The promotional campaign for Cecil B De Mille’s The Ten Commandments has endured even more than a London bus poster.
If you visit any small town in America, chances are you will be greeted by a monument showcasing the Ten Commandments. For a country built on the very foundation of freedom of religion, these statues are increasingly controversial. In fact, director Penny Lane’s recent documentary, Hail Satan? charts the efforts of the Satanic Temple in ensuring that a gigantic monument to the demon Baphomet appears next to the commandments in every small town, in order to preserve the very value the country was founded upon.
But her irreverent, frequently funny film exposes a fact that has largely gone unrecognised: the statues of the Ten Commandments erected across the US only date back as far as the 50s, and they were initially erected as part of a gigantic blockbuster advertising campaign.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 220-minute religious epic The Ten Commandments, released in 1956, was then the most expensive film ever made. It cost $13 million (just shy of $122.5 million in today’s money) and had built the largest sets in movie history to bring the story of Moses to life in glorious Technicolor. DeMille’s epic ambitions for what was to be his final film paid off-it made $122 million at the box office in 1956 and, adjusted for inflation, remains the eighth highest grossing film of all time to this day. But it’s the marketing campaign that propelled the film to blockbuster success, and continued to have major repercussions in American political life for decades to come.
Five years prior to the release of The Ten Commandments, the first step in the marketing campaign was already under way. In 1951, a Minnesota judge named E J Ruegemer had the dream of inspiring the population to follow the rules established in the commandments. This mission had an unassuming origin; when a defendant in a court case Ruegemer was overseeing was asked if he’d heard of the Ten Commandments, he responded in the negative. Noticing that a new generation were becoming ignorant of God’s rules for mankind as presented in the Bible, he took it upon himself to make sure nobody in the country would be able to say they didn’t know the Ten Commandments ever again, thus combatting juvenile delinquency.
Before a film had even entered production, Ruegemer had begun printing copies of the biblical scripture in the hopes it would be hung in schools and courthouses across the United States, with 10,000 printed tablets already distributed before DeMille had even agreed to get involved and take this campaign to the next level.
This campaign remained small until DeMille had caught wind of the news story from a few years prior, realising that this would be the perfect opportunity to both promote his new film across the country, as well as helping restore Christian beliefs in the populace – which, a cynical person might attest, would be necessary for his expensive blockbuster to make its lofty budget back.
The most ingenious move in the promotion might be that DeMille, a master showman, didn’t need to spare any expense in getting these statues erected across the country, as they were being donated and paid for entirely by Ruegemer’s Christian organisation, the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FoE). Gigantic statues directly related to your expensive new film, but paid for by somebody else? Well, that proved to be too good a deal for the director to turn down.
The heart of DeMille
As part of the expansive marketing campaign, there were 150 granite statues of the commandments placed in 34 states, and a small handful of locations north of the border in Canada (to make up for the comparative lack of statues there, DeMille managed to get the Ottawa Government to print ‘Learn and Keep the 10 Commandments’ on all mail passing through their offices as promotion for the Canadian release).
With the help of his stars Charlton Heston, who portrayed Moses in the film, and Yul Brynner, who played Pharaoh Ramses II, they made a cross-country tour, officially ‘opening the monolithic statues while reminding the small town crowds who had turned up to catch a glimpse of Hollywood stars that they could soon see the story of the Ten Commandments at their nearest theatre.
To understand why a country that so deeply valued freedom of religion became so susceptible to overtly Christian messaging increasingly dominating all walks of public life, you only have to take a look at how the Cold War was being framed; a battle between the moral people of the west and the ‘Godless’ communists of the East. This was a mission dear to DeMille’s heart, serving on the board of the anti-communist National Committee for a Free Europe in the late 40s and early 50s, alongside members including future President Dwight Eisenhower.
When Eisenhower became the 34th President of the United States in 1952, he won by the biggest electoral college landslide in history, something largely attributed to his twin campaign aims of destroying communism at all costs, and restoring stereotypically Christian ‘family values’ throughout the country, to act as a moral counterpart to the enemy far east. As pointed out in Lane’s documentary Hail Satan?, two of Eisenhower’s administrative changes during his tenure in the White House led to the destroying of a strong freedom of religion foundation. The first was adding ‘under God to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, then two years later, adding ‘In God we Trust’ to the country’s motto.
It should be worth noting that, when Eisenhower won his second Presidential term with an even bigger landslide than he did four years previously, it was two days prior to the release of DeMille’s epic. It couldn’t have been timed any better; a national campaign to promote a film based on its religious values, coinciding with the decisive re-election of a President who shared the same beliefs, who DeMille had previously worked with in fighting the supposed spectre of communism.
As this was back in the days when films could be playing at cinemas for years after release, due to a number of re-releases and a lack of home media, stone tablets of the Ten Commandments continued to appear in towns and cities across the US, even continuing to appear as film promotion following DeMille’s death in 1959. When the film was re-released in 1961, more commandments statues appeared, most notably a seven-foot red granite monument outside the state legislature in Austin, Texas, which was accepted as a gift from the Fraternal Order of Eagles. It would take 44 years, but this donation would prove to be controversial, with a promotion tied into a film re-release winding up at the centre of a Supreme Court debate in 2005.
That case, Van Orden V Perry, was one of two Supreme Court rulings on the controversial monuments that year, and just two of the overall Supreme Court cases related to what largely dates back to a promotional tie-in for a blockbuster movie. And while many of the Supreme Court rulings state that the monuments are unconstitutional and should be taken down for their singularity of religious opinion, the Texas case was unique in how it was regarded as constitutional. The court claimed that, because of its historical relevance (in short, how it was related to a film that became a cultural phenomenon), it didn’t purely reflect religious value. That the same court line-up ruled that an identical monument in Kentucky was unconstitutional in the same year, despite dating back to the same marketing campaign, is one of the odder footnotes in US legal history.
As shown in Hail Satan?, a marketing campaign to promote a biblical epic has now transformed into something altogether nastier, a designated point of contention in the culture war between political left and right. DeMille’s own conservative, deeply Christian beliefs were widely documented, but you can imagine that the grand showman inside him would now be deeply disappointed that the promotion of his own film has been overshadowed by decades of legal battles, even leading to the Satanic Temple attempting to get statues of demons placed next to the commandments as a rebuke to the dominance of Christianity-themed shrines in public places.
More than 60 years ago, it started as the most ingenious movie marketing campaign in history. But nobody could have guessed it would still impact elements of small town American life to this day.
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