohad invasion. At the end of 55 Days at Peking he rescues his fallen fellow officers’ half-Chinese daughter who now has no one.

    Heston was never a racist, although there seems to be this assumption that all conservatives are racists, most just hide it well enough for it not to be provable, some hide it really well. Like many more centrist-to-conservative Democrats, however, he became disillusioned when the party ran uber-liberal George McGovern, later saying (similar to what Reagan later said) that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the party left him. He had no use for political correctness. Unfortunately, due to his strong pro-2nd Amendment advocacy, and an unfair portrayal by propagandist Michael Moore, a lot of this has gotten buried and a lot of folks think he was just an out of touch gun nut who swore not to give up his guns in the wake of Columbine. Even more unfortunate, his health collapsed and he died a very unpleasant death from Alzheimer’s. He was one of the good conservatives, but to some liberals, the only good conservative is either a conservative who turns liberal, or a conservative who turns dead, especially one who suffered before he died A good (and totally gratuitous) example is at the end of the Nathan Robinson’s otherwise excellent essay in Current Affairs pointing up what a slug Hugh Hefner really was: “(I felt the same way when Antonin Scalia died. I didn’t want him to die; I would have preferred that he had remained alive and simply renounced his horrible beliefs and become a good person. But he never did, so we had to settle for death.).” Sure Nate, a towering conservative legal scholar, whose decisions I’m sure you read and should have understood unless you sleepwalked through law school at Yale, was going to renounce his long-ago thought out and decided beliefs because you thought they were “horrible.” Don’t do drive-by cheap shots that stop just short of saying you’re glad someone’s dead in an otherwise unrelated article. Then again, it IS his magazine, so he can publish what he damn well pleases. However, it says more about him and his readership than it says about the late justice.

  6. One problem though: the Nubians were headed in the wrong direction!

    It is a curious issue though: the development of Hebrew social awareness, and an awareness of being a special people with a special mission and destiny, cannot be transferred to any other. The ‘Nubians’, if indeed there were Nubians as slaves in Egypt, could not have been carried along by Hebrews-in-exodus because they themselves did not have a wide-ranging vision of themselves, and there was no *god* calling to them: calling to them to define themselves and to claim an active role through an act of self-defining will in history’s unfolding. After having crossed the Red Sea there would have been a necessary parting of the ways. They would have been told “We have our identity, we have our mission — what is yours and where will you go?” “We want to come with you” “You cannot!”

    You cannot however ride along on someone else’s historical or ethnic will. Though I guess that De Mille included the Nubian reference with specific intent — as the mass social engineering project that had begun after WW1 that would completely change the shape of America — it is also true that black Americans were manipulated by Jewish will and became, if you will, a *tool* in progressive Jewish molding of America. As everyone knows one of the major *tools* for this sort of influence had been ‘the movies’ and Hollywood certainly had its role in this.

    That is, as an expression of Jewish revolutionary will. Black Americans were useful to Jewish machinations and are still useful to some degree (as long as they don’t suddenly turn and mangle the hands of those who prod them along) as the rather helter-skelter egalitarian and ‘liberationist’ processes, also put in motion After the WW1, gathered steam.

    So, just as ‘the Nubians’ rolled their carts and herded their geese down onto the floor of the Red Sea and heralded a pseudo-liberation within American society — one that was exploited of course as the nation was remolded — so just a few years later

  7. As much as I enjoy watching “The Ten Commandments,” any inherent civil rights significance is dulled for me by the reality that the ancient Hebrews were a slave-owning people. The Hebrew bible contains laws pertaining to the treatment of both Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves. Again, “presentism” displaces historical accuracy.

    • But James, few believe that the story is history. There’s no historical or even archeological evidence of the Exodus, ever mind flaming hail. De Mille was certainly never interested in historical accuracy: he made entertaining spectacles.

      • The story of *Exodus* is in a sense the very conceptual pattern of social revolution. Whether the Hebrews were ‘slaves in Egypt’ is not relevant to the story and to the way the story is designed to function. The story has been borrowed, and will continue to be borrowed, whenever its internal message, as imperative, is needed.

        In a very real sense it is not the *true history* that is a true motivator, but the *false, embellished history* that is put in service to the will of men and communities in the present times. A (real) true history cannot easily be put in the service of many social causes because true history cannot, without editing and narrative focus, be made clear enough to rouse people to action.

        As an example, and on the basis of recommendations by some contributors here, we got the movie ‘Texas Rising’ and have begun to watch it. This is history? No, it is not history. It is historical fable. It has a peculiar and definite function, just as the Exodus story has a function. If someone needs that *function* they do not grab hold of *real histories* but rather they grab hold of embellished histories.

        This became strikingly clear when I watched Twelve Years a Slave.

        These are *spectacles* and they are infused with utility & function. I can’t remember which of the James brothers said it, Henry or William, but he remarked that we begin to write histories that imitate how we write novels, or something to that effect.

  8. My favorite scene is “Hear ye, oh hear ye. The lord Jehovah has given you these 15 (crash)…10 commandments.” Sorry, that was History of the World, Part 1.

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