” The Ten Commandments is part of our DNA, and it’s part of my Dad’s story. You can’t think of Charlton Heston without thinking about The Ten Commandments. Still, he didn’t think it was his best performance,” Fraser Heston revealed as we discussed the biblical classic which starred his late father, the Hollywood icon, Charlton Heston.
“That would have been in Ben-Hur or El Cid or something like that, maybe Planet of the Apes would have been up there or a western he did called Will Penny.”
” The Ten Commandments didn’t quite give him his start because he’d already done a supporting role for the same director, Cecil B. DeMille, in The Greatest Show on Earth. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture a couple of years before. However, he knew The Ten Commandments was a challenge to try to play this great Old Testament prophet in a way that made him human. It was meant to be a story that you can relate to on a human level, and I think he succeeded in that.”
With a budget of $13 million, The Ten Commandments was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. It was also one of the most financially successful, grossing approximately $122.7 million, around $1.2 billion in today’s money, at the box office in its initial run alone.
Epic money for an epic movie, but that wasn’t something the leading man was concerned about.
“I don’t think box office was something my father thought about that much. I think he worried about doing his job responsibly and doing it well. I think he was concerned that his performance would be up to the standard that DeMille demanded of him and everyone else in the movie,” Heston, a producer and director in his own right, recalled.
“DeMille was a stern taskmaster. He was a perfectionist but drove himself as hard as anybody else. For example, DeMille had a heart attack while they were in Egypt and covered it up. If you look at my Dad’s early journals, which he started up about the time of this movie, you can see my Dad was concerned. I don’t think he was involved or concerned with the financial side of the risk. I think it was more an artistic risk for him, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion. These things can go south as we’ve seen.”
The Ten Commandments has been re-released on Blu-ray in a set that includes both the fully restored 1956 version of the film as well as DeMille’s original silent version from 1923. Both films remain hugely influential today, especially the Heston-headlined second adaptation.
“In many ways, it’s the first modern Hollywood epic, and I do think people look at that movie and go, ‘Wow, this is what cinema can do.’ It became the benchmark for epic films. Ben-Hur owes a lot of its success to that, El Cid and some of the other great sword and sandals movies like Spartacus do also,” Heston enthused.
“I think any filmmaker that’s interested in that genre including Ridley Scott with Gladiator do hark back at that and say, ‘OK, this is how it all began.’ Game of Thrones is another good example because that again brought this kind of epic scale, although that was on the small screen, and filled your living room up with images like The Battle of the Bastards, which I think is their version of the parting of the Red Sea. I think spectacle and effects and things of that nature are always welcome to audiences and always will be. What DeMille did with the technology available to him at the time is pretty remarkable even now.”
Unlike today, when films and TV shows that contain religious figures can cause various kinds of controversy, Heston recalled that The Ten Commandments managed to avoid that.
“I don’t think there was any identity politics for biblical figures in those days. I think people were just so thrilled to see that story come to life. I was the baby Moses in the movie when I was three, but I didn’t see the movie until I was five years old. Seeing the movie as a child, and knowing that was my Dad up there, it was make-believe, just shadows on the wall, but you can’t see that film without being affected by it. And especially at a young age,” he mused. “It brings that Bible story to life. You can get it in Sunday School, you can read the Bible all you want, but DeMille went way out of his way to use all of the technology that Hollywood had to bring this story to life in a colorful, vibrant and spectacular, yet believable way. Everything that happens in that movie, you buy into it in the context of that story.”
So why, 64 years after its original release, does The Ten Commandments remain so popular and so revered?
“It is certainly the biblical side of it is going to make it a perennial,” he explained. “Every year around Easter time it plays on ABC. Now they’ve brought this new version on Blu-ray, which, by the way, is a wonderful restoration, but clearly, there’s still an appetite for it.”
“I think when it comes to the performances, a lot of people giggle a little bit at some of the lines, and these are slightly stylized performances. I think Yul Brynner’s performance is very much the equal of my father’s. It’s an extraordinary performance. He brings this kind of gravitas to the role of Pharaoh Rameses, and you’re captivated by him every time he’s on the screen. He’s a good foil, and he’s a good counterbalance to my Dad’s weight with all those wonderful biblical lines.”
He concluded, “One of the things I admire most about my father is that he was able to change gears and reinvent himself as an actor about every ten years from epics to westerns to science fiction to disaster movies, and so on. Not every actor can say that they could play a science-fiction epic as well as a biblical epic, all with unique gravitas.”
The Ten Commandments Blu-ray Digibook is available from Paramount Home Entertainment now.