Cecil B. DeMille
Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke
J.H. Ingraham (novel, "Pillar of Fire"), A.E. Southon (novel, "On Eagle's Wing"), Dorothy Clarke Wilson (novel, "Prince of Egypt"), ∆neas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank
It would take more than a man to lead the slaves from bondage. It would take a God.
For sheer pageantry and spectacle, few motion pictures can claim to equal the splendor of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 remake of his epic The Ten Commandments. Filmed in Egypt and the Sinai with one of the biggest sets ever constructed, this version tells the story of the life of Moses, once favored in the Pharaoh's household, who turned his back on a privileged life to lead his people to freedom. Digitally restored to the original VistaVision splendor, with a new Dolby Digital track made from the original sound elements.
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English Dolby Surround 2.0
Portuguese Dolby Surround 2.0
Runtime: 220 min.
Release Date: 3/29/2011
• Audio Commentary with Author Katherine Orrison
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The Ten Commandments [Blu-Ray] (1956)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 13, 2011)
One of the biggest hits in movie history, 1956ís The Ten Commandments is one of those flicks that you feel like youíve seen even if you havenít. Charlton Hestonís performance as Moses long ago became a cultural touchstone; for the last almost 50-plus years, itís been nearly impossible to envision the character any way other than via Heston.
Whether or not that is a good thing remains to be seen. Commandments attempts to relate the full story of Moses. In an unusual move, the film starts with an introduction from director/producer Cecil B. DeMille. He tells us a little of Mosesí literary history and sets us up for what weíll see. Itís an awkward scene, but Iím sure it made the results seem all the more grand and impressive to Fifties audiences.
After DeMilleís speech, we go back to Mosesí beginnings and see how the son of Jewish slaves became an Egyptian prince. Actually, we only witness his initial adoption by Bithia (Nina Foch), the daughter of the pharaoh, an action accompanied by some menace. Servant Memnet (Judith Anderson) also sees this event, and though she promises never to reveal the babyís ethnic origins, we can tell that she wonít be true to her word.
Once this happens, we jump ahead a few decades and find Moses as a young man; his age is not related, but Iíd assume heís in his mid-twenties. This portion of the film sets up the main characters, especially as they relate to the competitive and antagonistic relationship between Moses and his brother Rameses (Yul Brynner). Both vie to inherit the pharaohís throne from aging ruler Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), and they also both want the love of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the woman who will marry the next pharaoh.
Actually, that love triangle seems a little complicated. Rameses really lusts after Nefretiri, but she canít stand him. Moses appears to like Nefretiri, but sheís the one who really pushes that side of the relationship. Moses simply looks as though he can take her or leave her.
Through much of the filmís first half, we watch these relationships unfold, and Moses clearly takes the upper hand. His kinder, gentler administrative style helps create a new city to honor Seti, whereas Ramesesí abusive methods went nowhere. Seti declares that Moses will be the next pharaoh, but complications ensue and Mosesí true background becomes revealed.
After lots of other issues, Moses eventually is banished and forced to cross a nasty desert. Against huge odds, he succeeds, and he then meets the family of Jethro (Eduard Franz). This shepherd has a wealth of cute daughters, but inevitably, Moses goes for the only one who doesnít throw herself at him. That would be Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), and the two eventually wed and bear children.
Some years pass, and Moses finally confronts his true destiny as the deliverer of his people. He chats with God via a burning bush, and he then badgers Rameses - now the pharaoh - to free his people. Even though Rameses got the girl and the throne, he remains a stubborn jerk, and he refuses to listen to Moses, even when his former brother demonstrates the power of God. Only when the nastiest of plagues slaughters the first-born sons of Egypt does Rameses ultimately relent.
The Israelites head out of Dodge, but not before they have to evade the vengeful Rameses and his troops. Moses evokes another miracle to allow them to cross the Red Sea, and from there, everything should become copasetic. Unfortunately, his followers are a capricious band. When he takes leave of them for 40 days to commune with God, they assume he either ditched them or died, and at the urging of pro-Egypt swindler Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), they start to party hearty. Unfortunately for them, Moses again yaks with God, who gives him the titular tablets. Once Moses returns with these documents, the festivities cease, and he punishes the non-believers severely for their trespasses. Ultimately, he waits until all of the fun-lovers have died until he leads their descendants into the Promised Land.
Thatís a lot of story, and The Ten Commandments is a lot of movie. Frankly, it seemed like too much movie, largely because I became very familiar with the material via 1998ís animated hit The Prince Of Egypt. Since that 99-minute flick ran less than half as long as Commandments, one might assume that it must be inferior; logically, Commandments should be richer and truer to the source, and it should offer the more detailed and satisfying experience.
Actually, I donít think that was the case. To be certain, Commandments includes a fair amount of material that didnít appear during Prince. We see nothing of Dathan or Nefretiri, and the animated piece also omits the story of Mosesí follower Joshua (John Derek) and his love for Lilia (Debra Paget). Prince also skims through all of the events that occurred after the parting of the Red Sea.
However, Prince emphasized some aspects of the tale that received little attention during Commandments. We see much more of the interactions between Rameses and Moses, and theyíre cast in a totally different light. I couldnít claim to know which is more accurate, but I thought the intimate relationship that goes bad seen in Prince seems to be more resonant and rich. That version shows the pain and indecision felt by both parties, whereas Commandments is much more ďold schoolĒ; we feel nothing but good from Moses and nothing but bad from Rameses, who is set up as an arrogant bully from the very start.
Prince also better elaborates on Mosesí miracles and the plagues. Honestly, one of my main problems with Commandments is that it was inherently a romance. An inordinate amount of time follows the love triangle, and we also see a lot of the issues that confront Lilia and Joshua. Some attention to male/female relations isnít out of place in this sort of film, but those aspects seem to overwhelm the meat of the story. It simply takes forever for Moses to learn the truth about his past, and even then, the movie doesnít want to pursue that tale. More than two hours pass prior to the intermission, and these elements occupy the majority of that time. They appear excessive, and they badly slow the pace of the film. We all know where the story will go, and I became rather impatient to see it get there.
Once Moses embarks on his spiritual journey, things began to move better, but we still see too much emphasis on dopey old Nefretiri. At best, she feels like a peripheral character, and once she eventually marries Rameses, she ceases to need to exist in the story. As proven by Prince, the role really is unnecessary, and the excessive attention to her relationships badly hampers the tale.
Baxterís weak acting doesnít help. Many of the performances in Commandments seem hammy by modern standards, but Baxter really goes over the top. Itís difficult to watch any of her scenes and not laugh; she attacks her pieces with such unwarranted gusto and aggression that she makes silent film actors look subdued.
None of the other performers stand out in such a negative way, but none really distinguish themselves either. As Moses, Heston displays his usual stiff work, but I canít deny that he looks the part. Or the part looks him - after all these years, itís tough to separate the two. Heston fails to deliver any subtlety or nuance in the role, but he gives Moses the appropriate presence, and I suppose that counts for something.
Similar comments apply to Brynnerís wooden turn as Rameses. While I think the character should have shown some positives, I guess DeMille wanted Rameses to be a total villain, and Brynner delivers the goods in that regard. He makes the pharaoh totally hissable and worthy of oneís hate. Again, I feel the Prince Of Egypt approach is superior; the conflict between familial affection and duty to God really makes the relationship more complex and involving. Commandmentsí Rameses is nothing more than a cartoon villain.
At this point, The Ten Commandments seems appealing mainly as an example of theatrical camp. Actually, some of the scenes that show miracles could be fairly effective, though my affection for The Prince of Egypt taints those positives; anything good in Commandments is better in the animated flick. The latter is simply a much more taut, rich, subtle and involving piece. Commandments lays on the faux-grandeur and attempts to inspire awe too thickly, and I think it looks fairly silly much of the time.
After I watched The Ten Commandments and wrote these comments, I checked out other opinions of the film. I donít like to do this before I deliver my opinions, for I donít want them to be affected by other viewpoints. Frankly, I was astonished to see so many positive feelings toward this movie. I felt it was slow-paced, poorly acted and overwrought, but a lot of other clearly feel differently.
To each his own, I suppose, but I did want to remark upon one area in which I simply cannot even moderately fathom the praise given to the film. Many folks thought that the movie offered fantastic production values, the likes of which modern films cannot rival. I hope thatís true, for Iíd hate to see a recent flick that looked so bad.
I wonít slam Commandments for its dated special effects. Actually, some of them still worked pretty well, though the different elements integrated poorly; Commandments used rear projection up the wazoo, and it always seemed terribly evident that two separate visual elements were at work.
Since there was no way to stage the parting of the Red Sea in a practical manner, I canít carp about the filmís attempts. However, I was startled to see how many ďlocationsĒ actually featured the actors in the studio as they stood before a rear projection backdrop. Almost anytime we witness the performers in front of outdoor settings, these techniques appear to have been used. The sets themselves were badly unconvincing at times; for example, when baby Moses sailed down the river, it was patently clear that all of this took place on a soundstage. Many other instances of similar settings occurred throughout the movie.
On one hand, I give The Ten Commandments credit for its attempts to stretch the effects capabilities of the era. However, it used different visual elements in an odd and unconvincing manner that did little other than take me out of the story. Ultimately, much of The Ten Commandments has not held up well over all these decades.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A/ Audio B+/ Bonus B-
The Ten Commandments appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on these Blu-ray Discs. Disc One provides the first 2:15:48 of the movie, so Disc Two includes its final 1:35:49. I found exceedingly little about which to complain during this gorgeous presentation.
Sharpness seemed excellent. Some visual effects occasionally affected definition, but those instances werenít a concern. Instead, the majority of the movie displayed terrific clarity and delineation. No issues with jagged edges or moirť effects appeared, and edge haloes were usually absent; I noticed some ghosting around the 1:46 mark when Moses wandered the desert, but that was it. Print flaws werenít a factor. This was a clean presentation, and one that seemed to lack intrusive digital noise reduction; the movie retained a good feeling of grain.
Colors were a highlight of Commandments. The Technicolor production featured a very broad and lively palette, and the DVD rendered these hues with fine accuracy and vibrancy. Reds seemed to be especially brilliant and rich, and I also found greens to come across as quite fine; when we saw Jethroís daughters dance for visitors, their outfits showed off the solid nature of the hues.
Black levels also looked rather deep and dense, and shadow detail appeared quite natural. Low-light scenes provided appropriately dark but not excessively thick images; for example, the sequence in which Moses met his real mother showed some fairly fine delineation. Iíve not been wild about prior video incarnations of the film, but the Blu-ray Commandments dazzled.
Also consistently satisfying was the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of The Ten Commandments. Most films of the era provided monaural sound, and even when they included multichannel mixes, the results usually seemed to be fairly uncompelling. However, I thought the soundtrack for Commandments was surprisingly rich and involving.
The soundfield didnít give us a great deal of variety, but it supported the movie to a good degree. Music offered the most involving aspect of the mix. Elmer Bernsteinís score showed very solid stereo separation, and the surrounds bolstered the music well. Effects were a more limited partner in the affair, though they added some depth to the proceedings. For most of the film, those elements seemed to be essentially monaural in nature, but large crowd sequences opened them up well.
Basically, the bigger the scene, the stronger the environment, and the track became quite active during the movieís showier pieces. The hailstorm plague was engrossing and active, and the romp through the Red Sea also demonstrated fine dimensionality and breadth to the track. The rears really came to life well during those sorts of sequences, and I even detected decent split-surround usage; for example, on occasion wind whipped from speaker to speaker. All told, the soundfield showed good life and activity, and it made much of the film livelier than I expected.
Audio quality was also surprisingly fine. At times some speech demonstrated modest edginess. I felt that most of the dialogue sounded quite good, however, as Commandments offered speech that was generally warmer and more natural than I expect from the era. Music lacked tremendous range, but I thought the score came across as fairly well-defined and rich; at times the high end sounded a bit tinny and thin, but for a film of this era, the music was quite clear and vibrant.
Effects also showed mainly positive attributes. They sounded clean and accurate throughout the film, and although they betrayed their age at times, I still found them to appear acceptably realistic and bold. Some distortion occasionally accompanied these elements - such as when the slaves raised the obelisk - but these occurrences happened very infrequently. In the end, I was very happy with the soundtrack of The Ten Commandments.
How did the picture and sound of this Blu-Ray compare with those of the 2006 50th Anniversary DVD? Both improved, though the audio showed less growth. The old track sounded good, but this one was a little cleaner and more dynamic. Still, both were pretty similar.
On the other hand, the Blu-rayís transfer destroyed that of the DVD. The Blu-ray was consistently better defined, cleaner and more vivid than its predecessor. This was a tremendous step up in visual quality.
This two-disc release includes only a smattering of the 2006 DVDís extras, however. Spreading across Discs One and Two, we find an audio commentary from Katherine Orrison, the author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMilleís Epic, The Ten Commandments. Orrison gives us a running, screen-specific track. She doesnít start to talk until a few minutes into the disc, as she only begins after the overture and DeMilleís introduction. However, once she launches into her chat, she rarely pauses.
Orrison offers one of the best commentaries of this sort Iíve ever heard. She delves into virtually every aspect of the production. I couldnít hope to address all the topics she mentions, but she tells us about elements such as casting Ė including actors considered for the parts Ė as well as DeMilleís style with the actors, their costumes, and other changes like the need for tinted contact lenses. Orrison chats about props, sets, locations, and the script. She gets into biographical notes for DeMille and other participants, and she lets us know many factors related to the storyís historical aspects. Lots of fun trivia bits Ė including goofs and continuity issues Ė appear as well as anecdotes from the set. Orrison demonstrates a consistently high level of energy, and she shows great enthusiasm for the film, which she clearly reveres. Although I donít feel the same way about Commandments, that didnít prevent me from truly enjoying this terrific commentary.
Next we get a newsreel called ďThe Ten Commandments Premiere in New YorkĒ. This two-minute, 24-second clip works like most of its ilk, as we watch notables arrive at the screening. It proves to be mildly interesting.
Lastly, the trailers area presents three pieces, all from different eras. Most interesting was the original 1956 ad. At 10 minutes, this was probably the longest trailer I ever witnessed, and it was one of the oddest as well. Much of the clip showed DeMille; first he expanded upon the introduction that starts Commandments, and he also talked about the flick as we saw shots from it.
The other two trailers are more pedestrian. One comes from a 1966 reissue, and at 60 seconds in length, it offers much less information. Lastly, we get a trailer from the 1989 reissue. This one-minute, 40-second snippet mainly touts the wonders of big-screen viewings, and it also promotes the newly-remastered six-track audio.
Does the Blu-ray drop anything from the 2006 DVD? Yes Ė sort of. This two-disc version omits the 1923 version of Commandments with optional commentary, a documentary, and some hand-tinted footage from the 1923 film.
Though these fail to appear here, they can be found in a massive Limited Edition version of Commandments. That one provides all of the components listed above Ė though a longer documentary replaces the 2006 one Ė as well as a few additional disc-based elements, three DVDs that replicate the material on the Blu-rays, and a bunch of paper bonuses in an elaborate box.
This sounds great, but it comes with a catch: a list price of about $90 Ė and its limited status that means it may not be on shelves for an extended period. The LE sounds great, but its price means that only the filmís biggest fans will want to pursue it.
After more than 50 years, The Ten Commandments remains the best-known cinematic representation of the life of Moses. However, I donít think itís the highest quality rendition, and the film hasnít held up terribly well over the years. From hammy acting to cheesy sets to silly dialogue, Commandments suffers from the overblown pomposity that commonly affected epics. However, the Blu-ray treats it well, as if boasts very good audio and absolutely stunning picture quality.
Unfortunately, it skimps on supplements Ė unless you shell out for an expensive deluxe package. Thatís the way to go if youíre dying for those extras Ė and can afford the steep price. Most folks will probably be satisfied with the much less costly standard edition, especially since it delivers such a dazzling transfer of the film.
To rate this film, visit the original review of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS