Arts / Entertainment

What Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” taught my family on Movie Night

The director's opening lines stunned me. After all those years watching the movie on television during the Easter season, no network (that I could remember) had ever shown them.

 

“What should we watch?” I asked.

There wasn’t even a pause.

The Ten Commandments! Aren’t we going to watch The Ten Commandments?” their voices rang out in near unison.

It was Friday night. And in my house, with my wife, my second- and fourth-grade daughters, that means MOVIE NIGHT. Movie Night means snuggling in oversized chairs wrapped in impossibly comfortable blankets and eating popcorn from cartoonishly large bowls. Over the years, our choices had evolved from Tangled to The Sound of Music to The Lego Movie to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. If you are wondering about any major child’s classic or animated film, don’t worry about reviews on Netflix or Rotten Tomatoes – just give me a call. 

Now, to be honest, The Ten Commandments request was a little sneaky work on my part. Going to a Catholic school, my older daughter had seen parts of the film in her religion class and was transfixed by it. The bushy bearded and faithful Moses (Charlton Heston), the stone-hearted Pharaoh Rameses (Yul Brynner) and the beautiful yet devious Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), along with a cast of thousands supported by a burning bush, a blazing mountain and a parting Red Sea makes Cecil B. DeMille’s three-and-a half hour movie a classic not to be beat. So when I brought it up as an option for Movie Night, my oldest yelped with instant glee which soon carried my youngest and, well… my work there was done.

And so, last Friday with popcorn popped, blankets piled and everyone snug together in couches and chairs, we turned the movie on.

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But I was shocked by what I saw.

Instead of the large colorful title slide and sweeping orchestral music that so often began the movie I remembered from my childhood, a bald, bespectacled man awkwardly parted a stage curtain and approached a solitary microphone. The only sounds to be heard were the grainy artifact of 1956 audio and the echo of his shoes on the bare stage.

Ladies and gentlemen, young and old,

This may seem an unusual procedure speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject: the story of the birth of freedom. The story of Moses.

 As many of you know, the Holy Bible omits some thirty years of Moses’ life. From the time he was a three-month-old baby and was found in the bulrushes by Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh, and adopted into the court of Egypt until he learned that he was Hebrew and killed the Egyptian. To fill in those missing years, we turn to ancient historians such as Philo and Josephus. Philo wrote at the time that Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth and Josephus wrote some 50 years later and watched the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. These historians had access to documents long since destroyed or perhaps lost like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

 The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God’s Law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.

 Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created 3,000 years ago – the five books of Moses.

 The story takes three hours and thirty-nine minutes to unfold. There will be an intermission.

 Thank you for your attention.

 And then turning, walking and parting the curtain, he was gone.

The man who spoke to us was the film’s director, Cecil B. DeMille.

I looked at my daughters who were simply and eagerly chomping on their popcorn and asking when the movie was going to start. But I was stunned. After all those years watching The Ten Commandments on television during the Easter season, no network (that I could remember) had ever shown Cecil B. DeMille’s opening lines.

Imagine sitting in a movie house in 1956 and hearing an award-winning director gently, yet pointedly ask a fundamental question of our faith in the modern world: Are we the property of the state or the property of God?

Now imagine that same experience in 2016.

Not likely to happen.

You see, the curious thing is that now when we need to ask this question more than ever… we are least likely to ask it. We are too busy, too embarrassed or simply too selfish. To whom do we truly belong? To whom do we owe our last full measure of devotion?

As the movie began and the little baby floated among the bulrushes into the arms of the Egyptian princess, I looked at my eager daughters’ widening eyes and chewing mouths and I smiled. They may not comprehend the depth of the director’s question, but they understand the stubbornness of Rameses, the courage of Moses and the faithfulness of God. They may not consider the philosophical underpinnings at the root of this story, but they sense that God is all loving and that they, like the Israelites, are immeasurably special in His eyes. And in answer to Mr. DeMille’s question, we fully and completely belong to Him.

Yes. Indeed. Indeed.

That’s what I would call a great Movie Night.

Read more: Why does Pope Francis want us to watch “Babette’s Feast”?

Inkless Writer

Tod Worner

Tod Worner is a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs at A Catholic Thinker.