The biggest blockbuster of the 1950s, and the first movie to give Gone With the Wind a run for the money, DeMille's TTC is Hollywood splendor at its best. I know, we tend to chuckle at the acting style, the dialogue, the pomp and pageantry, as we do to anything produced before 1998. We lament and mourn the bloated love story and interpolations that are added to appease a post-war WASP audience increasingly glued to the one eyed monster of the modern living room.
And yet, I'm not so sure those criticisms are fair, or even true. Yes, DeMille's farewell masterpiece was a product of the era, as are our films. As are any films or artistic endeavors. But let's take a longer look, and see why I get as much of a spiritual jolt from this product of Hollywood dream manufacturing as I did from The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth or any other attempt by Hollywood to show me what the real Ten Commandments or any other biblical story really would have looked like.
And so first off, one of the reasons I like TTC is precisely because of the buildup, the love story, the embellished relationships. It wouldn't take much to make this a non-biblical fictional narrative set in ancient Egypt. And yet, add the biblical narrative, and the entire theme of the movie goes right, and can't be imagined without it. I'd like to think that's what happens in our lives when we behave and actually listen to God: the narrative of our lives is suddenly altered, and no longer can we imagine it without God, even though we may have imagined it that way earlier.
If anything bothers me about the alterations, it's that DeMille lets God off the hook. It isn't God who sends the worst plague, but it is Pharaoh who decrees the plague on the first born; God is seen almost childishly turning Pharaoh's words around, rather than being the source of the plague. Likewise, it isn't God who hardens Pharaoh's heart, it's that rascally and randy Nefertiti. She hardens it through her woman's ways. Again, a slight but nonetheless important part of the Christian and Jewish narrative: Pharaoh's heart was hardened precisely because God hardened it. Something Paul reflects on in his letter to the Romans. Something that has caused believers to reflect on for eons. But with everything else he was working through, I suppose it was just one extra thing DeMille didn't' want to grapple with.
God is about big things. Sometimes God is there, if we're not careful, to help us find our car keys or get jobs or get healthy. While that can clearly happen, which is why we don't want to overlook the little things, God is also about the big things: humanity, the world, the universe. God laid the foundations of the earth. God draws the line of the seashores. And in the end of days, God is a nightmare, a terror for those who reject him, so much so that they ask for the hills and mountains to fall upon them to escape his wrathful visage. It is from this fate that we are saved. It is from slavery that God intervenes to save us, and it is from the slavery of death that God intervenes to save us on that Christmas morn. No need for rethinking what it may have been, just taking the stories as they come, and perhaps our religion should be bigger than we allow it to be. In an age of religious minimalism, where hedonism and narcissism can shout from the rooftops but we've been convinced that religion must shut up and stay in the closet, it's nice to remember that perhaps that's not the way it should be. Instead of churches that look like shopping centers, perhaps a good old grand cathedral that says 'here be God' would be nice.
Call me odd, but sometimes I prefer the old meat and potatoes approach. Moses was and did what the Bible says. And if the miracles didn't look like DeMille's, they weren't just a bunch of natural things that insightful people spun accordingly. I prefer the revelation rather than inspiration approach. There's a heaven. There's a hell. Jesus came to save us from the latter, which is a definite possibility. And when God does things he does them Big, often with big people prepared to step out into the desert, even though they have no way of knowing how it will work. The still small voice? Sure. It has its place as well. The foundry of the wilderness, the deserted places where we must go to be tempted? They're out there, too. And sure, a Babe in a manger is not an invading army. But if Moses can really split seas and lead multitudes, perhaps it becomes less important to rethink the grand and glorious miracles of Easter and the Resurrection. You never know. Anyway, that's why every Easter, we sit down with the kids, and reflect on a time when Moses was big, Heston was bigger, and the country that spawned this account thought better days were before us. It is, after all, just what the Hebrews thought, and sometimes that's not a bad thought to have.