Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Ten Commandments

Charlton Heston died last night. I have no particular connection with this actor. I don’t really know that much about his life and saw only a few of his other films. But there is one role he played that will remain with me forever: that of Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments.

That movie made a lifelong impression on me. I realize that by admitting to this I have made a very politically incorrect admission and have subjected myself to potential ridicule and derision. And I completely understand why saying anything positive about this movie is considered so wrong. In fact I don’t know of any religious figure who has ever said anything positive about this movie. And it's easy to see why.

Much of this movie is a distortion and in one sense defames the greatest prophet of all time: Moshe Rabbenu. The love story line inserted is both false, absurd, and an outrage! Watching this film without an appropriate Jewish education can mislead one terribly and I do not recommend it.

On a technical level the movie was over acted, the dialogue, overwrought and even silly... as is the case with most Cecil B. DeMille films. By today’s film making standards this movie is a joke… cartoonish even. But for several reasons I admit this movie is one of my guilty pleasures.

First of all, for the most part due reverence is given to the characterization of Moses. When he is not involved in the ridiculous and phony sub-plotline he is portrayed exactly the way I would think a great figure like that should be. He is portrayed as larger than life for the Navi and Tzadik he was. Did Moshe Rabbenu look like that? Who knows? But that is not an important take away from this movie. Instead I take the basic reverence that the filmmakers had for its subject matter. And that shows throughout the entire film with the obvious exception of the ridiculous subplot.

Secondly there are the depictions of the major events of the exodus story. Those scenes are one of a kind and surely not that different from what really happened. For eample: The depiction of the slavery…the Avodah B’forach, the masses of the Bnei Yisroel leaving Egypt, the parting and crossing of the Yam Suf, the drowning of the Egyptians as they chased down the Bnei Yisroel - following them into the sea, the scenes of the Egel HaZahav, and many more scenes. I doubt that there are any depictions that could be made of these events that would be deemed much more realistic. The enormity of those events is portrayed as only Hollywood can portray them.

Of additional interest to me is that as I get older and somewhat wiser, I can see how well researched this film is. While some of the dialogue is –as I said - ridiculous and insults the memory of our teacher Moses, the rest of it is reverential with much of it taken directly from Pesukim in the Torah. Some of the portrayals of events are taken from various Midrashim and the Gemarah. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I notice that.

This is a far cry from when I first saw it. I was an impressionable 9 years old when that movie premiered in my home town of Toledo in 1956. My parents took me to see it then. It had quite an impact on me then but I was too young to discern fact from fiction. Since then I may have watched in its entirety one or maybe two more times. But over the years it has been broadcast on television annually around this time of year and I will catch a glimpse of various scenes. Some of them make me laugh derisively. Others make me angry. But others like the ones I mentioned above still captivate me.

This movie never won any awards. It was not critically acclaimed. There were no Oscars for anyone. And Charlton Heston went on to win an academy award for another film. But I think he will be remembered mostly for his basically reverent portrayal of Moses.

When I try to visualize Moshe Rabbenu, it’s hard for me not to see that image, which is one of the problems of that film. But yet, I can’t help but look favorably on those parts of the film which are not distorted and to Charlton Heston’s reverential potrayal. And so this morning when I heard that Charlton Heston died. I felt a little bit sad.

In the greater scheme of things this is a non event, I suppose. And I don’t even blame anyone for ridiculing me for feeling this way and even harshly criticizing me for saying anything positive about such a movie. I will understand. I do not in fact advocate running out to the local Blockbuster to rent it. But I felt a tinge of sadness this morning and I just wanted to say so - and say why.