"So let it be written.
So let it be done."
When I first saw director Cecil B. DeMille's second movie adaptation of "The Ten Commandments" with my parents in 1956, I remember being more than a little awestruck by the sheer size of the production. I mean, this thing was bigger than "Gone With the Wind," and to a kid, that meant big! Ever since then, "The Ten Commandments" has been my benchmark of comparison for all super spectaculars, and in its newly restored, high-definition Blu-ray presentation, it's more spectacular than ever.
DeMille ("The Ten Commandments" 1923, "The King of Kings" 1927, "Cleopatra" 1934, "The Crusades," "The Buccaneer," "Samson and Delilah," "The Greatest Show on Earth") went out in a blaze of glory with this epic, and, maybe a little surprisingly, it holds up well even by today's high-tech standards. It may seem a bit more hokey now than it did those many years ago, of course, the acting somewhat stilted and the situations melodramatic, but it's still fun and fascinating, and it remains a special treat for the eyes.
Everyone knows the story from having been to the movies or read the Book. It's nothing less than the life of Moses, his rearing as a Prince of Egypt, his leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage, and his receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God. Charlton Heston plays Moses (or Moses plays Charlton Heston, I can't remember which; Heston played so many bigger-than-life characters in the Fifties and Sixties, it's hard to know). He's stiff, to be sure, but he invests the character of Moses with an appropriate solemnity, majesty, and humanness.
Yul Brynner plays Moses's nemesis, the stiff-necked Pharaoh Rameses; Anne Baxter and Yvonne DeCarlo are Nefretiri and Sephora, the women in Moses's life; Edward G. Robinson is Dathan, the sniveling, traitorous Hebrew overseer; Debra Paget is Lilia, the beautiful slave girl old Dathan covets; Judith Anderson is the creepy servant (shades of her Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's "Rebecca") who knows all about Moses's secret Hebrew identity; and John Derek is appropriately hairy and heroic as Joshua, the young Hebrew leader. Also in the cast we find Nina Foch, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and, in a cameo appearance, H.B. Warner, who played Christ in the DeMille silent "The King of Kings."
DeMille himself introduces and narrates the film. The entire cast perform as though they know this is an "Important Motion Picture," every utterance a solemn pronouncement or proclamation, like a campus production of "King Lear." More posturing and pomposity transpire than we generally tolerate on the screen nowadays, but in spite of this, or maybe even because of its campiness, the film remains enjoyable, delivering plenty of melodrama and moving forward at a healthy clip.
De Mille filmed much of "The Ten Commandments" on location in the Middle East, and it is in these scenes that the visuals are most impressive. Big, beautiful panoramas of mountains and desert are quite stunning. In contrast, the studio shots seem all the more stage-bound, but that's a convention of the movies we live with.
Still, it's the big special effects that remain in memory: The glorious city and temple-building scenes, the Burning Bush, the plagues on Egypt, Moses receiving the stone tablets; and, in the days before CGI could create practically anything on screen, the parting of the Red Sea still looking every bit as astonishing today as it did those many years ago.
If you liked what Warner Bros. did with "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," you'll love what Paramount did with "The Ten Commandments." In 2010 they restored and remastered the film, transferring it to Blu-ray from a 6K master with a high-definition picture about as perfect as one could imagine. The engineers used an MPEG-4 AVC encode and a pair of dual-layer BD50's to present the movie on BD in its original 1.85:1 VistaVision ratio. I remember the screen being much wider when I first saw it in a theater, but I was just a kid at the time, so obviously my memory fails me. For its later rerelease, Paramount matted the aspect ratio to 2.20:1, but I only recall seeing it once theatrically. Anyway, because of the film's extreme length, Paramount chose to spread it over two BD50's for the best possible reproduction at a high bit rate. It's not much of an inconvenience to the user, however, because the break comes at intermission, and by that time most viewers will need to get up anyway.
The restoration is among the most successful I've seen. The colors are deep, rich, and sometimes vividly bright in the fashion of many films made in the Fifties, yet always natural. The high definition detailing is excellent, providing utmost realism, and there isn't a trace of edge enhancement or DNR filtering in evidence. Does it look as good as "Avatar" or any Pixar CGI animated film? That's harder to say, and too subjective to determine. These are very different films made in very different eras with very different color decisions in mind. Let's just say the Blu-ray picture quality in "The Ten Commandments" is superb, a joy to the eye, and probably as close to the restored print as is humanly possible.
The audio engineers also restored and remastered the sound, this time in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to good effect. Voices and music come off equally well. Previously, the old Dolby Digital sound had a degree of hardness, roughness, and hollowness about it that is now gone, probably due to a degree of noise reduction; the midrange response is smoother and more natural; and Elmer Bernstein's musical score sounds more realistic. Understandably, there is not much surround activity, but the front-channel stereo spread is wide, and the rear speakers do reproduce a pleasant, if subtle, musical bloom.
Disc one of this two-disc set contains the first half of the feature film, plus a feature-length audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of the book "Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments." For her book, Ms. Orrison interviewed some of the original filmmakers, and she tells us what she knows from them. It's an interesting and informative commentary and worth at least a partial listen. In addition, we get twenty-nine scene selections on the first disc; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the second half of the feature film, with the rest of Ms. Orrison's commentary, along with nineteen more scene selections; a newsreel, "The Ten Commandments Premiere in New York"; and three theatrical trailers: a 1956 "making-of" trailer, a 1966 rerelease trailer, and a 1989 trailer, all of it in high definition. The two discs comes housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in a beautifully embossed slipcover.
Note: Paramount also make the movie available in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo gift set that comes packaged in a limited-edition box and includes the 1923 silent version of the movie, among other things.
"The Ten Commandments" remains a monumental spectacle and a delightful extravagance. In its present Blu-ray high-definition presentation, audiences should continue to enjoy it despite its sometimes campy overtones.
"As for me and my house,
We will serve the Lord."