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I don’t know if he did: If you look at his journals, you can see that he felt it didn’t put him over the top yet. I think Ben-Hur did that for him: That’s a modern epic, and The Ten Commandments is a Cecil B. DeMille epic, and those are two very different things while also equally successful. He won an Academy Award for Ben-Hur and was taken more seriously as an actor after that one. With The Ten Commandments, it was DeMille who was the star, rightfully enough. Every few years, there’s a whole generation of kids that hasn’t seen it and even in this day of computers and Marvel movies, it’s still pretty cool to see DeMille doing stuff with opticals and hanging mattes and miniatures and running film backwards and doing all kinds of fabulous tricks to part the Red Sea.
It’s interesting that DeMille drew on a variety of sources to flesh out his telling of the Exodus story, including the Qur’an.
Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston, Cedric Hardwicke and Henry Wilcoxon in a scene from The Ten Commandments. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Yes, it was a modern notion of including various religious viewpoints into what is first and foremost thought of as a Judeo-Christian event. He read as many sources as he could and took that scholarship angle very seriously. Of course, he had the luxury of knowing that he was going to make the movie months and months, if not years, in advance. So he could hire researchers, and he could have all kinds of time to do his background research. There’s an interesting story: When they were shooting the Exodus sequence in Egypt — which, along with the parting of the Red Sea, is one of the most remarkable scenes in film history — they had thousands of extras who were Muslims. As Dad would walk through the set, he could hear them murmur behind him “Musa, Musa, Musa.” [Moses is identified as Musa in the Qur’an.] He’s a prophet revered by three religions, and my dad said that was really moving.
There’s a longstanding rumor that Fidel Castro appeared as an extra in the film. Any truth to that?
I doubt it — I don’t think the logistics worked very well for that. I also heard that he was a pitcher for the New York Yankees, and I don’t think that’s true either. [Laughs] That always happened with my dad. There was a persistent legend that someone was killed during the chariot race in Ben-Hur, which is totally untrue. The other one is that there’s a jeep on the horizon in one of the battle scenes in El Cid. These things have an apocryphal life of their own, I think.
The movie has been interpreted as a Cold War parable over the decades. Was that part of DeMille’s purpose in making it?