Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments
credit: Paramount Pictures

As a kid, my father made us watch the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments every Easter, despite the fact that it is not an Easter movie. He found the film thrilling, as he found all of those big-budget sword-and-sandal epics from the decline of the studio systems, from Ben-Hur to Spartacus to The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Therefore he made us, his kids, suffer through these famously long, punishing movies that, to my childish mind, seemed to be about nothing more than men shouting and sweating in the desert. And quite frankly, as long, boring movies go, you could do worse. Because unlike many of these movies, The Ten Commandments is campy, silly, half-naked fun.

The Ten Commandments, at a whopping 4 hours long, purports to tell the Exodus story: we meet a newborn Moses as he’s being sent off in a basket on the River Nile to avoid being slaughtered during the death of the innocents. Soon enough, he grows into a buff, hot, hairy Charlton Heston, tormented by the sudden realization of his Jewish identity.

Up until the big reveal, he’s been raised as Egyptian royalty and has been groomed to succeed Pharoah Rameses I. But when he’s told by his foster mother that he was born not only Jewish, but some kind of deliverer for the enslaved Hebrew people, he undergoes a spiritual and—more importantly—physical change. He goes from a hot hairy twink to a bearded zaddy basically overnight, and absolutely no one is complaining.

A LEWK to be sure

Now I know most of us know Charlton Heston—the (gentile) actor chosen to portray not only Moses but the Jewish hero Ben-Hur in that epic—as an NRA freak who descended into extremely bad politics at the end of his life. But at the height of Heston’s career, he wasn’t just a great action star, he was a hardcore liberal. He marched for Civil Rights and fought for gun control laws, if you can believe it. So what happened? Honestly I have no clue, and I’m sad about it because now I can’t thirst after this insanely fine man the way I want to.

That awkward moment when you meet your mom who abandoned you in the river 20 years ago.

Because the truth is, Charlton Heston was a hot, hot piece back in the day. I’m talking hairy chest, long legs, and a jawbone that could slice you in half. And a stentorian delivery of such absurd lines as “BEHOLD HIS MIGHTY HAND” that makes you horny despite yourself.

In fact, Heston’s hotness was a huge factor in his casting for this role. When Cecil B. DeMille started to adapt his silent epic as a massive cinemascope event in the 1950s, he knew his Moses had to have a certain je ne sais quoi in order to keep asses in seats for 4 hours (plus intermission!) When it came to casting Moses, DeMille tapped Heston—who’d starred in DeMille’s circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth years before—partly for his deep, beautiful voice, and partly because he looked like Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in the church of San Pietro. You know, Michelangelo—that famously straight lover of male beauty.

DeMille holding a photo of Charlton Heston facing off against Michelangelo’s “Moses”

Not only that, but in Ben-Hur, Heston was playing a queer character without even knowing it. As Gore Vidal famously explained in The Celluloid Closet, he wrote the script imagining a boyhood affair between Ben-Hur and his Roman friend-turned-enemy Masala. His one caveat after writing the script? “Don’t tell Charlton.” And if you look closely, you can see it: Ben-Hur is gay as hell. It’s just not quite as gay as The Ten Commandments somehow.

Hotness was essential to DeMille’s vision of The Ten Commandments. I mean, think about it: why else would anyone follow this dude into the desert? He also knew that this epic had to be a little hornier than the average 4-hour film. It had to have bondage, orgies, and lots of half-naked dudes hanging out together, some of them brandishing whips. Bisexual actor Vincent Price, for instance, takes on the memorable role of “sadistic Egyptian with whip gazing hornily at male slave.”

Kinky

One is tempted to call The Ten Commandments just a little too horny for its own good—I mean you’d think that a movie about Passover would be just slightly less naked with a few less upskirt shots of the Pharaoh’s army. But hey, I’m not complaining. Really, I’m not. I’ll put up with a whole lot of bad writing, white people in Egyptian wigs (including Anne Baxter really camping it up) and chariot races if there’s the promise of a nice set of abs at the end of it. And oh boy, is that promise present in The Ten Commandments.

When Moses starts to embrace his Jewish identity, he wanders into the desert, in exile from Egypt and the family he’s known his whole life. He ends up in the Midian, where he finds a shepherdess bride in the form of Yvonne DeCarlo, whom gays will recognize as the original singer of “I’m Still Here” from Follies. Yup, that’s her: she’s shoved the dailies in her shoes, strummed ukeleles AND sung the blues, but not before playing Heston’s hubby in this rather thankless role.

Shortly after, Moses finds the burning bush and realizes that he’s been chosen to lead his people out of slavery. And the effect this has is physical: Moses’s beard, once a healthy brown, is now streaked with white. This, apparently, is what happens when you talk to God, because the next time he talks to him (when he’s given the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai) he emerges with a completely white beard.

Which, to be sure, is also a hot look. Listen, bearded, clean-shaven, naked, clothed—it’s all hot. I’ll take my 1950s-era Charlton Heston howsoever he comes.

By the end of the movie, when Heston descends from Mt. Sinai with those tablets, I always feel like I’ve run a marathon. It’s really something to make a movie so long and exhausting that it feels like some perverted kind of accomplishment to watch. Not only was I filled in on a (highly Hollywood-ized) version of the events leading up to Pesach, I got a 4-hour eyeful of one of my favorite vintage hunks. I feel like I did my duty as a gay, horny Jew. And, should you feel so disposed, you can, too. Chag Sameach, everyone.

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