It’s when I’m watching American movies that I am proudest of our nation’s artistic accomplishments. That may sound ridiculous in an age in which so many either worship or snub pop culture. A relatively educated and traveled person, I also unashamedly love to see stuff blow up; fast cars, kung fu, and special effects in general also entice me. So when I contemplate a movie entitled The Ten Commandments, understanding that it’s a silent, accompanied by pipe organ, I don’t go in expecting the level of engagement I would have with, say, Star Trek or The Avengers or even an artsy foreign film.
What I got last Wednesday evening was entirely different from what I expected. Most people are familiar with the Charlton Heston Ten Commandments, actually Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his very different 1923 original. This viewing was of that pioneering one. Starting out as the Biblical story interspersed with Bible verses, the original ends up in the modern day, closing with the appearance of a giant cross over a metropolis. It tells the story of two brothers, how one came to ruin by not following God’s law, while the other, God-fearing, prevailed. Corniness aside, the story is brilliantly written, and its enactment, complete with 1920s special effects, is surprisingly impressive, making for a most satisfying 136 minutes.
It’s that long, all right, but you’d never know it. Front and center on the altar of the St. Cecilia Parish was an imposing 14’x11’ rear-projected screen which provided a crisp viewing of the old black and white film. After announcements, the lights went out and Peter Krasinski appeared onscreen playing the “overture”—Bach’s A-minor Prelude (S.543), both dramatic and virtuosic. Krasinski had at his disposal a massive Smith&Gilbert 4-manual, 50-rank organ from the back balcony that never once spilled into excess in either volume or interpretation. With the Prelude over, he immediately began his improvisational ‘soundtrack’ under the opening film credits. It was exciting to let the eyes become used to the exaggerated portrayals of the silent film actors (they didn’t need voices, they had faces), also acutely aware of the organ accompaniment. The lush strings and outstanding voices of the solo stops at Krasinki’s disposal were deployed with great skill, befitting the ear of a Hollywood film composer. The music was both demonstrative and colorful, particularly the march of the Jews out of Egypt, where Krasinski created a modal, “Hebrew”-sounding theme. This was heard above the pedal’s rhythmic trudging footsteps of the cast of thousands, with children, animals, dust, tents on donkeys’ backs, in detail and in amazing panoramic shots of this exodus. Many are the remarkable sounds this organ is capable of, and Krasinski found them all, shofar-like trumpets and bright, nasal reeds and brass causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand up, perfectly coloring the Egyptians’ charge, by chariot and horseback, to capture the fleeing Jews.
The first chills arose when the Pharaoh and his army came up against the wall of fire. Although right on cue, it was not immediately noticeable in the music. No climax was premature; it was a slow and impressive buildup to the moment when Moses raised his staff to part the Red Sea. The sonic effect was powerful: one heard the sea gather and part. The release of the waters over of the Egyptians was equally impressive, albeit with varied thematic treatment, colored with elements of the first event, yet different. It was as if Krasinski had become one with the elements. The writing of the tablets was quite as striking, each moment containing an element of the previous, even as we kept cutting to and from the scene of the Jews and their golden calf. It was remarkable and seamless, and yes—no modern action movie could outdo it.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it was live theater. The modern part of the story followed a cut to a family Bible reading, and the soundtrack again remained seamless. Keep in mind that the music is being created as the story unfolds, Krasinski watching the film while he plays. In that sense it is live theater. There were very few instances where the music had an actual cadence. It simply got to the point that the action took it onward to another idea. In several instances, Krasinski used the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness as a leitmotif for the Bible-reading, God-fearing mother who warns against not following the Commandments. This may sound sentimental and overdone, but how the theme reappeared was subtle and artful. During the most sinister and troubled scenes, he even juxtaposed an element of this leitmotif with atonal accompaniment, until the last moment, the mother dying, when he all out played it like a “church organ” on soft flutes, as if heard from heaven. Even the hardhearted surely shed a tear here.
The most intriguing thing to me was that at some point during the evening, I ceased to hear the organ as accompaniment. It disappeared, leaving only the story. Throughout, the audience was in rapt silence, erupting in a standing ovation of bravos at The End. In the future, if you see or hear “silent film” and “Peter Krasinski” together, make sure you go.