Confession time! I simply can’t resist watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments whenever it appears on television in all of its Technicolor, larger-than-life glory, which it did yet again over the Easter break. Sure, it loses its oomph once the Red Sea parts (still spectacular!), and definitely suffers once its two most charismatic characters retire from the field of battle; Yul Brynner prowling around magnificently as Rameses II, and Anne Baxter vamping it up like a silent-screen diva as Nefretiri. I mean, who else but Miss Baxter would dare utter a line like “Oh, Moses! Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” with such relish? And to the implacable Charlton Heston no less!
Anyway, it all got me to thinking…..
One of Hollywood’s largest larger-than-life characters, DeMille’s very name became a byword for the lavish and spectacular in a career that spanned over fifty years and, at least, eighty movies. He didn’t invent the epic film but he certainly became its grandest exponent, discovering early on that he could get away with almost anything on screen as long as it was wrapped up in a cloak of religious piety. I wouldn’t be surprised if, frame for frame, there’s not more sex and violence in a DeMille film than you’ll find in any of Tarantino’s or Scorsese’s flicks! Author Scott Eyman uncovers the full extent of DeMille’s complex and contradictory life in this major biography, written with full access to the family archives.
Interestingly Simon Louvish was denied access to DeMille’s personal papers when writing this study, which has resulted in a very different book. Forced to examine his subject through his films, the author embarks on a serious rethink of a body of work that is often maligned and patronised. But there is no denying that DeMille was an absolute master of narrative and pictorialism, and at their extreme and monumental best his films carry all before them.
Tracing the history of the Hollywood epic from its roots in silent cinema right through to its special-effects laden modern day equivalent (now known as the “blockbuster”), this work examines the mechanics of the studio epic film, from its financing through to its production, promotion, distribution and ultimate box-office success or failure.
This fascinating work looks at the epic film from a global perspective, with chapters covering diverse topics such as: Red cliff: the Chinese-language epic and diasporic Chinese spectators by Ruby Cheung, The monstrous epic: deciphering Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ by Alison Griffiths, and This is Sparta!’ : the reinvention of the epic in Zach Snyder’s 300 by Monica Silveira Cyrino. Older movies are represented in essays such as The Fall of the Roman Empire: on space and allegory by Tom Conley, and Passing through nightmares: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman and the epic discourse in New Deal America by Philip Wagner. Something for everyone!
Check the catalogue for other titles in our epic film-studies collection.