Katherine Orrison is the author of two books that cover the lives of men involved with the production of The Ten Commandments. She co-wrote Lionheart in Hollywood, the autobiography of producer Henry Wilcoxon, and Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments. She also provides commentaries for both the 1956 and 1923 versions of The Ten Commandments on the new 50th anniversary DVD. We got a chance to talk to her about her the movie and its significance today.
RELEVANT: First off, how did you get involved in chronicling the history of the whole The Ten Commandments saga?
Katherine Orrison: I met the producer, Henry Wilcoxon, in the early 1980’s, and I spent two and a half years working with him on his autobiography. In the course of that I met all of his friends and family. After he passed away and I had finished his book and published it, I sat down, and I thought I had so much extra material about The Ten Commandments. It was the biggest movie he had produced, and it was the last thing that DeMille did so we had a great deal of things in the house concerning it. So, I thought I could sit down and do another book on this and I did.
RELEVANT: In your exhaustive commentary for The Ten Commandments, you mention that the movie wasn’t as easy to get off the ground as one would imagine.
KO: It’s interesting because you would think that Paramount would be eager to do it, especially after Samson and Delilah. Samson and Delilah came around at a time when television was beginning to really make in-roads into the studio process, and it saved Paramount at that time. We also have to remember that this is also the time of film noir; it was a cynical time, and it was also a frightening time. In addition to the film noir era, you have the McCarthy era. So, there was a lot of anxiety about your own personal career and your own personal life as well as things were changing so rapidly in the movie business at the time. Simultaneously of film noir and the McCarthy era, for the very first time, foreign film was coming over to America. We had always been shipping the films out to the rest of the world but after World War II they started to make their own movies and they started to come over here, Fellini, that kind of thing. So, they were against making what they considered an old-fashioned, ponderous movie on a heavy religious subject when what was selling and what was out there was so completely different. DeMille was really going against the mainstream.
Barney Balaban, who was head of Paramount at that time, was extremely against making The Ten Commandments. And there was a very big meeting at Paramount studios where they asked DeMille, right after the Academy Award presentation where he received Best Picture, what he was going to do next and he said, “The Ten Commandments.” Henry said that the screaming could be heard out on the street. They said, “You can’t be serious! You can’t make something like this after you won the Academy Award for a modern film and the way things are in Hollywood!” DeMille said, “I’m very serious, and I’m going to make it and if you won’t make it, I’ll go elsewhere.” Several times in his career, DeMille had left Paramount. He had gone to MGM, he’d gone out on his own, and he had his own studio which he called Mount Vernon. He had also been at one point partners with Sam Goldwyn, who had left Paramount way back in the 1920’s, and he would have gone to them.
It reached the point where everyone was against it in the boardroom and everybody was screaming. Adolph Zuker stood up and said he had something to say. Adolph Zuker was the original, way back in 1915, founder of Paramount, and he usually didn’t get into these frays. He and DeMille did not like each other and DeMille had left because of Zuker the times he had left Paramount. But Zuker got up, and he said, “All I’ve got to say is, you guys don’t want to make a movie called The Ten Commandments and we’ve got to remember that the gates of Paramount are open because of Mr. DeMille. What did we fight World War II about anyway? This man is going to make a movie that is going to bind the wounds of World War II, that’s going to talk about the great Jewish prophet. We should get down on our knees and we should thank him. I won’t have any discussion about this, we’re going to make it.”
RELEVANT: Wow, looks like Zuker and DeMille turned out right. In the commentary you mention that there was a great reaction to the movie in the U.S., what kind of reaction did it have in the rest of the world?
KO: Across the world it was a phenomenon. If you do the math and adjust for inflation, it comes in as the fourth biggest money-maker of all time, even now. I think it’s been estimated that something like over 8 billion people have seen it, and that’s more than there are people on earth because people saw it and then they died and new generations came up and saw it. I think there are 6 billion people on earth and 8 billion people have seen The Ten Commandments.
RELEVANT: It had been quite a while since I had seen the film before reviewing this new DVD and one thing that struck me was how frequently the theme of freedom comes up. Was freedom from oppression a theme that the filmmakers were trying to address directly, besides just recounting a biblical story?
KO: Absolutely, DeMille was speaking about that aspect. What we’ve got to remember is that slavery has always been with us, and it’s still with us. It’s something that always has to be addressed. At various points throughout history, everyone has been in slavery, everyone has had to be under the thumb of someone else. And when DeMille made The Ten Commandments, eastern Europe was in slavery to Russia. Now that’s all changed but unfortunately a great many Asian women are in slavery in the Asian countries and African women and children are being put into slavery. It’s still going on. When I see that and I think about that, that’s what makes it relevant to every age and to every people. All people at some point have been oppressed, all people come from a slavery background.
RELEVANT: Speaking of relevance, do you see any comparisons between The Ten Commandments then and recent movies that have dealt with faith more recently like The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Passion?
KO: Absolutely. The thing about making these kind of subject-matter is that it’s universal and that in all cultures the idea of someone who has a personal relationship with God and is able to make a difference in the world and improve life for those people around him is, I think, the ultimate story. Definitely Moses can be correlated with the Aslan in Narnia and, of course, Moses is the forerunner of Christ. The wonderful thing about the Moses story is that it is covered in so many religions. It’s not just one religion. It’s in the Hebrew Bible, it’s in the Christian scriptures, and it’s in the Koran. So, this is someone we know, not only the immediate people he came in contact with and made a difference in their lives, but he made a difference in the lives of all men from his life forward.
RELEVANT: I never realized that Moses shows up in the Koran.
KO: Yes, his childhood is gone through in the Koran and that’s where they got the whole basis of the Prince of Egypt theme in The Ten Commandments. He was raised in the house of Pharaoh.
RELEVANT: How would you respond to modern audiences who say the film is dated, especially the acting style?
KO: I love the wonderful 19th century acting style that now people say, oh, well it’s not relevant to today. I’m sorry, it is because that’s the reason this movie has lasted. You can go and see it in a foreign country with subtitles and you know exactly what’s happening. It’s the old silent movie style of acting that’s universal. You could see it in Timbuktu, you could see it in the jungle, you could see it in China and you know what’s happening and you understand what the actors are saying to you.
Interested in finding out more about the making of The Ten Commandments? The new 50th Anniversary Edition DVD contains several hours of Orrison’s commentary as well as a feature that covers several aspects of the film. And don’t forget to check out Orrison’s books, Lionheart in Hollywood and especially Written in Stone.