The Film that Launched a Thousand Court Cases

By | May 13, 2013

Few films have packed as much punch for American political culture as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments. With the Cold War shifting into high gear and a fervent anti-communist patriotism sweeping the nation, the film burst onto the scene at a time when religion—Christianity in particular—became a central rallying point, pitting America’s “divine purpose” against “godless Communists.” Enter DeMille, a director with a penchant for the spectacular, who released the nearly four-hour remake of his 1923 silent film of the same name, this one starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharoah Ramses II, not to mention Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, John Carradine, Vincent Price and many other top actors of the time.

The Ten Commandments is “one of the most significant epic films ever made,” in part because it tapped into America’s Cold War self-perceptions, according to Loren P.Q. Baybrook, editor-in-chief of Film & History. The movie was “a declaration from Hollywood that American values, as opposed to Soviet values, were part of the longest history of moral principle,” says Baybrook, noting that its success was due, in no small part, to the way it artfully Christianized the film’s religious content. DeMille, whose German-Jewish mother converted before marrying his Episcopalian father, cleverly used the term “Hebrews” instead of “Jews” in order to appeal to his largely Christian audience.

To promote the film, DeMille—who served on the board of the anti-Communist National Committee for a Free Europe—teamed up with a Minnesota judge named E.J. Ruegemer, a member of a Christian service organization called the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE). Starting in 1951, Ruegemer had spearheaded a movement to distribute copies of the Ten Commandments for public placement in courtrooms and schools, believing that “if mankind would heed those Ten, it would be a better world in which to live.” At least 10,000 prints had already been distributed when DeMille joined the cause, helping dozens of local FOE groups raise money to erect statues of the Ten Commandments. Ruegemer, DeMille, Heston and Brynner attended dedications for many of the 150 granite Ten Commandment monoliths that were constructed in 34 states and Canada. It was great publicity for the film, which grossed around $80 million and remains the fifth-highest grossing film of all time in inflation-adjusted terms.

The publicity stunt had a lasting legal legacy, says Baybrook. “After the film, because of its success, the monuments were left there, and it became entrenched in our concept of public spaces and the public consciousness that the Ten Commandments are part of the American psyche.” That the statues were located in public venues throughout America sparked decades of lawsuits, which by 1980 had wound their way up to the Supreme Court. These cases continue even now, pitting religious Americans and political conservatives who want them displayed as a symbol of morality against those who worry that their presence in public and legal arenas chips away at the separation of church and state. The high court—at least until now—has generally ruled that replicas of the Ten Commandments do not belong in public venues if they explicitly endorse religious values. But the widely publicized court cases, propelled by charged political rhetoric, have transformed the Ten Commandments into one of the nation’s most controversial symbols.

The Ten Commandments movie itself continues to influence American culture more than 50 years after the director’s death. Broadcast on television most Easters, it has become one of the main sources of American knowledge about the Exodus story. By now, the image of Heston as Moses and the film’s presentation of a thundering God, voiced by Heston himself, are seared into American minds.

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