Lauded for its “immense and stupendous” scenes, use of Technicolor process 2, and parting of the Red Sea sequence, the expensive film proved to be a box-office hit upon release. It is the first in DeMille’s biblical trilogy, followed by The King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932).
The Ten Commandments is one of many works from 1923 that entered the public domain in the United States in 2019.
Despite its epic scale, the Moses story takes up only about the first third of the film. After that, the story changes to a modern setting involving living by the lessons of the commandments. Two brothers make opposite decisions, one, John, to follow his mother’s teaching of the Ten Commandments and become a poor carpenter, and the other, Danny, to break every one of them and rise to the top. The film shows his unchecked immorality to be momentarily gainful, but ultimately disastrous.
A thoughtful contrast is made between the carpenter brother and his mother. The mother reads the story of Moses and emphasizes strict obedience and fear of God. The carpenter, however, reads from the New Testament story of Jesus’s healing of lepers. His emphasis is on a loving and forgiving God. The film also shows the mother’s strict lawful morality to be flawed in comparison to her son’s version.
Danny becomes a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses on top of the mother, killing her. In her dying breath, she tells Danny that it is her fault for teaching him to fear God, when she should have taught him love.
This sends Danny on a downward spiral as he attempts to right his wrongs and clear his conscience, but he only gets into more trouble. To make money, he steals pearls from his mistress, and when she fights back, he kills her. He attempts to flee to Mexico on a motorboat, but rough weather sends him off course and he crashes into a rocky island, where he is presumably killed.
Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the commandments appears in the sets, with a particular commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.
Cecil B. DeMille, Paramount Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons