TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE – DVD review

Note: John wrote the primary review as well as the Film Value paragraph. Eddie wrote the Video, Audio, and Extras sections. The number ratings at the bottom of the page match what was written about each category in the review.

This is the third DVD edition of “The Ten Commandments” from Paramount. The first had only trailers for extras. The second added quite a few things to the mix. The third has the same extras as the second with the addition of the 1923 black-and-white silent version, similar to what Warner did with the four-disc release of “Ben-Hur”.

I remember that when I first saw “The Ten Commandments” with my parents in 1956, I was 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, even though my DVD viewing of it was the only time I’d seen it in more than forty years.

Director Cecil B. DeMille 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 all seems a bit hokier now than it did those many years ago, of course, the acting appearing somewhat stilted and the situations melodramatic. However, it’s still fun and fascinating and 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’ nemesis, the stiff-necked Pharaoh Rameses; Anne Baxter and Yvonne DeCarlo are the women in Moses’ life, Nefretiri and Sephora; 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’ secret Hebrew identity; and John Derek is appropriately hairy and heroic as Joshua, the young Hebrew leader. Also in the cast are Nina Foch, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and, in a cameo appearance, H.B. Warner, who played Christ in DeMille’s 1927 “King of Kings.”

The film is introduced and narrated by DeMille himself. The actors all 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 drama and moving forward at a healthy clip.

Much of “The Ten Commandments” was filmed 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 is a convention of movies we all 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, certainly, the parting of the Red Sea, still looking every bit as astonishing today as it did those many years ago.

Video:
The “VistaVision” anamorphic widescreen image has a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer appears to be the same as the one used for the previous DVD releases. The colors are vividly bright, almost gaudy, in the fashion of many films of the 1950s (the hues are too brilliant for utmost realism, probably due to the original film stock). Definition is decent, but there is some color bleed-through that leads to blurriness. Also, the print itself isn’t in perfect condition as there are several portions that have nicks and scratches.

Audio:
The primary Dolby Digital 5.1 English track sounds about the same as the ones on the previous DVD releases, and it’s a commendable re-engineering effort. The music score by Elmer Bernstein benefits the most from the re-mix as it seems to emanate from behind, in front of, and in between the speakers. What “bass” the track has comes courtesy of the lively music, though sound effects that should have a lot of “bass” (such as thundering horse hooves) aren’t quite window-shaking due to the technologies of the film’s time (again, the mid-1950s). Dialogue is well-presented with a minimum amount of hiss and no drop-outs/pops whatsoever. The sound design doesn’t feel as immersive or natural as today’s mixes because of the lack of ambient noises and surround-sound effects, but I didn’t really mind this aspect of the audio since the way that the movie was made–mostly on closed sound stages–yielded a movie that doesn’t look or feel “natural” anyway.

The DVDs also offer DD 2.0 surround English and DD 2.0 mono French tracks. Optional English subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.

Extras:
The 50th Anniversary Collection release of “The Ten Commandments” still splits the viewing experience across the span of two discs. Disc 1 ends with the first two-thirds of the movie and a call for an intermission. As such, the audio commentary by Katherine Orrison (author of “Written in Stone–Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic ‘The Ten Commandments'”) is also spread across the set’s first two DVDs. Ms. Orrison was able to interview several people familiar with the film’s production for her book, so she has a lot to share with the film’s viewers. She’s an engaging speaker, and thankfully, she doesn’t resort to reading from her book or from too many notes (which would’ve made for a painfully dull lecture).

All of the other bonuses that come with the 50th Anniversary Collection are on Disc 2, like the previous Special Collector’s Edition release. First of all, there is a six-part “making of” documentary that runs for about thirty-seven minutes. The six parts are “Moses”, “The Chosen People”, “Land of the Pharaohs”, “The Paramount Lot”, “The Score”, and “Mr. DeMille”. The documentary is pretty good, but only the last three parts offer fascinating tidbits. However, the documentary is simply too brief to offer a substantive experience to people who watch it.

There’s a two-minute newsreel that covers the star-studded New York premiere of the film. Finally, there are three trailers–the 1956 “making of” trailer (a ten-minute preview of the film that gave audiences a behind-the-scenes look at the movie), the 1966 re-release trailer, and the 1989 re-release trailer.

The third disc in this set has the 1923 black-and-white silent “The Ten Commandments”, which was also directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The movie has a running time of approximately two hours and sixteen minutes, though judging by the speeded up action, this movie should really run about two hours and thirty minutes. Prior to the introduction of “talkies”, the film rate speed was standardized at 16 frames per second. However, nowadays, a lot of people run old movies at 24 frames per second no matter what the movies’ proper frame speeds are. This is an atrocious practice that shows little regard for cinema history and for aesthetics. This also makes a lot of movies look like cartoons because of the rapid action.

The first five-elevenths (5/11) of the movie is devoted to a re-telling of the Biblical Exodus story that is well-known today. The second six-elevenths (6/11) of the movie takes place in 1923, the time of the movie’s release. Two brothers are in love with the same woman, and they have bitter disagreements over several issues. This was meant to be an application of Biblical lessons to the 20th Century. The “present-day” story includes Orientalist imagery that paints non-whites as the white man’s downfall. One of the brothers has a dalliance with a woman who looks vaguely Asian, and this segment is called “The Red Commandment” (yes, as in “The Scarlet Letter”).

The ancient-history part of the movie has impressive sets and an appropriately epic feel. However, the whole movie exhibits the overwrought acting that characterized a lot of Hollywood silents. This was due in part to actors using the stage convention of acting extremely expressively so that even people in the back of a theatre could see the actors’ emotions. However, this type of acting is very jarring and unintentionally comical when used in movies. (Also, the make-up work for the Exodus part is hideous, though this can be seen in other Hollywood silents like the black-and-white “Ben-Hur”.)

The video transfer was taken from a film print in relatively good shape. There are the expected scratches and other print damage, and the lighting often shifts between bright and dim within the same shot. Still, the picture looks about as good as the picture of the 1956 version. The 1923 movie is accompanied by a music score in DD 2.0 stereo. There are optional French subtitles that appear when quotes from the Bible are used as intertitles (text cards that appear on the screen).

Katherine Orrison provides an audio commentary on this DVD to go along with her commentary for the 1956 version. She has obviously devoted much time and research to “The Ten Commandments” as a big-screen endeavor, so she is about as good of a commentator as you can get for these two movies. You’re also able to see hand-tinted footage of the Exodus as well as the Parting of the Red Sea. This was a pain-staking process that required armies of colorists painting films frame by frame. The footage is in worse shape than the black-and-white footage seen in the movie, but this is to be expected since the hand-tinted prints were fewer and rarer than the black-and-white prints.

The ratings for the 1923 version are–
Video: 7
Audio: 7
Extras: 3
Film Value: 7

If you already have the Special Collector’s Edition of “The Ten Commandments”, then you have all the extras that are now available for the movie. This release is for people who want to see Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version.

–Miscellaneous–
The 50th Anniversary Collection comes in a handsome custom cardboard case. The “cover” has a piece of transparent plastic that that transposes a picture of Charlton Heston over artwork on the inside of the case. The case unfolds to reveal the three DVDs.

Film Value:
“The Ten Commandments” remains a monumental spectacle and a delightful extravagance. I continue to enjoy it despite its sometimes campy overtones. As Pharaoh says, “So let it be written. So let it be done.”

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