When I was teaching basic composition for those who had not made the grade in high-school, I was assigned a class in a small town in upstate New York, the main-street of which was littered with churches. So, since it is well to teach students according to their interests, one of the first writing assignments I gave my students was an essay on their belief in god and their religious preferences.
The results were surprising – even shocking. My middle-aged, small-town middle-American, supposedly Christian students agreed unanimously that god did not exist, but that religion was necessary for the teaching of morality. Really, they made no bones about that.
My suspicion is that most Americans do not believe in god; but they are so convinced that religion teaches morality that they are willing to spend literally billions on it. That makes them suckers – or as con-men put it, easy marks – for any fraud that perpetuates the myth that morality depends on some silly sacred book, no matter how incoherent.
One of the problems with mainstream American Christianity is that it is a mess of moral reductionism, superstition, mysticism, Old Testament fear-mongering, materialist hopes for increased wealth disguised as faith in grace, and just plain charlatanism.
Consider the 1956 Hollywood extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, by then-aging hack director Cecille B. DeMille.
If Charlton Heston wasn’t sure he could over-act before he made this film, he certainly proved it to himself – and everybody else – here. It’s hard to believe in a ‘prophet’ who can’t seem to lower his voice below a shout.
What’s really sad about films like this is that it plays well for people who deeply believe themselves to be devout Christians, even though the Sermon on the Mount makes so little sense to them, they tell their children to ignore it, “nobody could live that way”.
Of course, this is the “Old Testament” story, so references to mercy and justice and charity are somewhat out of place, anyway. DeMille, quite accidentally, has played up and reminded us that ancient Judaism was an essentially tribal religion. How it became an all-embracing world religion and how it spawned Christianity in that process, is a long and complex story – and why bother if you can load the screen with beefcake heroes, rivers flowing backwards, chariots, and dancing girls? And it’s just as well Heston over-acts like he’s just taken Angel Dust, because everyone else underacts embarrassingly. Most notable are Edward G. Robinson – looking like a toga-wearing ’30s B-movie gangster – and Yul Brynner. Brynner especially sleepwalks the film, looking dazed and confused; clearly awaiting instructions from the director that never arrive.
Why is DeMille considered a great director? Because Americans love a truly clever con-artist. We know that DeMille, selling beefcake and cheesecake and special effects, is garnishing all this with the words many call ‘sacred’ in our culture, even though we don’t really believe in them. He is not only playing to our baser instincts, but also to our hypocrisy.
Anyway, his film has no right to condemn any ‘Golden Calf’, because it is itself a golden calf, an idol of the herd.
Empty spectacle, fake religiosity, snooze-inducing narrative, cheesy cheesecake and beefy beefcake, crappy back-lot cinematography, bombastic dialog and music to match, endlessly mind-numbing moralizing, and acting that wood would be embarrassed to own –
Speaking about wood, this film is Ed Wood * on steroids with a big budget. DeMille knew just how to play the game (and Wood clearly did not), so DeMille was able to splash garbage on the screen and get Hollywood to pat him on the back for doing so. He pandered to the basest instincts of his low-brow middle-American audience and dressed it up with biblical quotations and pretentious promises of moral rectitude. He was basically a con-artist with a camera, a P.T. Barnum let loose in cinema and given the green light by financiers and media mavens – and he got the job done for them. 10 Boremandments made a ton of bucks, and film critics who should know better continue to sing its praise – Now that’s the mark of a truly great con-artist!
It was unfortunate for DeMille that he died when he did – he would have made a lot of money as a televangelist. (On the other hand, admittedly, those of us still living are blessed that DeMille is dead – who needs another televangelist?)
Old joke –
God comes down to Moses:
God: ‘Moses, I want to give you a commandment.’
Moses: ‘How much does it cost?’
God: ‘It’s free.’
Moses: ‘I’ll take ten.’
(This little story tells the whole story – forget the film.)
This joke was actually a self-deprecating bit of irony devised by Jews, who well knew what Christian Americans thought of them. (Just BTW, it must be noted that the Jewish community, at least in America, has long adopted a tolerance for those Jews who do not believe. Most American Jews still support Israel because they want somewhere to retire to, other than Florida; But they are really not interested in the religious muck that the Israeli right-wing espouses; and certainly don’t buy the Millenialism such muck involves. Outside of Orthodox communities in Israel and elsewhere, the Jewish identity is really a matter of culture and tradition; and one doesn’t need to believe in god to believe in culture.)
The film, then, doesn’t really tell us anything about the culture of the Jews as it has been handed down for centuries. It is really about American Christianity. What the Ten Commandments really reveals is that American Christianity is extremely primitive in its religious horizons. It is all about flash and spectacle, suppressed sexuality, moral rigidity, fear, and the desire for a strong man (like Moses) who can somehow make everything right through the smiting of enemies. And of course money. It is a prelude to fascism.
Ten Commandments at IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049833/
Cecil B. DeMille … (as Cecil B. de Mille)
Dorothy Clarke Wilson … (this work contains material from the book “Prince of Egypt”) &
J.H. Ingraham … (this work contains material from the book “Pillar of Fire”) (as Rev. J. H. Ingraham) &
A.E. Southon … (this work contains material from the book “On Eagle’s Wing”) (as Rev. A. E. Southon)
Æneas MacKenzie … (written for the screen by) &
Jesse Lasky Jr. … (written for the screen by) (as Jesse L. Lasky Jr.) &
Jack Gariss … (written for the screen by) &
Fredric M. Frank … (written for the screen by)
* Ed Wood: reputably the worst director in film history – so notoriously bad, Tim Burton made a film about him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Wood
But truth be told, despite the monies made available to him – DeMille is far worse. A shameless purveyor of ludicrous pap pretending to be serious art. Truly one of cinema’s greatest con-men and schlock-mongers – why wouldn’t Hollywood love him after all? He is the baseline that real film-makers struggle to overcome and get beyond.
From a strictly personal perspective, I must admit that Ed Wood’s films usually amuse me. DeMille’s films just make me want to puke.