Lauded for its "immense and stupendous" scenes, use of Technicolor process 2, and parting of the Red Sea sequence, the expensive film proved to be a box-office hit upon release. It is the first in DeMille's biblical trilogy, followed by The King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932).
Despite its epic scale, the Moses story takes up only about the first third of the film. After that, the story changes to a modern setting involving living by the lessons of the commandments. Two brothers make opposite decisions, one, John, to follow his mother's teaching of the Ten Commandments and become a poor carpenter, and the other, Danny, to break every one of them and rise to the top. The film shows his unchecked immorality to be momentarily gainful, but ultimately disastrous.
A thoughtful contrast is made between the carpenter brother and his mother. The mother reads the story of Moses and emphasizes strict obedience and fear of God. The carpenter, however, reads from the New Testament story of Jesus's healing of lepers. His emphasis is on a loving and forgiving God. The film also shows the mother's strict lawful morality to be flawed in comparison to her son's version.
Danny becomes a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses on top of the mother, killing her. In her dying breath, she tells Danny that it is her fault for teaching him to fear God, when she should have taught him love.
This sends Danny on a downward spiral as he attempts to right his wrongs and clear his conscience, but he only gets into more trouble. To make money, he steals pearls from his mistress, and when she fights back, he kills her. He attempts to flee to Mexico on a motorboat, but rough weather sends him off course and he crashes into a rocky island, where he is presumably killed.
Throughout the film, the visual motif of the tablets of the commandments appears in the sets, with a particular commandment appearing on them when it is relevant to the story.
The idea for the film was based upon the winning submission to a contest in which the public suggested ideas for DeMille's next film. The winner was F.C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan; the first line of his suggestion read: "You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you." Production on the film started on May 21, 1923 and ended on August 16, 1923.
Jeanie MacPherson, the film's screenwriter, first thought to "interpret the Commandments in episodic form". Both she and DeMille eventually decided on an unusual two-part screenplay: a biblical prologue and a modern story demonstrating the consequences of breaking the Ten Commandments. In a treatment for the film, MacPherson described the four main characters of the modern story:
There are four people in the modern story of The Ten Commandments, and they view these Commandments in four different ways. There is Mrs. McTavish, the mother, who keeps the Commandments the wrong way. She is narrow. She is bigoted. She is bound with ritual. She is a representative of orthodoxy, yet withal she is a fine, clean, strong woman just like dozens we all know.
There is a girl, Mary Leigh, who doesn't bother about the Ten Commandments at all. She is a good kid, but she has spent so much time working that she hasn't learned the Ten Commandments...
Dan McTavish knows the Ten Commandments, but defies them.
The Exodus scenes were filmed at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in northern Santa Barbara County. The film location was originally chosen because its immense sand dunes provided a superficial resemblance to the Egyptian desert. Rumor had it that after the filming was complete, the massive sets – which included four 35-foot-tall (11 m) Pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates reaching a height of 110 feet, which were built by a small army of 1,600 workers – were dynamited and buried in the sand. Instead, the wind, rain and sand at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes likely collapsed and buried a large part of the set under the ever-shifting dunes. The statues and sphinxes are in roughly the same place they were during filming. In 2012, archaeologists uncovered the head of one of the prop sphinxes; a 2014 recovery effort showed the body of that sphinx to have deteriorated significantly, but a second better-preserved sphinx was discovered and excavated.
The parting of the Red Sea scene was shot in Seal Beach, California. The visual effect of keeping the walls of water apart while the Israelites walked through was accomplished with a slab of Jell-O that was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot was then combined with live-action footage of Israelites walking into the distance to create the illusion.
Portions of the modern story were filmed in San Francisco, with the cathedral building sequence filmed at the then under construction Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Filbert Street and the adjoining Washington Square.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures, The Ten Commandments premiered at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre (in Hollywood) on December 4, 1923.
On its release, critics praised The Ten Commandments overall; however, the part of the film set in modern times received mixed reviews. Variety, for example, declared the opening scenes alone worth the admission price, but found the remainder of the film disappointing by comparison: "The opening Biblical scenes of The Ten Commandments are irresistible in their assembly, breadth, color and direction [...] They are immense and stupendous, so big the modern tale after that seems puny."
It was the second most popular film of 1923 in the United States and Canada. The film's box-office returns held the Paramount revenue record for 25 years until it was broken by other DeMille films. The film competed at the box office with Fox's The Shepherd King, and won out overall.
DeMille directed a second, expanded version of the biblical story in 1956. For the later version, DeMille dropped the modern-day storyline in favor of profiling more of Moses' early life. In 2006, the 1923 film was released on DVD as an extra feature on the 50th Anniversary DVD release of the 1956 film. In the DVD commentary with Katherine Orrison included with the 1923 film, she states that DeMille refilmed several sequences nearly shot-for-shot for the new version, and also had set pieces constructed for the later film that were near-duplicates of what he had used in 1923: On March 29, 2011, Paramount released a new Blu-ray Disc with the 6-disc box set.