November 26, 1923 [The Ten Commandments]

I’ve never felt “slithy”—“slimy” and “lithe” at once--but I have on occasion experienced the dull pain of “mimsy”—both “miserable” and “flimsy.” Lewis Carroll's “portmanteau words,” as Humpty-Dumpty puts it: two ideas folded together like the halves of a suitcase, useful when I can’t make up my mind which I am--or when I’ve made up my mind to be both.

And DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is a portmanteau movie, two stories folded together, mirrors of one another. And the glass they are made of is certainly crazed, riddled with cracks--and crazy as well--more of a double entendre than a portmanteau, but there it is: Two tales--one Biblical, one contemporary--and both leaning on each other like moralizing madmen, their extremes at once ridiculous and compelling.

The exodus of the Jews is a savage affair, the sadistic overseers whipping constantly--even Rameses’ son holds his little whip, laying it on Moses’ back with gusto and pride. It is the price of tyranny, passing down brutality from generation to generation--but Moses will have no more of it, and neither will Jehovah, as the first-born perish--Rameses’ son disposed of without pity.

That merciless justice is important; it will stalk the figures of the second story. And the weakness of the Jews as well should be closely observed, as they steal from the Egyptians, doubt Moses, and fall in orgiastic/leprous swoons before the Golden Calf. The Law arrives to pummel these backsliders, each Commandment literally exploding from Heaven, the blast running in reverse, then forward, until the words fly toward us, sparkling like fireworks, etched without compromise into the rock wall.

It is lightning, death, and wind-blown tumult, all of it filmed with DeMille’s typical love of scope and size, the crowds huge, the adamant Red Sea parting magnificently, falling without hesitation--the floating bodies of the drowned Egyptians reminding me of McKay’s animated Lusitania victims, compounding the discomfort I feel in the face of retribution. Despite my unease, DeMille’s picture is splendid to watch, the juxtaposition of close-ups with wider views, the shifts in perspective, the long, stretching tableaux of humanity in sand and Sea, the smooth transitions from one scene to the next.

What, though, does this skill serve? As the scene fades to the present, the family torn--Mother and her Bible, son Dan scorning it as “the bunk,” second son John (a carpenter) mediating, loving both--DeMille’s simple parallels at first disappointed me, as he laid on with the requisite trowel the moral mortar needed to hold together this portmanteau: The bad brother designs a church, uses poor materials, breaks laws--smuggling in jute (which in transit passed “the leper island of Molokai--taking on a passenger, Sally Lung, the half-French, half-Chinese woman Dan amorously clutches, taking on the disease, passing it to his wife), the church of course eventually crumbling--and of course crushing the mother!

But why didn’t I laugh? Was it, again, technique? At the construction site the wife brings lunch to Johnny, and as the camera rises with them, gazing out at the moving landscape, the moment hearkens back the Lumières, when the brothers set a camera on the Eiffel Tower’s elevator to unfold Paris like a broadening flower. And the church itself, rising wonderfully, light and shadow mingling, its inner rottenness revealed in the widening crack along the broad wall. DeMille always gives us something to watch.

--And I’ll admit it was all enthralling; but one fleeting touch redeemed for me the whole picture. Dan, finally repentant, scrawls a goodbye note on the page of an open book. Always curious about small details, I looked at the page itself: It was Oscar Wilde’s “Helas,” a little poem of loss, a sudden intimate moment of piercing sorrow in this heavy-handed spectacle:

To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?--
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead? lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance—
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?

I can not add much to this. Not even the Law-Fulfilled figure of John, forgiving indiscriminately, can match the ambitions of Wilde’s regret. The Decalogue calls us to task--but we must do more, and peer all our lives into the gloom for “the secret of the whole,” and try to claim our inheritance.


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