Making ‘The Ten Commandments’

Making ‘The Ten Commandments’

Novelist Peter Blauner talks about his latest, an almost Jew-free Jewish book

Charleton Heston was Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments.”
Charleton Heston was Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments.”

Historical periods don’t have sharp beginnings and endings. Wars might end with military victories and peace treaties, but the habits of mind they bring linger. Reconstruction, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the Cold War — each was an entirely different kind of era, but none ended with any kind of finality. They just sort of petered out.

That means that tendrils of any one period reach out into the one before and the one after. Just as we say that the generations of people before us are bound in the bonds of life, just as the generations to come will be, so is history bound into the bonds of life. Or at least of story.

Peter Blauner, a journalist, novelist, and television writer, has just published his first work of historical fiction; he’ll talk about it at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on April 4. (See below.)

Mr. Blauner first thought of writing “Picture in the Sand” on March 27, 2002, he said. It was Pesach, and his family had gathered for the seder.

It was uncharacteristically hard to focus on the seder, though, he recalled. He had grown up in Manhattan, and was there for the seder, just miles from the pile of toxic debris that had been the World Trade Center six months before.

It had always been his family’s custom to watch the end of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” which ABC used to air right around Easter every year. “Right around Easter” frequently means “right around Passover,” as it had that night. Normally, the eating and the schmoozing and the telling of hoary old jokes around the table and in the kitchen would have meant that he’d be able to catch only the end of the movie, but this year, given the ever-presence of the downed Twin Towers and the overwhelmingly dour mood, “everyone had shpilkes so they couldn’t sit still, and I was able to sese the whole thing,” Mr. Blauner said.

Peter Blauner

“I saw the whole thing, and as the credits rolled, I realized some things.”

He realized that the film had been made in 1956; “it apparently was shot in Egypt, and I know that such an extravagant production must have taken a long time to film.” The movie was notoriously extravagant, full of more characters, color, motion, and emotion than any viewer, even one used to Hollywood productions, could expect.

“I realized that they must have taken time to film it, I knew that it came out in 1956, and just by doing the math I knew that they must have been filming in Egypt.

“All the pieces came together. It’s the story of Moses, which of course is connected to Passover, and it was DeMille’s last and most famous picture, and he was one of the founding fathers of Hollywood. I knew that it was filmed in the mid 1950s, because it takes a long time to make a movie like that, and I knew that it was filmed in a pivotal time. It was after Israel was founded in 1948, and just before the Suez crisis in 1956. I knew that Nasser was the prime minister, and that the Muslim Brotherhood, which in some ways was the forefather of al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, was active then. So the collision of Hollywood, the birth of modern terrorism, and the military conflict with Israel all coming together at the exact same time — I thought that if I can’t get a good book out of this, I’m in the wrong business.”

He did get a good book out of it, but it took 22 years. “I thought that it would be a cinch to write it,” he said. “I was wrong.”

During that time Mr. Blauner worked on many other projects, including other novels, as well as television shows, as his then-young family grew up. But he never forgot this passion project, which kept changing. At first the protagonist was going to be an American, he said, but eventually that changed. Now, it’s a young Egyptian. It’s written in the first person, and it takes years of research to be able to assimilate all that acquired knowledge without sounding like you’ve chewed an encyclopedia and now you’re disgorging it. It takes time and work to speak in a voice that’s not your own and have it be entirely unaccented.

Yul Brynner was Pharaoh Ramses II and Anne Baxter played his wife, Nefretiri.

But that’s what happened.

The book is framed as the story a grandfather tells his grandson, by email, as he tries to draw him back from a career as a terrorist, seduced online as so many were in the last decade or so. The inner story is about the grandfather, as a young man, facing a different but similar seduction. “It’s the most Jewish book I’ve ever written in my life, even though there are very few Jews in it,” Mr. Blauner said.

It’s also a book that makes grim sense after October 7, although it was conceived two decades earlier and finished more than a year before that deadly day. The book isn’t grim, though; parts of it are actively funny, all of it is colorful, and it’s the kind of thriller that makes you want to keep reading even though really there are a lot of other things that you should be doing just then. It’s got a genuine hero in it — it’s hard to guess who it will be until you meet him in that role — and there’s a love story, too. Charlton Heston plays a minor part in the book, and so does Yul Brynner; both are funny, although neither is appealing.

And much of it is true. Mr. Blauner went to Egypt many times to research the book. He met DeMille’s grandchildren, who told him much of the film’s back story. “They were an essential part of my writing process,” he said. “They explained why the Egyptians agreed to let their grandfather make the movie. They gave him 200 cavalry officers to play Pharoah’s army, and 20 air force planes to use as wind machines. They gave him permission to film at the Nile, by the pyramids. That’s when they were in armed conflict not only with Israel, but also with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was already committing acts of terrorism. Why did they do it?

“They told me that it was because Cecil B. DeMille had agreed to produce a documentary about Egypt as the bastion of liberty in the Middle East.

“I thought that making the docu-mentary at the same time as ‘The Ten Commandments’ was a great plot device,” and in fact it fuels much of the action,” Mr. Blauner said. “It really was made, but it never was shown. I have seen it, and at the talk I’ll show some snippets of it.

“Nasser appears in the documentary as a great new Middle Eastern leader, but by the time it was completed, the Suez conflict had happened, and the relationships between the countries and their heads of state had changed.” Whoops.

As for the story of terrorism — it’s a mug’s game, “Picture in the Sand” makes clear. Nothing good is likely to come from it, but there’s something in the Middle East that seems to keep it happening. Maybe this time, somehow, we can learn from history and keep it in the past?

Who: Peter Blauner

What: Will talk about his new book, “Picture in the Sand”

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

When: On Thursday, April 4, at 11 a.m.

How much: JCC members pay $8; it’s $10 for everyone else.

To learn more and to register: Go to, call Marisa at (201) 408-1496 or email her at

read more: