clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Ten Commandments has been a springtime TV staple since 1968, with good reason

The Exodus story has inspired people for centuries, and Cecil B. DeMille’s version is its most epic retelling.

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments
Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for April 15 through 21 is The Ten Commandments, which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu.

It’s one of my favorite childhood memories: Every year on Easter, after the family festivities were over, I’d go downstairs and turn on our big old TV set, and ABC would be airing The Ten Commandments. (It’s been airing since 1968, and this year it’s on the night before Easter.)

I never got to watch the whole thing, because inevitably I missed the start time. But I’d nestle into the couch and munch on a chocolate bunny while I watched Charlton Heston, playing an impossibly blue-eyed Moses, confront Pharaoh and part the Red Sea.

It never occurred to me as a kid, but of course The Ten Commandments was airing on Easter because the holiday usually coincides with the celebration of Passover: The story of the children of Israel being led out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised Land is celebrated during Passover, and that’s the story of The Ten Commandments.

In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille took the familiar story and made a big, melodramatic epic that’s more operatic than merely cinematic. The Ten Commandments reenacts the events of the biblical book of Exodus, with Yul Brynner as Ramses opposite Heston’s Moses, and Anne Baxter playing Nefertiti, the queen and the third point in the movie’s big love triangle. (In the habit of the era, the casting is ludicrously whitewashed.)

It’s a coming-of-age story for Moses, a tale of rivalry between two brothers, and a heroic tale of deliverance all rolled into one. The screenplay necessarily diverges from what just appears in the biblical text, but the movie was deeply researched, drawing on religious texts, scholarly research, and ancient historians like Josephus to fill in the narrative blanks. Clocking in at 220 minutes long — with intermission! — it takes the audience on quite a journey.

Yul Brynner as Rameses in The Ten Commandments
Yul Brynner as Ramses in The Ten Commandments.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about The Ten Commandments, though, is that we keep watching it — and the story keeps being relevant, regardless of the viewer’s religious affiliation. Each year, Jewish people celebrate the story of Moses freeing the nation of Israel from slavery and leading them to the Promised Land. A version of the story appears in the Quran, which mentions Moses more than any other character. Little Christian kids learn the story in Sunday School.

And something about the tale inspires political rhetoric as well: Moses has been invoked by political leaders from Winston Churchill to Barack Obama, and the story of the Exodus was a major part of the imagination behind the movements driving the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement in the United States.

Freedom, courage, and a hope for liberation — that’s what people have been taking away from the story of the Exodus for millennia. So an annual rewatch of the story’s most epic retelling feels like the right activity on this weekend. It’s a story most people can’t afford to forget.

Watch the trailer for The Ten Commandments: