The Ten Commandments (1923)
The Ten Commandments is a 1923 American silent religious epic film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Written by Jeanie MacPherson, the film is divided into two parts: a prologue recreating the biblical story of the Exodus and a modern story concerning two brothers and their respective views of the Ten Commandments. Original release date: December 4, 1923.
Lauded for its “immense and stupendous” scenes, use of Technicolor process, and parting of the Red Sea sequence, the expensive film proved to be a box-office hit upon release. It is the first in DeMille’s biblical trilogy, followed by The King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932).
The opening statement explains that modern society mocked and laughed at Judeo-Christian morality until it witnessed the horrors of the World War; it then beseeches the viewer to turn back to the Ten Commandments, describing them as “the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. They are not laws—they are the LAW.” From there, the Book of Exodus is recounted.
At the point of the Ten Commandments, Moses is seen on Mount Sinai, having witnessed the commandments given as writing in the sky, which he then manually carves into stone tablets. When he returns, he finds that the Israelites have fallen into debauchery and built a golden calf to worship. Furiously, he smashes the commandments, deeming the Israelites unworthy. An Israelite man and woman seducing each other find, to the horror of both, that the woman has hideous sores covering her hands and is now unclean, prompting her to beg Moses to be cleansed. Moses calls on the power of God and the calf is destroyed with lightning.
Two brothers, John and Dan McTavish, live with their mother Martha, a strict believer in the Biblical law. The two sons make opposite decisions; John follows his mother’s teaching of the Ten Commandments and becomes a carpenter living on meager earnings, and Dan, now an avowed atheist who is convinced that the Commandments never offer him anything, vows to break every one of them and rise to the top.
As Martha evicts Dan from her house, he and John stop for a bite to eat at a lunch wagon. There, Mary, an impoverished but beautiful young woman, steals a bite of Dan’s sandwich and triggers a madcap chase after her. She takes refuge in the McTavish house, where John convinces his mother to take Mary in for the night. John also convinces Dan to set aside his grievance and stay; he also introduces Dan to Mary. Dan quickly wins Mary over with his freewheeling ways. Martha’s strict observance of the Sabbath causes friction when Dan and Mary begin dancing on a Sunday, and though John tries to convince his mother to show grace, Dan and Mary decide it is time to run off together.
Three years later, Dan has become a corrupt contractor. He earns a contract to build a massive cathedral and decides to cut the amount of cement in the concrete to dangerously low levels, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. He puts John, still a bachelor, in charge of construction, hoping to use him as a conduit to provide the gifts to their mother that she refuses to accept from Dan. Dan cheats on Mary with Sally, a Eurasian adulteress. One day, Martha comes to visit him at his work site; a wall collapses on her. Fatally injured, with her last words, she tells Danny that it is her fault for being too strict teaching him to fear God, when she should have taught him love.
Now out of money, Dan learns that a muckraker tabloid has threatened to expose his operation. His business partner recommends a $25,000 bribe to stop publication, but lacking the funds, Dan instead attempts suicide—his partner stops the attempt, solely because he refuses to take the fall alone, and demands the money. He goes to Sally’s brothel to take back a set of expensive pearls he gave her, but Sally refuses and reveals herself to have smuggled herself into the country from Molokai through a contraband jute shipment and is thus infected with leprosy, thus likely infecting Dan as well. In rage, he kills Sally and attempts to flee to Mexico on a motorboat (the S.S. Defiance), but rough weather sends him off course and he crashes into a rocky island. His dead body is seen among the wreckage. Mary, fearing herself to also be infected, stops by John’s office to say goodbye, but John insists on taking her in. As he reads Mary the New Testament story of Jesus healing the lepers (re-enacted on screen, with Jesus shown only from behind), a light shows Mary’s hands not to be scarred at all, and that her perceived scars had disappeared in the light—a metaphor for the healing salvation of Christ.
Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the commandments appears in the sets, with a particular commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Story by Jeanie MacPherson
Produced by Cecil B. DeMille
Theodore Roberts as Moses, The Lawgiver
Charles De Roche as Rameses, The Magnificent
Estelle Taylor as Miriam, The Sister of Moses
Julia Faye as Nefertari
Pat Moore (billed as Terrence Moore) as Amun-her-khepeshef
James Neill as Aaron, Brother of Moses
Lawson Butt as Dathan, The Discontented
Clarence Burton as The Taskmaster
Noble Johnson as The Bronze Man
Edythe Chapman as Mrs. Martha McTavish
Richard Dix as John McTavish, her son
Rod La Rocque as Dan McTavish, her son
Leatrice Joy as Mary Leigh
Nita Naldi as Sally Lung, a Eurasian
Robert Edeson as Redding, an Inspector
Charles Ogle as The Doctor
Agnes Ayres as The Outcast