Sunday, April 21, 2013

'The Ten Commandments' and Benevolent Supremacy - Andrew Covert

            I was a young kid when I first saw Director Cecile DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. My initial impression of the movie back then was that it was a roughly accurate retelling of a biblical story, no more and no less. I didn’t think racial or national meanings could exist since the groups being portrayed (the Egyptians and the Hebrews) were historical groups. The movie was set long ago, so how could there be any deeper meanings within it aside from the story it’s retelling? What I failed to realize as a kid was that to really understand a movie and its message, you must think about what the world was like during its production. After contextualizing the film in Alsultany’s class, I began to understand how this adapted version of Exodus encoded meanings of race and nationality relevant to anxieties surrounding the position of the US during the Cold War.
Melanie McAlister’s concept of benevolent supremacy was integral in reforming my perception of this film. McAlister defines benevolent supremacy as a “discourse about the nature of U.S. power in the Middle East in the post[WWII] period”[1]. She argues that this discourse worked to position the US as morally superior to the Eastern Block for its emphasis on the importance of civil rights. Part of her initial evidence for this is actually DeMille’s introduction to The Ten Commandments, in which he explains that the story of Exodus and the film is a struggle over the question of “whether men should be ruled by God’s law, or by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same struggle is going on today.” If only the young me had thought about what was happening in the world in 1956, I might have realized that this was a film less about a biblical story than it was about the United States and Russia.
Essentially, the Hebrew slaves represent Americans. They are “American” in that they want to live in a free society, and that their quest for freedom will play an important role in the founding of Christianity, which is the dominant religion in the US. The Egyptians, then, are meant to represent the Soviet Union and communism. In retrospect, it is no wonder that Yul Brynner, who was born in Russia, was cast to play the evil dictator Ramses. It is also no wonder that a character who is supposed to be an ancient Egyptian speaks with an accent that sounds very Russian.

Ramses, played by Russian-born actor Yul Brynner
Moses, played by American-born actor Charlton Heston
Seeing the movie after contextualizing it in Professor Alsultany’s course made it not only more interesting to watch and critique, but also to start making connections about how media can serve political purposes. The Ten Commandments synonymizes Judeo-Christianity with freedom, taking a system of belief essential to the US as a nation: Christianity, and positing it as something that directly manifests itself in values of personal freedom and democracy. A religious affiliation is mapped onto a political stance.
Too often we view media out of context and without a critical eye. The Ten Commandments is but one example of how media is often constructed to reflect dominant standpoints and to perpetuate hegemony, or the domination of certain ideologies and discourses. If we as the viewer can take a few minutes to think about what was happening in the real world when a certain piece of media was made (or is happening in the case of emerging media), we can grasp the ultimate meaning of it and be able to mount necessary critiques.

[1] Melani McAlister, “'Benevolent Supremacy': The Biblical Epic at the Dawn of the American Century, 1947-1960,” in Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 45.

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