August 2007 Issue
When Moses Came to Findlay
A Cecil B. DeMille spectacular made a profound impression on a young Ohio boy.
I was 6 years old when Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" came to Findlay. My Sunday school teacher at the Methodist Church on Cherry Street urged our class to see it because it promised, in his words, to "bring the Bible to life." This advice was both unusual and irresistible: When did a Sunday school teacher ever tell a class not to avoid a movie but to actually go to one?
The next Saturday afternoon found me standing with my older sister in a large crowd milling around outside the Harris Theater on South Main Street. We bought our tickets and got in a line that extended around the corner at Wilson's Sandwich Shop and at least a block down Hardin Street. The "cast of thousands" associated with the Hollywood biblical epic was now matched by eager Findlayites: The whole town seemed to be standing in that line.
This was not the first time that DeMille had put the Bible on the silver screen. In his 1923 silent film "The Ten Commandments," veteran actor Theodore Roberts, known as "The Grand Duke of Hollywood," starred as Moses. Four years later DeMille made "The King of Kings," with Jesus played by H. B. Warner, who later appeared in "It's a Wonderful Life" as the young George Bailey's boss at the drugstore. When DeMille returned to the Exodus story in 1956, his remake of "The Ten Commandments" defined Charlton Heston's image so completely that it was later joked that the National Rifle Association could boast "Moses" as their spokesperson.
It was both exciting and scary that my sister and I were about to see a Bible movie. Our grandmother, convinced that our parents weren't sufficiently strict in our religious education, constantly reminded us that every word in the Bible was true. If we didn't believe what it said, we'd wind up in hell with pagans and scoffers. This was serious business: It felt as if we were attending church at the Harris Theater. Seeing a Bible movie also felt a little like cheating. I couldn't imagine that I would ever be capable of reading our Bible at home, with its strange names, massive heft and tiny type — and that frightened me. But was it really possible that a kid could bypass all that hard reading and avoid hell just by watching a movie?
I took in "The Ten Commandments" with complete earnestness, gazing at the impossibly huge screen and wondering whether I should be watching this movie differently from all other movies. Hearing Bible stories was one thing, but going to the movies was something else altogether. How was I supposed to behave when these two completely opposite activities got combined? Was it OK to eat popcorn while seeing the Bible come to life? Would it be disrespectful if I left my seat to go to the bathroom? And what would it mean if I didn't really like this movie? It bothered me that my sister got bored halfway through: Did this mean that she was headed for hell?
Unlike her, I was mesmerized by the entire spectacle. The special effects — the Red Sea's looming walls of water, the swirling flame burning the commandments into Sinai's cliff-face, the echoing boom of God's voice — were utterly captivating. A 6-year-old Findlayite could even relish the bombastic acting. Most of all, DeMille's Egypt held immense appeal as a kind of Not-Findlay, an exotic realm that did not adhere to the Republican "normalcy" — to use Warren G. Harding's word — that characterized our town. Although I did not dislike my world of "I Like Ike" buttons and softball at Riverside Park, ancient Egypt seemed to offer a far more interesting alternative. And yet, it was also vaguely familiar. I never saw God part the waters of the Blanchard River to let people cross from the Kodak processing plant to the Country Club, and I never heard God's voice between the Doris Day and Frankie Laine songs that were played on WFIN. I did believe, however, that God was on America's side in our fight against the Soviet Union and "another way of life," as the popular phrase went.
For some time now, film historians have pointed out that "The Ten Commandments" was a blatant Cold War allegory, with the Hebrews as proto-American pioneers lighting out for the territories in search of freedom and democracy, and Ramses the Great as a decidedly un-American tyrant — a bald, Lenin-like Communist in pharaonic garb determined to foil their plans. Unaware, of course, of DeMille's political agenda, I absorbed his lessons along with everyone else. Primed by A-Bomb drills at school, I was as scared of the Soviets as the next kid.
Even more important than backing the right country was backing the right God. At the death of Egypt's first-born, Yul Brynner's Ramses prayed in vain to his false gods to bring his son back to life. The Red Sea drowned the Egyptian charioteers pursuing the fleeing Hebrews. And at the foot of Sinai, backsliders were coaxed by Edward G. Robinson's Dathan into partying like fools and worshiping a golden calf. When Moses smashed the Tablets of the Law, these pagans and scoffers were plunged into a fiery crevasse. A lot of people died when the Bible came to life.
Of course the good guys won, which I found appropriately satisfying. But something about the movie bothered me: Namely, Yul Brynner seemed far more interesting than Charlton Heston, whose self-righteous droning reminded me of an unpopular teacher. When Brynner's Ramses barked "So let it be written, so let it be done," he seemed as strong and capable as any young Ohioan might dream of becoming.
Heston's Moses, by contrast, seemed whiny as he kept asking God what to do next. Though God kept bailing him out, it seemed perfectly obvious to me that Yul Brynner could whip Charlton Heston in a fair fight. This is why for me, DeMille's propaganda partly backfired. The fact that Ramses was evenly matched with Moses, at least for a while, made the Egyptians seem almost as good and powerful as the Hebrews.
My secret sympathy for these ancient pagans and scoffers made me wonder if I would ever grow up to be a good American. "The Ten Commandments" was released the same year in which Gamal Abdul Nasser became president of Egypt. Most of Findlay's grown-ups grumbled about that, resentful at how he took over the Suez Canal and sent the Europeans packing. I didn't admit it to anyone, but I liked Nasser. Judging from his pictures in the Toledo Blade, I thought he looked as strong and capable as Yul Brynner — a modern-day Pharaoh in a business suit. And didn't the Bible say that Egypt was supposed to be the Land of the Pharaohs?
Whenever I see "The Ten Commandments" on TV, I'm struck by how much of it I missed at its Findlay premiere. The fact that DeMille picked the chisel-featured Charlton Heston to play Moses showed that piety wasn't just patriotic; it was downright sexy. A 6-year-old Methodist could hardly have grasped the deeper significance of the Egyptian Queen's low moan — "Moooohsessss" — when Heston spurned her advances in order to lead his people out of her land. If I had seen the film 10 years later, Moses' momentous choice — Anne Baxter or the Living God? — would have seemed a whole lot tougher. It even looked, briefly, as if the post-burning-bush Moses, newly pious and bearded but still buff, might win over the Queen of Egypt to God's side. In the end, however, Anne Baxter backed the wrong God, remained a pagan and a scoffer, and presumably wound up doomed.
As for me, I wound up being an English professor. I regularly teach courses in the Bible as literature, and whenever we come to the Book of Exodus, the legacy of the day when Moses came to Findlay returns. I have to confess that this legacy is not entirely pleasant: Throughout the book, but especially in the passage where Moses comes down from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law, I can't help visualizing Charlton Heston's self-righteous scowl. Having spent a lifetime trying to drive Cecil B. DeMille's subtexts and images out of my head, I'm living proof that Hollywood productions, like Mt. Sinai itself, must be approached with caution.
Or maybe the lesson is far simpler: Whenever a 6-year-old Ohioan goes into a movie theater, there's really no telling what might happen.
Jeffrey Hammond is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland. He is the author of Small Comforts: Essays at Middle Age, to be published by Kent State University Press next year.