Have you ever wondered whose voice was used to dub the voice of God in Cecil B. DeMille's epic movie "The Ten Commandments?" Would you like to know why there is no frog plague scene in the same movie or how the parting of the Red Sea was created?
The answers to those questions and many others can be found in the recently released documentary about "The Ten Commandments," which was produced by Paramount Pictures and premiered at the BYU Lee Library in Provo on March 29.
It seems a fitting parallel. In the fall of 1956, DeMille's epic film "The Ten Commandments" previewed exclusively to a Salt Lake City audience.
When asked "Why are you going to Salt Lake City to preview a film that has to pass the test of audiences all around the world?" DeMille's response was, "If the audiences of Salt Lake City, Utah like this film, I know that it will play anywhere."
"The response to 'The Ten Commandments' by Salt Lake City audiences was absolutely overwhelming, as the preview cards attest," said James D'Arc, curator of the Arts and Communications Archive and the BYU Motion Picture Archive. Viewers responded with words like "wonderful movie," "beyond description," and "I was very moved by it."
"The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles" received an enthusiastic response as well.
"To hear them talk about the extras having to be fed and just the layers of technology to get that shot of the parting of the Red Sea, it's just phenomenal," said Christa Woodall, a BYU alumna who attended the documentary's premiere.
"Never before has a feature-length documentary been made of the making of 'The Ten Commandments' — until this year," D'Arc said.
One of today's top producers of archival film documentaries, Laurent Bouzereau, was brought on board by Paramount to oversee the creation of "The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles." According to Cindy Walker of Paramount Home Entertainment, the intent was "to reveal what a monumental achievement the film truly was and to help show why it remains such a beloved classic today.
"Our intent was to unearth documents and artifacts that have never been made public to shed new light on the timeless classic that is 'The Ten Commandments,'" Walker said. "We wanted to take viewers back in time — over half a century — to experience what it was like to make the film and hopefully reveal what an unprecedented accomplishment it was for DeMille."
A main source of information for the documentary project was the BYU Special Collections archives. In the 1970s, they acquired the DeMille papers, a vast collection indexed in a 588-page oversize hardbound book.
"There are 1,263 archival boxes full of papers, notes and production records dating from DeMille's family history, going back to the Civil War and ending in the early 1960s," D'Arc said.
The collection includes 38,000 photographs and more than 11,000 pieces of production artwork: scene renderings, costume sketches, research paintings — concept art, storyboards all individually cataloged, identified, inventoried and digitized to CD-ROM.
"It was one of the most amazing experiences I've had in the 20 years that I've worked at Paramount," one of the executives said. "To go there and hold in my hand the original 1923 telegram to Cecil B. DeMille from Adolph Zukor regarding the opening of the first (1923) version of 'The Ten Commandments,' or hold costume sketches by famed designer Edith Head was just unbelievable."
"In the end," Walker said, "Paramount licensed over 200 items from the archive, and we could not be more thrilled with what we came away with."
The results of the research, along with Bouzereau's writing, directing and production skills, is a sparkling, well-made documentary that runs about 75 minutes.
Along with the treasures from the BYU DeMille collection, newsreels, film clips and footage from Paramount's archives are interspersed with interviews — most of them from people who knew DeMille personally.
"We were extremely fortunate to get to work with some extraordinary people, including Charlton Heston's son, Fraser, while producing 'Making Miracles,'" Walker said.
"He was very supportive of the project and could not have been more candid and charming when discussing his father's experience on the film," Walker said. "He and his dad were close, so Fraser was an excellent resource in recalling Charlton Heston's memories and feelings about the film. Fraser Heston opens and closes the documentary. We certainly didn't plan that, but it was a gift."
Archival interviews with Charlton Heston, who played the role of Moses, are often woven together with interviews with his son.
One example of this interweaving begins with Fraser saying, "There is a famous story that happened supposedly during the Exodus. They had several cameras going, and the story goes that after the first take DeMille turned to the first camera and said, (and at this point the interview shifts to a 2002 Charlton Heston interview) 'Well, what did you get? How did it look?' And the guy said, 'C.B. I'm so sorry. The film jammed in the camera. We didn't get anything.'
He says, 'Well, we have two other cameras.' And he turned to the second one and said, 'Well how did you do, Fred?' And Fred said, 'Well, it was great until an ox cart fell over right in front of the lens and we couldn't reset. We didn't get anything after the first 30 seconds.'
And he said, 'Well, we still have the long shot, and he gets the megaphone and he calls up on top of the hill, 'What about you?' The guy said, 'Any time you're ready, C.B.' (as the interview shifts back to Fraser at this point). I don't think it's true, but it's a good story."
The story of how Fraser Heston was cast as the baby Moses, days after his birth, is also told by father and son, illustrated with clips from the making of the sequence on the Paramount set.
Lisa Mitchell, who was 15 when she was cast to play one of Jethro's daughters, shares many of her memories of working with DeMille.
"He (DeMille) received millions of letters after 'The Ten Commandments' was out there across America, across the world, and one of his favorite letters was the letter that said, 'This movie made God real to me,'" Mitchell said. "That was his mission. That was his job. And that's what that movie does. It's done it for me."
Katherine Orrison, author of "Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic The Ten Commandments," quoted DeMille as saying, "This is a movie that's going to live beyond me and you and everyone else. This is a movie that's going to be seen all over the world. It's universal."
"Seen by people all over the world, it's just behind 'Gone with the Wind,' 'Star Wars,' 'Sound of Music,' 'ET' in box office success, when you adjust for inflation," D'Arc said. "That's a lot of longevity for a film that was made in 1956."
The documentary, along with a fully restored high-definition version of both the 1923 and 1956 versions of "The Ten Commandments," is now available in a boxed set that includes a six-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo featuring more than an hour of new bonus material and a commemorative book.
Rosemarie Howard, who lives in Springville, recently finished work on a documentary for BYU-TV titled "Wei, MinZhi: Daughter of Miracles."
'The Ten Commandments' facts
1, 644 publications referred to by Henry Noerdlinger in research for the script. These sources included: the MidRash Kabbah, an ancient compilation of rabbinic commentaries; the Qur'an; Philo's "Life of Moses;" and the writings of Josephus and Eusebius.
Five years in the making: 1951-1956
161 days of production: 44 days in Egypt.
One year in post-production, editing special effects; editors worked 16-hour days, seven days a week.
5,000 camels, 5,000 water buffalo, about 4,000 oxen, 2,000 geese and 2,000 ducks were used during the Egypt shoot.
8,000 to 14,000 extras were used in the movie.
The Exodus from Egypt was shot in three 10-minute takes, each using one reel of negative film; it took two hours to reassemble all the extras back to the starting point after each take.
200,000 gallons of water a day used on location in Egypt; wells were drilled on the site.
12 of Paramount's 18 sound stages were used.
A giant 200,000-cubic-foot pool was built in the middle of the Paramount parking lot, with 12 smaller tanks on either side. They sequentially released a total of 360,000 gallons of water to create the parting of the Red Sea sequence.
25,000 feet of film was shot using four specially made VistaVision cameras.11 comments on this story
DeMille was 73 years old when they shot on location in Egypt. He lost 21 pounds during that shoot. He was 75 when the movie finally premiered. He suffered two heart attacks during the making of "The Ten Commandments."
$13.2 million to make. Initial box offices receipts were $64 million.
The movie was previewed in only one location, Salt Lake City, in August 1956.
Source: "Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille," by Scott Eyman, Simon & Schuster, New York, ©2010