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Jul 11 2020

Yul Brynner Centennial: "The Ten Commandments"

by Eric Blume

Back in the day, Cecil B. DeMille’s epicThe Ten Commandmentsreceived an annual Easter airing in network prime-time, much the wayThe Wizard of Ozand other family classics would be broadcast annually with much fanfare, delivering consistently high ratings each year (remember: only three network options!). I feel like I sawThe10Csmultiple times when I was a little kid, each year mesmerized by its massive sweep, colossal size, and amazing special effects.

Revisiting the film for the first time as an adult, in honor of Yul Brynner’s Centennial, wowza is it a howler...

It’s difficult to pick which element has aged the worst: the flimsy cardboard sets; the dime-store gold costumes; the amateurish acting by all the bit players; the bible-by-way-of-soap-opera dialogue…we could go on. Anne Baxter’s super-horned-up acting has truly got to be seen to be believed, and as terrible as she is, she gives the film a juiciness that it desperately needs. But in its defense,The10Csstill really does have a killer narrative drive and its own propulsive energy. It’s cheese, but it’s Roquefort.

Our boy Yul plays Rameses, who fights Charlton Heston’s Moses for the crown and for horny Anne Baxter. In the early part of the film, he wears a decorative side-single ponytail that he miraculously pulls off, and he has a lightness and command as a young Egyptian prince. As his character goes through levels of threat, he becomes less interesting, but Brynner has a quiet power in his more reflective scenes: he captures the sense of a man who knows his power is infinite, and who will chart a course to capture what is his. His Rameses always seems like the smartest person in the room.

Brynner’s “exotic” look, not a face audiences were accustomed to seeing on leads in Hollywood movies, and his clipped, metallic voice, make a perfect foil to Heston, at his leading-man-blue-eyed height. They’re a great match-up visually and stylistically: Heston’s old-school earnestness set against Brynner’s intoxicating eroticism.

The real thrill of Brynner’s performance here is its physicality. Brynner stands like a royal and walks like a royal. He places his body in an array of painterly poses throughout his scenes while remaining completely naturalistic. In the scene where he discovers that Moses is Hebrew, he holds a whip with what can only be called expertise, smartly using his prop as he thinks through his next steps. He uses his whole body with the grace of a ballet dancer and the intimidation of a fighter. He rocks all of his skirts, and he’s divinely sexy in costumes that would make a less confident actor look awfully silly.

1956 was Brynner’s big year.The King and Iwas released in June,The10Csin November, and he followed it withAnastasiain December. In the DeMille picture, you get a sense that he knew he was coming into his own: he had the biggest supporting role in the biggest movie of the year, and he brought his natural authority and effortless intensity to this behemoth. Once he disappears from the film’s center, around the film’s midway point,The10Csbecomes a big of a slog: you miss Brynner, his edge, his legs, and his panache.

The Battle of Neretva
Anne Baxter's Nefretiti
More Yul

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Reader Comments (9)

First of all, how DARE you even slightly speak ill of Anne Baxter!

Brynner does have that great commanding presence. His physicality is great and you can believe that the character would stand/dress/behave this way.

While he had very little to wear Brynner never seemed uncomfortable. He seems very confident in his body. He actually posed nude for photographs by George Platt Lynnes.

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterTom G.

@Tom G.-I agree. No one should speak ill of Anne Baxter. She's awesome!

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

This movie has aged beautifully. And Anne Baxter is Oscar worthy. I don’t know what this reviewer is talking about.

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterPedro

It's still shown annually, on ABC.

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJonathan

O always have liked Anne. But this was the worst case of OVERACTING in film history.

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterRdf

I'm on Team Pedro. The movie has indeed aged beautifully. And though Anne Baxter wouldn't have been my winner that year ("Gervaise" and "La Strtada" with titanic performances from respectively Maria Schell and Giulietta Masina) were both submitted for the '56 awards. But Baxter would still have been one of my five finalists. She was such unlikely casting at the time but absolutely rocks the part.

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterKen

I can't say that I thought MISS Anne Baxter deserved a nomination but I enjoy the hell out of her performance.

The part is ridiculous and playing to the balcony across the street is the only way to go. Heston is all self seriousness and while Brynner is more at home (and I agree effortlessly royal in posture and movement) he still doesn't give the part any humor. So it all falls to Anne and she steps right up with flashing eyes and serpentine moves to deliver such deathless lines as "Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!"

It's big and at times silly but I love the film and own the special edition which gets trotted out every Easter for a viewing.

July 11, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I'm with Eric Blume all the way on his essay. Baxter over-acts (adore her in other films), as do most of the cast, but they were also laden with atrocious dialog. What a tacky production.

July 12, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJason

This film is BAD! Bad, bad, bad! Eric got it exactly right. But ironically Anne Baxter was the best part for me -- someone who knows exactly what she has to do to lend any juice, any vitality to this overproduced, undercooked, and overlong script. If only she had the actual lead, instead of staid Charlton Heston in his umpteenth version of the same role.

July 12, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterKevin

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