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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
50th Anniversary Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine
Director:  Cecil B. DeMille
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround (1956), Dolby Stereo (1923)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1 (1956), Full Frame 1.33:1 (1923)
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  220 Minutes (Silent Version 136 Minutes)
Release Date:  March 21, 2006

“Thus saith the Lord God of Israel…

LET MY PEOPLE GO!!”

Film (both versions) ***1/2

Looking back at a spectacle like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is to wax nostalgic for an era of filmmaking we may never see again.  Gigantic epics like The Lord of the Rings still get made, but the approach is different.  Nowadays artists paint their canvases with computers.  In DeMille’s day, you had to find the locations, hire the extras, and fill every frame with physical information yourselves.  It may be a kind of lost art, but I hope it’s one modern audiences will never fail to appreciate.

This is a biblical story, but every inch of the film is stamped with Cecil B. DeMille’s glorious, bombastic style.  He thought big, he acted big, and when he made a film, he spared no effort.  Consider the large cast of stars, or the fact that he trekked them all the way to the holy lands for location shooting.  Consider the expansive sets that showcase Pharaoh-ruled Egypt in all its gaudy glory.  Consider the extensive props, including handmade chariots that were crafted in Hollywood and shipped halfway around the world.  Consider one of the grandest early special effects shots ever attempted when Moses (Heston) parts the Red Sea.  All centered around one central premise:  the God of Israel giving His laws to mankind.

The central subject of the film may be the glory of God, but the picture resonates with the glory of DeMille.  From the unusual opening where he walks out from behind a camera and actually talks to the audience about what they’re going to see all the way through his constant delightfully pompous narrations, he keeps us aware of one thing:  God may give laws to man, but on a DeMille film, he’s the almighty.

The film is long, but never boring, filled with color, spectacle, drama, and great performances, chief of which to me has always been Yul Brynner as Rameses II.  So striking is his portrayal, as a matter of fact, that I’ve never been able to read the Old Testament without envisioning him.  Charlton Heston manages to put some heart in his portrayal of a major historical figure, while at the same time almost matching DeMille’s windbag ego stroke for stroke.  Other memorable performances include Edward G. Robinson as the scheming Dathan and the stunning Anne Baxter as Nefretiri.  Throw in a couple of more lovely faces in Yvonne De Carlo and the radiant Debra Paget, and there’s certainly more beauty than just the sets and art direction to marvel at.  

The Ten Commandments attempted to fill in some of the story missing from scriptures by taking historical accounts into effect, as well as, I’m sure, more than a few gentle embellishments from the screenwriters.  We learn that Moses was raised in the palace of the Pharaoh in Egypt as a prince, that he was famous for his sharp mind and kind heart, and that he almost became the next in line to rule.  But the discovery of his true origin as the son of Hebrew slaves saved from the infamous slaughter of firstborn boys when his mother placed him in a basket and set him off toward Pharaoh’s sister changes not only the course of his life, but history as well.

Stripped of all power and prestige and banished from Egypt, he crosses the desert, finds more of his own people, and eventually hears the voice of God.  It is time for the Hebrews to be delivered from their bondage…and Moses is the man to carry the message.

This is a wonderfully entertaining if not completely perfect film.  The dialogue ranges from the memorable and quotable (“Cities are built with bricks.  The strong make many.  The starving make few.  The dead make none.”) to the downright laughable (“You will be mine, like my horse, my dog and my falcon…only I shall love you more and trust you less.”)  The strangest misstep for me is a ridiculous dance that the daughters of Jethro do for Moses…silly stuff.  But you have to admire DeMille’s gambler’s chutzpah.  When he succeeded, he succeeded big, and when he goofed, he goofed big.  There’s an undeniable charm to even the few sequences that falter.

The Ten Commandments was an expensive undertaking, and one that took several years to realize, but in the end, DeMille’s vision paid off.  It became the 50’s top box office draw, and pretty much became a measuring stick for all other epics that followed in the years to come.  Sure, some filmmakers did it better, but there’s just something about this one that has kept it an audience favorite and an iconic film for 50 years. 

Now, with this 50th Anniversary Edition 3-disc set, DeMille's vision has come full circle, for Paramount has also included his epic 1923 silent version.  Believe it or not, 1956 was NOT the first time he had Moses part the Red Sea on film.  The effect for its time was quite startling, and still holds up pretty well today.

Unlike his later vision, the silent one is essentially two stories.  The first deals with the great Exodus, and the second is a modern tale that reflects on the relevance of the Ten Commandments, and what happens to two fellows when one decides to live by them and one decides to scoff at them.  Martin Scorsese summed up the moral best:  if you break the Commandments, they will break you.

I've always loved the original silent version, and am thrilled to have a DVD set that lets me enjoy both of DeMille's classic visions side by side and intact. 

Video ***1/2

Despite its age, the film has held up remarkably well.  The anamorphic widescreen transfer from Paramount no doubt helped give it its clean, colorful presentation.  The images are large, but the detail is frequently in the smaller pieces, and in all cases, the visuals come across with integrity.  I noticed no bleeding or undue grain to mar the viewing.  Only a few specks and spots here and there give away the age.  Very nicely done.

The silent version has held up well for being over 80 years old.  Yes, there are inevitable scratches, spots and signs of aging, but come on...a surviving silent picture, especially one as good as this, is always cause for cineastes to rejoice.

Audio ***

The 5.1 remix isn’t overly bold, so purists don’t have to worry about over-tampering.  Much of the action and dialogue is still centered on the front stage, with the .1 channel kicking in sparingly to add punch to bigger scenes and the rear stage mainly giving a hint of ambience here and there.  Elmer Bernstein’s score sounds as big and dramatic as ever.

Features ***1/2

The first two discs contain the 1956 version, and feature a running commentary by Katherine Orrison, who authored a book on the film.  Disc Two contains the bulk of the features, starting with a 6 part documentary on the film (can be viewed one at a time or altogether), plus the original and two subsequent re-release trailers, and a newsreel of the original New York premiere.

The 1923 version contains another commentary by Katharine Orrison.  Both are true treats for film fans and students.  You can also peruse the hand colored version of the Exodus scenes...the film stock for those are quite the worse for wear, which is why I guess they weren't included as part of the movie, but the chance to view them even outside the film is pretty cool.

Summary:

They don’t make ‘em like they used to…before computers made anything possible, filmmakers had to construct their grand visions carefully and costfully.  Whether 1923 or 1956, both of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments remain stunning examples of what grand, epic films could be.  Highly recommended.

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