As a person of faith reflecting on one of the most powerful and influential biblical films of all time, it is a daunting task to say something fresh, something new about such a well-known classic as “The Ten Commandments.” But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe that’s the problem. At the heart of our culture is a rejection of all things old, a reception of all things new. The new is the true, the good and the beautiful. The old is out of date, antiquated, archaic, old-fashioned, so yesterday — and therefore irrelevant.
But that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Maybe what’s so great about “The Ten Commandments” lies in the old that was replaced in our culture by the new that is not so true.
Rewatching “The Ten Commandments” with today’s sophisticated movie standards yields mediocre camera work, melodramatic acting, on-the-nose dialogue, heavy-handed narration and unimpressive special effects. Yet it remains celebrated today by both religious and secular audiences in biblical proportions. Why?
The movie was released in 1956 and was the most expensive movie ever made, with the most amazing special effects at the time. It was the highest-grossing film that year, and it’s still in the Top 10 of the most financially successful films of all time. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry. It’s one of AFI’s Top Ten Epic Films and has a 94 percent Tomatometer rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Admit it, millions of us believers read our Bibles and still picture Charlton Heston as Moses in our heads whenever we read the Pentateuch.
So, what’s the miracle here?
The answer, like Moses’ robe, has threads of different colors. One thread that stands out to this storyweaver is the movie’s superhero motif. Sure, Moses is “the deliverer” in the story. Like a pre-comic book superhero, his quest is the classic reluctant “hero’s journey,” saving the world from a tyrannical villain. But rather than receiving power from genetic mutation or a radioactive insect bite, his powers come from God. Or rather, his God is the power. The only real power behind redemption, freedom and justice.
This is why comic book superhero narratives are so popular in a secular society that rejects the biblical creator. Humanity is made in the image of God, and therefore requires deity to find meaning and create order (law). Without transcendent deity to dictate justice, there is only the power of the strong over the weak, or, in other words, the rule of supervillains — tyrants.
Modern superhero myths fulfill the longing for transcendence, the need for a “higher power,” with new gods as projections of man’s potential greatness. But this human polytheism is ultimately unable to provide a true transcendent standard for meaning and order, because humanity without accountability to a transcendent standard becomes arbitrary power and devolves into the tyranny of a pharaoh, an Ultron or an Apocalypse.
If a culture will not worship the true God, it will worship the state as god, which ends in slavery. Freedom can only come through the biblical worldview; justice can only come through God’s law.
This is a universal reality that legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille understood and that still resonates today, 60 years later. DeMille was so bold as to trumpet his message at the beginning of “The Ten Commandments” with a sermonic introduction: “The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God’s Law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the State, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story.”
It’s your choice. You either have the freedom of God’s law or you get the slavery of tyranny.
Forgive me, but like the Decalogue itself, I must clarify good by comparing it with evil. And there is no better way to understand the past than by comparing it with the present. Why is it that this “dated” Bible movie still works and is still a favorite among the faithful, while the newest epic adaptation of the Moses story, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), made by an Oscar-winning director, written by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, starring Oscar-winning actors, with superior budget and special effects, failed so spectacularly?
Perhaps it lies in the fact that the new movie was a complete subversion of what made the older movie so great and last so long. (See more at https://godawa.com/movies/supernatural/exodus-gods-kings-thank-god-aint-noah-please-not-king-david/).
Go ahead and call it that “old-time religion,” but the Heston movie tapped into a God of transcendence that inspires despite its age. The new “Exodus” movie pictured Moses as an antihero, whose deity was more of a hallucination than a reality, and whose glory was reduced to a temper tantrum-throwing child, ending in Moses fabricating the “law of God.”
This atheist subversion of the divine story was a fictional rendition of Richard Dawkins’ attacks on the Bible and God, not a faithful respect for the sacred text. It reduced the supernatural to materialist explanations, thus eliminating the transcendent, and with it, all meaning and order, and satisfaction of story. Whether or not religious believers consciously knew this is irrelevant. They felt it. And they fled from the box office.
This is because, at the heart and soul of freedom, is God’s law. “The Ten Commandments” captured that eternal truth, and that’s why it still satisfies today, despite our secular culture’s socialist death wish. Many of us still know, as Founding Father William Penn once wrote, that “Men must be governed by God or they will be ruled by tyrants.”
• Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and best-selling author of biblical novels. Want to be fascinated? See Godawa.com.