Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Cecil Blount DeMille (1881-1959) was a renowned American filmmaker broadly acknowledged as a founding father of American cinema and was arguably the most commercially successful producer-director in film history. He made 70 feature films, spanning both the silent film and sound eras, and his films were distinguished by their epic scale and his cinematic showmanship.

Photo of director DeMille on the set of The Ten Commandments (1923).

DeMille’s first film, The Squaw Man (1914), was the first full-length feature film shot in Hollywood, and the continued success of his productions led to the founding of Paramount Pictures and turned a little-known Californian orange grove into a major movie center that became a worldwide synonym for filmmaking. His films include The King of Kings (1927), a biography of Jesus seen by more than 800 million viewers; The Sign of the Cross (1932), which was the first sound film to integrate all aspects of cinematic technique; Cleopatra (1934), for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Picture; Samson and Delilah (1949), a biblical epic that became the highest-grossing film of 1950; The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), which won an Oscar for Best Picture; and his best-known film, The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956).



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Aside from his numerous film industry awards, DeMille received many awards from religious and cultural groups, including being honored by B’nai B’rith. However, he was accused of antisemitism after the release of The King of Kings which, although by no means the first film to feature a Passion Play, led to a vociferous Jewish public protest. The essential problem, according to American Jewish leaders and organizations, was that the film revived the ancient slander that the Jews had killed Jesus. In response, DeMille took an almost unbelievably arrogant and insensitive position at a press conference when he declared that he knows better than the Jews what is best for them and that Jewish leaders, being ignorant of the New Testament, have, with hostile animus, read antisemitism into the film where none exists. He blamed the rabbis and the Jewish press for any prejudice which might result, and he claimed that the critics’ reaction to The Kings of Kings could justifiably be seen as a sign of “a guilty conscience”: “They will infer that if Jesus were alive today these Jews I speak of would crucify him again.”

Many people do not know that DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments is not the film that we have all come to know but was a silent religious epic film that he produced and directed in 1923.


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The 1923 version of The Ten Commandments was DeMille’s first epic feature film, as he used magnificent sets, exquisite costumes and spectacular special effects – including particularly the legendary splitting of the Red Sea sequence, which Steven Spielberg acclaimed as “the greatest special effect in film history.” The film, which was hailed for its astonishing epic scope and for its use of a new two-color Technicolor process, cost an incredible $1.5 million to make and became a smash hit soon after its release. (Ironically, DeMille claimed at the time that “color photography… can never be used universally in motion pictures, for the eye of the spectator would be put to too great a strain, and the variety of colors would distract… from the story values.”)

Advertising and publicity costs also set records. Notably, prior to the film’s opening in New York, the largest electric sign ever displayed in the city was constructed on the side of the Putnam Building on Broadway from 43rd to 44th Streets that showed chariots disappearing in a chase. Before the first scene was projected, audiences at the George M. Cohan Theatre witnessed enormous tablets representing the Ten Commandments open outward on the stage with rays of light radiating from slabs of stone appearing on the screen, a monumentally high-priced staged event. A touring show with a 28-piece orchestra to play the dramatic score by Hugo Riesenfeld – a Jewish pioneer of film music who scored 100 films during his career – lasted for months, eleven companies toured Europe, and there were 250 screenings in London alone.

When Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, sent a telegram to DeMille to cease work because of the monumental costs, DeMille quipped “What does he want me to do? Stop now and release it as The Five Commandments?” As he argued in his autobiography:

The really important question to ask about a motion picture is not “What did it cost?” but “What is it worth?” The real worth of a picture cannot be measured in money alone. As soon as The Ten Commandments was completed, I screened it for Jesse Lasky and Sid Kent [Paramount sales department head]. The next day Kent wired Mr. Zukor: “The Ten Commandments is not a motion picture. It is bigger than all the motion pictures that have been made. It plays on the emotion in a manner that I have never felt or witnessed before and will do more good than all the combined pulpits of the country.”


DeMille’s contest ad.

DeMille came up with an interesting and novel idea to find subject matter for the film that became The Ten Commandments: He sponsored a contest in the October 9, 1922, Los Angeles Times headlined “Cecil de Mille Offer of $1,000 Can be Captured by Originator of Best Film Idea” (see exhibit), in which he solicited suggestions from the public. The winning submission selected from thousands of entries was by F. C. Nelson, a lubricant manufacturer from Lansing, Michigan, who wrote, “You cannot break the Ten Commandments – they will break you.” Production on the film began on May 21, 1923, was completed on August 16, 1923, and, after its premiere at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on December 4, 1923, it became the highest-grossing film that year.

Written by Jeanie MacPherson, an American silent actress, writer and director, and a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the film is presented in two parts, one historical pageantry and one sentimental melodrama, with separate casts in each of two distinct historical periods. A 50-minute “Prologue,” intended only as a prelude to the main story, recreates the biblical account of Moses and the Exodus tale, and the “Story” is a Jazz Age contemporary tale about two brothers and their respective views of the Decalogue.

DeMille, who frequently assumed the role of cinematic lay preacher, used his films to sermonize to the masses, earning monikers such as “the high priest of the religious genre” and the “arch apostle of spectacle.” Accordingly, his first Ten Commandments is unambiguously Christological, as he employed a heavy-handed approach to promoting puritanical Christianity, the Christian Bible, and the Christian version of the Decalogue, and he relied heavily upon public familiarity with the King James version of the Bible, citing chapter and verse in artistic title cards. (It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the countless inaccuracies in DeMille’s rendition of the Pentateuch, which would surely fill many volumes.)

From the 1923 film: Close-up of Moses with the tablets.

Nonetheless, the media and the producers of the film addressed possible objections regarding the Christian religious content of the film that might offend Jews; thus, for example, the December 27, 1923, issue of Variety assured that “it’s a great picture for the Jews. It shows the Bible made them the Chosen People…” According to the Forward, the 250 Orthodox Jews used as extras were said to have been emotionally moved during the filming and, in particular, to have openly wept as the clouds parted during the filming of the Red Sea sequence.

Using title cards in the film’s introduction, DeMille declares that modern society has scorned Judeo-Christian morality and implores viewers to return to the Ten Commandments, which is described not only as “the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together” but as “they are not laws – they are the LAW.” The film then recounts the Exodus, but only beginning from the tenth plague (the killing of the Egyptian first-born), and it continues through the crossing of the Red Sea; the seminal scene of Moses atop Mount Sinai; and the Golden Calf.

The underlying theme of the Story, which is the main thrust of the film, is that the Decalogue is still contemporarily relevant and that adverse consequences accrue to those who violate it. It transitions from the Prologue through a dissolving long view of the Jews terrified by G-d after the Golden Calf debacle to a shot of a family, two brothers, John and Dan McTavish, and their mother, Martha, who are gathered at a table for a Bible reading. Martha is a rigid and devout true believer who is certain that the Bible is perfect and, as the literal word of G-d, is incapable of error, but the two brothers take diametrically opposite philosophical and religious approaches to the Decalogue. John, who follows his mother’s teaching, becomes a carpenter (not coincidentally, the profession of the Christian savior) living on meager earnings, but Dan, an avowed atheist, vows to violate every Commandment on his road to success in life.

Confronted by his mother, Dan refuses her request to apologize to a G-d in which he does not believe, and she evicts him from the family home. He stops for a bite to eat at a lunch wagon, where Mary Leigh, an impoverished but beautiful young woman (a description not unlike the Mary of the Christian Bible, again likely no mere coincidence), steals his sandwich, which triggers a chaotic chase scene. She takes refuge in John’s carpentry shop, which is attached to the McTavish house, where John convinces his mother to permit Mary to stay the night and convinces Dan to set aside his grievance against her. Dan quickly charms Mary with his carefree ways, and the four get along happily, but a love triangle soon emerges.

Dan tells Mary that he is enraptured by her, but he lacks the nerve to communicate further. Meanwhile, John, who is similarly smitten, gives her a floral bouquet, telling her that it is from a man who wants to marry her but fears that his love is unreciprocated and therefore lacks the nerve to speak. Mary assumes that the paramour of whom John speaks is Dan and, when John gives her an engagement ring, a happy Mary expresses surprise that Dan did not give her the ring himself. Realizing that Mary loves his brother and not him, a crushed John steps aside and willingly sacrifices his happiness for theirs.

Martha’s strict observance of the Sabbath causes friction when Dan and Mary, now engaged, dance and play records on a Sunday (the Christian Sabbath) and a furious Martha smashes the record. Although John defends them and tries to convince his mother to mix grace in with her strict observance, the couple decides that it is time to run off together to live their “heathen” lives free of Martha’s fanaticism.

Three years later, DeMille presents a creative scenario under which Dan violates all ten commandments in a single story and, to help viewers, in each instance, the visual motif of the tablets of the commandments appears with the relevant commandment being highlighted (see how many you can spot in the following account). Dan has become a contractor who, upon winning a contract to build a massive cathedral, decides to reduce the amount of cement in the concrete to dangerously low levels. He becomes very wealthy from pocketing the money saved, and he employs his brother John, still a bachelor, as head contractor, hoping that his high moral standing and outstanding public reputation will project a tenor of legitimacy to his operation and help to cover his nefarious corruption. Dan cheats on Mary with Sally Lung, a Eurasian adulteress. (DeMille’s Sally is meant to be a counterpart to the Biblical Miriam, whom he portrays in the Biblical Prologue as a harlot – about as far from biblical truth as perhaps any other depiction in the film). When Martha comes to visit John at his work site, a wall collapses on her and, in her final words before death, she tells Dan that she rues having spent too much time trying to teach him to fear G-d rather than emphasizing G-d’s eternal love.

When Dan, now broke and disgraced, learns that a sensationalist muckraker tabloid has threatened to expose his corrupt operation, his business partner recommends a $25,000 bribe to stop publication but, lacking the funds, Dan attempts suicide. When his partner stops the attempt – but only because he refuses to take the fall alone – and demands the money, Dan goes to Sally’s brothel to take back a set of expensive pearls that he had given to her. Sally not only refuses but, adding insult to injury, she tells him that she had smuggled herself into the country from Molokai through a contraband jute shipment, which he had used to cut his concrete, and that she is infected with leprosy, thus likely infecting Dan as well. In a rage, he kills Sally and attempts to flee to Mexico on a motorboat, but when rough weather sends him off course, he crashes into a rocky island, and meets his death in a watery grave – much as Pharaoh’s mighty chariot host drowns in the Biblical Prologue.

Mary’s hands have become scarred and, fearing that Dan had infected her with leprosy, she stops by John’s office to bid farewell before fleeing, but John insists upon taking her in. As he reads the New Testament story to her of Jesus healing the lepers (which is re-enacted on the screen, with Jesus shown only from behind), she sees in the light that the scars are gone, which John explains is a metaphor for the healing salvation of the Christian savior.

From the 1923 film: Splitting of the Red Sea.

The parting of the Red Sea scene was shot in Seal Beach, California. The incredible visual effect of the walls of water standing apart while the Jews walked through was accomplished with a slab of Jell-O that was sliced in two with water poured over it; it was filmed close up as it jiggled and then reversed through the camera in a double exposure, and this shot was then combined with live-action footage of Jews walking into the distance to create the illusion.

The Exodus scenes in the film were shot at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes 170 miles north of Los Angeles in northern Santa Barbara County because its immense sand dunes provided a seeming resemblance to the Egyptian desert. A 24-square-mile tent city was installed to house 2,500 cast, crew, and extras and 3,000 animals, and a complete utilities system providing water, electricity, and telephones was built along with massive transportation facilities.


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The sets were so massive that DeMille didn’t even try to haul these materials back, in part because of the immense additional expense to be incurred in doing so.

This includes arguably the largest set ever constructed for a film, the colossal entrance to the City of Rameses that measured 750 feet wide (DeMille refused to work with painted backgrounds) and 109 feet high, required 300 tons of plaster, 55,000 board-feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails, and 75 miles of cable and wiring. Forming a symmetrical design, the entrance to the city was flanked by a set of two immense statues seated on a rectangular platform extending from both the left and right sides of the wall, with a set of enormous bas-reliefs of a horse-drawn chariot on the expanse of wall flanked the twin sculptures of the pharaohs. Approaching this impressive portico was a wide, sweeping avenue lined on both sides with a row of titanic sphinxes and, in the distance to the left of the massive gate, a pyramid pierced the sky of a limitless, arid landscape.

Paramount staff at work on a sphinx.

The massive film sets, which included four 35-foot-tall Pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates reaching a height of 110 feet, which were built by a small army of 1,600 workers, were dynamited and buried in the sand, and the wind, rain and sand collapsed and buried a large part of the set under the ever-shifting dunes. Through the years, numerous excavations have set out to recover these sets, now considered an official archaeological site, some of which are documented on an episode of National Geographic’s Drain the Oceans and The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille, a feature-length documentary.

Upon its release, critics acclaimed and celebrated the Biblical Prologue, but they were generally highly critical of the Story section of the film, which was broadly characterized as clichéd in both its narrative and characterizations. As such, DeMille deleted this entire portion of the film in his later four-hour epic 1956 version, which is the one most of us have come to know, in which he dropped the modern-day storyline in favor of profiling more of Moses’ early life. He apparently refilmed several sequences nearly shot-for-shot for the new version and had set pieces constructed for the later film that were near-duplicates of what he had used in 1923.

When Paramount Pictures decided to remake the Old Testament story in Technicolor and VistaVision, DeMille returned to direct it again, but this time from a more Jewish perspective in the wake of the Holocaust – although, as anybody with even the most basic Jewish knowledge knows, and notwithstanding the studio allegedly consulting a rabbi for the film, this version’s errors, distortions, misrepresentations and sheer fictions are legion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jewish studio executives objected to DeMille making the film, and pushback, particularly from then-Paramount president Barney Balaban, prompted Zukor to put things in perspective for his fellow Jews: “After we have just lived through a horrible war where our people were systematically executed, we have a man who makes a film praising the Jewish people. We should get down on our knees and say `Thank you.’” And, at the end of the day, the Jewish community did thank DeMille, who received several awards and a commendation from leading Jewish organizations.

DeMille decided to film in Egypt and, accordingly, he courted King Farouk and received permission to film there. However, the King was deposed and replaced by a theocracy shortly before shooting was scheduled to commence but, notwithstanding great uncertainty regarding the political turmoil in Egypt, DeMille began filming and won the right to shoot at the actual pyramids. Intriguingly and most ironically, the Egyptian government gave him 200 cavalry officers and 20 planes, and thousands of soldiers provided by the Egyptian Army took time off from preparing for war against Israel to serve as extras in the film. Adjusted for inflation, DeMille’s remake of The Ten Commandments is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time.

While DeMille destroyed the sets and material from the 1926 film, props and objects from the later film survived and are prized by collectors lucky enough to have them. In this January 4, 1957, correspondence to Clark Wilkinson, DeMille writes:

DeMille’s correspondence regarding pieces from The Ten Commandments.

Thank you for your letter of December 2nd. I am happy to learn that you are proceeding with your plan to establish a motion picture museum when you retire. I am sure that you will find it a most interesting work which will in turn give enjoyment and information to others.

I do wish I could reply in the affirmative concerning the tablets of Mount Sinai granite which were used in The Ten Commandments and the robe worn by Charlton Heston in the film. At the present time these tablets are being made available whenever possible to churches of all faiths for display purposes.

What the final disposition will be of the tablets and of the robe, I cannot say at this time. We have had so many requests for these and other items from the film from universities, museums and organizations that it would take a Solomon to make the decision. These things are, however, the property of Paramount Studio and the decision will probably be theirs to make in the years to come.

Best wishes for the successful fulfillment of your museum plans.

My research failed to uncover any information about Wilkinson or any museum established under his auspices.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].