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.
“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.!