Exploring Sacred and Secular Serpent Symbolism in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956)

Authors

  • Anton Karl Kozlovic Flinders University

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/post.v7i2.149

Keywords:

Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments (1956), serpent symbolism, biblical epics, religion-and-film

Abstract

Cecil B. DeMille was an unsung auteur and master of the American biblical epic whose feature films were eagerly awaited by the paying public and filled Paramount’s purse. And yet, he was routinely ignored, dismissed or devalued by critics unappreciative of the enormous artistry deliberately engineered therein, especially his penchant for serpent symbolism. This particular omission is in need of belated attention. Consequently, using humanist film criticism as the guiding analytical lens, this essay selectively reviews the critical DeMille, film and religion literature, locates DeMille’s place and reputation in Hollywood history, explores The Ten Commandments (1956), and explicates numerous exemplars of his trademark serpent signature under five heuristic headings. The essay concludes that DeMille was a far more insightful and accomplished biblical filmmaker than has been previously appreciated.

References

Affron, Charles, and Mirella J. Affron. 1995. Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Anger, Kenneth. 1981. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Bell Publishing.

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. 2010. “Iconography.” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, 440–464. London: Routledge.

Arthur, Art. 1967. “C. B. DeMille’s Human Side is as Little Known as the Depth of His Religious Belief.” Films in Review 18(4): 221–225.

———. 1970. “DeMille: Man and Myth.” In DeMille: The Man and His Pictures, edited by Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee, 283–288. New York: Castle Books.

Babington, Bruce, and Peter W. Evans. 1993. Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Baines, John, and Geraldine Pinch. 1996. “Egypt.” In World Mythology: The Illustrated Guide, edited by Roy Willis, 36–55. London: Duncan Baird.

Barrett, Clive. 1992. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: The Aquarian Press.

Beck, Bernard. 2005. “Has Anybody Here Seen my Old Friend Jesus?: Christian Movies in a Christian Country.” Multicultural Perspectives 7(1): 26–29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327892mcp0701_5

Behlmer, Rudy, ed. 1972. Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: The Viking Press.

Birchard, Robert S. 2004. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Bodeen, DeWitt. 1976. From Hollywood: The Careers of 15 Great American Stars. South Brunswick: A. S. Barnes.

Bogdanovich, Peter. 1997. Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Robert Aldrich, George Cukor, Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Chuck Jones, Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis, Sidney Lumet, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Tashlin, Edgar G. Ulmer, Raoul Walsh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Bywater, Tim, and Thomas Sobchack. 1989. An Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film. New York: Longman.

Carr, Steve A. 2003. Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History up to World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cherchi Usai, Paolo, and Lorenzo Codelli, eds. 1991. The DeMille Legacy. Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine.

Cooper, J. C. 1995. Dictionary of Symbolic and Mythological Animals. London: Thorsons.

de Mille, Agnes. 1973. Speak to Me, Dance with Me. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

———. 1990. Portrait Gallery. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

DeMille, Cecil B. 1956. Why I Made The Ten Commandments: An Address by Cecil B. DeMille at a Luncheon at the Plaza Hotel Just Prior to the Opening of His Motion Picture Production at the Criterion Theatre in New York City. USA: np.

DeMille, Cecil B., and Donald Hayne, ed. 1960. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. London: W. H. Allen.

Denzey, Nicola, and Patrick Gray. 2007. “The Bible in Film.” In Teaching the Bible through Popular Culture and the Arts, edited by Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray, 97–118. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Edwards, Anne. 1988. The DeMilles: An American Family. London: Collins.

Essoe, Gabe, and Raymond Lee. 1970. DeMille: The Man and His Pictures. New York: Castle Books.

Eyman, Scott. 2010. Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Feldman, Joseph, and Harry Feldman. 1950. “Cecil B. DeMille’s Virtues.” Films in Review 1(9): 1–6.

Flynn, Elisabeth L. 1990. “Moses in the Visual Arts.” Interpretation 44(3): 265–276. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/002096430004400305

Ford, Elizabeth A. and Deborah C. Mitchell. 2009. Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Forshey, Gerald E. 1992. American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Green, Jonathon. 1997. Dictionary of Insulting Quotations. London: Cassell.

Head, Edith, and Paddy Calistro. 1983. Edith Head’s Hollywood. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Herman, Felicia. 2002. “‘The Most Dangerous Anti-Semitic Photoplay in Filmdom’: American Jews and The King of Kings (DeMille, 1927).” The Velvet Light Trap 46: 12–25.

Higashi, Sumiko. 1985. Cecil B. DeMille: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co.

———. 1994. Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Higham, Charles. 1973. Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Howey, M. Oldfield. 1990. The Encircled Serpent: A Study of Serpent Symbolism in All Countries and Ages. Largs: Banton Press.

Jacobs, Diane. 1992. Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jenkins, Steve. 2009. “DeMille, Cecil Blount.” In The Concise New Makers of Modern Culture, edited by Justin Wintle, 178–179. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Johnson, Coralie C. 2007. “The Humanist Approach to Film: My Brilliant Career.” 20 August. http://wildwoodpress.org/the-humanist-approach-to-film-my-brilliant-career (retrieved 11 October 2011).

Kaminsky, Stuart M. 1980. Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Kardish, Laurence. 1972. Reel Plastic Magic: A History of Films and Filmmaking in America. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Kobal, Peter, and the Library of Congress. 2007. Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Konigsberg, Ira. 1991. “Motion Pictures.” In Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins and Phillip Leininger, 735–738. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Koury, Phil A. 1959. Yes, Mr. DeMille. New York: Putnam.

Kozlovic, Anton K. 2006. “The Construction of a Christ-figure within the 1956 and 1923 Versions of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.” The Journal of Religion and Film 10.1: [http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol10no1/KozlovicMoses.htm].

Kroon, Richard W. 2010. A/V A to Z - An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Media, Entertainment and Other Audiovisual Terms. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Leyda, Jay, ed. 1977. Voices of Film Experience: 1894 to the Present. New York: Macmillan.

Long, Robert E., ed. 2001. George Cukor Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Louvish, Simon. 2008. Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

Mandell, Paul. 1983. “Making Miracles the Hard Way: John P. Fulton, ASC.” American Cinematographer 64(12): 42–52.

Mart, Michelle. 2004. “The “Christianization” of Israel and Jews in 1950s America.” Religion and American Culture 14(1): 109–146. http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/rac.2004.14.1.109

Mast, Gerald. 1981. A Short History of the Movies. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing.

Matthews, Boris, trans. 1990. The Herder Symbol Dictionary: Symbols from Art, Archaeology, Mythology, Literature, and Religion. Wilmette, IL: Chiron.

McAlister, Melani. 2001. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945–2000. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mitchell, Lisa. 1993. “Encounter With an Icon: My Magic Summer Working for Cecil B. De Mille.” DGA News 18(3): 14–17.

Nadel, Alan. 1993. “God’s Law and the Wide Screen: The Ten Commandments as Cold War ‘Epic’.” PMLA 108(3): 415–430. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/462612

Noerdlinger, Henry S. 1956. Moses and Egypt: The Documentation to the Motion Picture The Ten Commandments. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press.

Orrison, Katherine. 1999. Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments. Lanham, MD: Vestal Press.

Owen, W. Stuart, P. A. Grist, and R. Dowling. 1992. A Dictionary of Bible Symbols. London: Grace Publications.

Paglia, Camille. 1994. Vamps & Tramps: New Essays. New York: Vintage Books.

Pickard, Roy. 1992. James Stewart. London: Robert Hale. Pierce, David. 1991. “Success with a Dollar Sign: Costs and Grosses for the Early Films of Cecil B. DeMille.” In The DeMille Legacy, edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai and Lorenzo Codelli, 308–317. Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine.

Pittenger, Frank. 2011. “DeMille, Cecil B. (1881–1959).” In Encyclopedia of Religion and Film, edited by Eric Mazur, 147–151. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Ringgold, Gene, and DeWitt Bodeen. 1969. The Complete Films of Cecil B. DeMille. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. 2004. “The Ten Commandments (1956).” In 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, edited by Steven J. Schneider, 338. Sydney: ABC Books.

Ross, Steven J. 1998. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. 2004. The Encyclopedia of Hollywood. 2nd ed. New York: Facts on File.

Smoodin, Eric. 2000. “Cecil B. De Mille.” In International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers — 2. Directors. 4th ed., edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, 248–251. Detroit: St. James Press.

Solomon, Jon. 2001. The Ancient World in the Cinema, rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Swiss, Thom. 2008. “Popular Culture and Christmas: A Nomad at Home.” In Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, edited by Sheila Whiteley, 179–187. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9780748628087.003.0012

Taylor, Mark D. 1992. The Complete Book of Bible Literacy. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale.

Telotte, J. P. 2001. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511613159

Torry, Robert. 2005. “The Wrath of God: Hollywood Religious Epics and American Cold War Policy.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 61(2): 67–86. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/arq.2005.0017

Wagner, Walter, ed. 1975. You Must Remember This. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Wexman, Virginia W. 2006. A History of Film. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson/A and B.

Wilcoxon, Henry. 1970. “The Biggest Man I’ve Ever Known.” In DeMille: The Man and His Pictures, edited by Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee, 263–276. New York: Castle Books.

Williams, Douglas. 1996. “The Eagle or the Cross: Rome, the Bible, and Cold War America.” PhD dissertation, University of California, San Diego.

Wright, Melanie J. 2003. Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Published

2014-08-20

How to Cite

Kozlovic, A. K. (2014). Exploring Sacred and Secular Serpent Symbolism in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 7(2), 149–169. https://doi.org/10.1558/post.v7i2.149

Issue

Section

Articles