The Ten Commandments Movie

The Ten Commandments (1956) Prelude by Elmer Bernstein

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The Egyptian Pharaoh has ordered the death of all firstborn Hebrew males, but a Hebrew woman (“Yoshebel”) sets her infant son adrift on the Nile in order to save him. The infant is rescued from the Nile by an Egyptian princess (“Bithiah”) who decides to adopt the boy even though her servant (“Memnet”) recognizes that the child is Hebrew and protests.

As a young man, Moses becomes a successful general, claiming victory in a war with the Nubians of Ethiopia and then entering Egypt into an alliance with them. Moses loves Nefretiri, who is the “throne princess” and must marry the next Pharaoh. An incident occurs when an elderly woman, who is greasing the ground for the pillar of stone to move easier, is almost crushed to death when her scarf gets caught under the slap of stone, prompting Moses to scold Baka. Moses frees the elderly woman from her dangerous chore. Little did Moses know that the elderly woman was his natural mother Yoshebel. While working on the building of a treasure city for Seti’s Jubilee, Moses meets the stonecutter Joshua, who tells him of the Hebrew God.

Moses institutes numerous reforms concerning the treatment of the slaves on the project, and eventually Rameses charges Moses with planning an insurrection, pointing out that the slaves are calling Moses the “Deliverer” of prophecy. Moses defends himself against the charges, arguing that he is simply making his workers more productive by making them stronger and happier and proves his point with the impressive progress he is making. During this time, Rameses has been charged by his father with finding out whether there really is a Hebrew fitting the description of the Deliverer.

Scene where Memnet reveals to Nefretiri the truth about Moses’ real origin, Nefretiri (left) and Memnet (right)

Nefretiri learns from the servant Memnet that Moses is the son of Hebrew slaves. Nefretiri kills Memnet and reveals the story to Moses, who goes to Bithiah to learn the truth. Bithiah evades his questions, but Moses follows her to the home of Yoshebel and thus learns the truth.

Moses spends time working amongst the slaves to learn more of their lives. During this time the master builder Baka steals Liliah, who is engaged to the stonecutter Joshua. Joshua rescues Liliah but is captured himself; Moses frees Joshua but strangles Baka. Moses confesses to Joshua that he too is Hebrew; the confession is witnessed by the ambitious Hebrew overseer Dathan. Dathan uses the information to bargain with Rameses for Baka’s house, a post as Governor of Goshen, and the ownership of the slave Liliah.

Based on Dathan’s information, Moses is arrested and brought before Seti. Moses tells Seti that he is not the Deliverer, but would free the slaves if he could. Bithiah tells her brother Seti the truth about Moses, and Seti orders his name stricken from all records and monuments. Moses is banished to the desert, but not before, he receives the word that Yoshebel had died before she delivered the piece of a Levite cloth, and Rameses is declared the next Pharaoh.

Scene where Moses is taught how to tend sheep in Midian by Sephora, Moses (left) and Sephora (right)

Moses makes his way across the desert, nearly dying of hunger and thirst before he comes to a well in the land of Midian. At the well, he defends seven sisters from Amalekites who try to push them away from the water. Moses finds a home in Midian with the girls’ father Jethro, a Bedouin sheik, who reveals that he is a follower of “He who has no name,” whom Moses recognizes as the God of Abraham. Moses impresses Jethro and the other sheiks with his wise and just trading, and marries Jethro’s eldest daughter (“Sephora”, the Greek form of her name used in the film).

While herding sheep in the desert Moses finds Joshua, who has escaped from the copper mines that he was sent to after the death of Baka. Moses sees the Burning Bush on the summit of Mount Sinai and hears the voice of God (Charlton Heston, who was not credited for this secondary role). God charges Moses to return to Egypt and free His chosen people. In Egypt, Seti dies and Rameses succeeds him as Pharaoh.

At Pharaoh’s court, Moses comes before Rameses to win the slaves’ freedom, turning his staff into a snake to show Rameses the power of God. Rameses decrees that the Hebrews be given no straw to make their bricks, but to make the same tally as before on pain of death. As the Hebrews prepare to stone Moses in anger, Nefretiri’s retinue rescues him; however when she attempts to resume their relationship he spurns her, reminding her that not only is he on a mission he is also married.

As Moses continues to challenge Pharaoh’s hold over his people, Egypt is beset by divine plagues. Moses warns him that the next plague to fall upon Egypt will be summoned by Pharaoh himself. Enraged at the plagues and Moses’ continuous demands, as well as his generals and advisers telling him to give in, Rameses orders all first-born Hebrews to die. Nefretiri warns Sephora to escape with her son (“Gershom”) on a passing caravan to Midian, and Moses tells the Queen that it is her own son who will die. In an eerily quiet scene, the Angel of Death creeps into Egyptian streets in a glowing green cloud, killing all the firstborn of Egypt, including the adult son of Pharaoh’s top general, and Pharaoh’s own child. The Hebrews who have marked their doorposts and lintels with lamb’s blood are eating a hasty meal and preparing to depart. Broken and despondent, Pharaoh orders Moses to take his people, and cattle, and go. The Hebrews begin their exodus from Egypt.

Nefretiri goads Pharaoh into a rage so that he arms himself and pursues the former slaves to the shore of the Red Sea. Held back by a pillar of fire, the Egyptian forces watch as Moses parts the waters. As the Hebrews race over the seabed, the pillar of fire dies down and the army rides in hot pursuit. The Hebrews make it to the far shore as the waters close on the Egyptian army, drowning every man and horse. Rameses looks on in despair. All he can do is return to Nefretiri, confessing to her, “His god is God.”

The former slaves camp at the foot of Sinai and wait as Moses again ascends the mountain. During his absence, the Hebrews lose faith and, urged on by the evil Dathan, build a golden calf as an idol to bear before them back to Egypt, hoping to win Rameses’ forgiveness. They force Aaron to help fashion the gold plating. The people indulge their most wanton desires in an orgy of sinfulness.

High atop the mountain, Moses witnesses God’s creation of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. When he finally climbs down, Moses beholds his people’s iniquity and hurls the tablets at the idol in a rage. The idol explodes, and Dathan and his followers are killed. After God forces them to endure forty years’ exile in the desert wandering lost, to kill off the rebellious generation, the Hebrews are about to arrive in the land of Canaan. An elderly Moses, who, however, is not allowed to enter the promised land, because he disobeyed the lord at the waters of strife, not shown in the film, then appoints Joshua to succeed him as leader, says a final good bye to Sephora, and goes forth to his destiny.

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Original theatrical poster with the main characters.
First row: Moses, Rameses, Nefretiri, Dathan, Sephora, and Lilia.
Second row: Joshua, Sethi, Bithiah, Yoshebel, Memnet, and Baka.

Edward G. Robinson as Dathan

  • Charlton Heston as Moses and the voice of God in burning bush sequence (Heston was credited only for his role of Moses)
  • Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Rameses II
  • Anne Baxter as Nefretiri
  • Edward G. Robinson as Dathan
  • Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Moses’ wife and daughter of Jethro
  • Debra Paget as Lilia
  • John Derek as Joshua
Supporting cast
  • Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Pharaoh Seti I
  • Nina Foch as Bithiah, adoptive mother of Moses, sister to Seti I
  • Martha Scott as Yoshebel, Hebrew mother of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam
  • Judith Anderson as Memnet, slave attendant to Bithiah and Nefretiri
  • Vincent Price as Baka the Master Builder
  • John Carradine as Aaron, Moses’ brother
  • Olive Deering as Miriam, Moses’ sister
  • Douglass Dumbrille as Jannes
  • Frank Dekova as Abiram
  • Henry Wilcoxon as Pentaur, Rameses II’s charioteer
  • Eduard Franz as Jethro, sheikh of Midian
  • Donald Curtis as Mered
  • Lawrence Dobkin as Hur Ben Caleb
  • H.B. Warner as Amminadab, Elisheba’s father
  • Julia Faye as Elisheba, Aaron’s wife
  • Lisa Mitchell as Lulua, Jethro’s daughter
  • Noelle Williams, Joanna Merlin, Pat Richard, Joyce Vanderveen, and Diane Hall as Jethro’s daughters
  • Abbas El Boughdadly as Rameses’s Charioteer
  • Fraser Heston as The Infant Moses
  • John Miljan as The Blind One
  • Francis J. McDonald as Simon
  • Ian Keith as Pharaoh Rameses I, father of Seti I and Bithiah
  • Paul De Rolf as Eleazar
  • Woodrow Strode as King of Ethiopia
  • Tommy Duran as Gershom, son of Moses and Sephora
  • Eugene Mazzola as Rameses II’s son
  • Ramsay Hill as Korah
  • Joan Woodbury as Korah’s wife
  • Esther Brown as Princess Tharbis