The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Extras: Trailers

During the 1950s Hollywood saw the rise of monumental motion pictures like never before. Huge numbers of extras were employed on the sets of the film studios for the money shots that give movies their credibility and awe. Shot in Technicolor, these films hard dazzling colors and hues, sure to complete flabbergast every moviegoer. One of the films of the era was "The Ten Commandments", a 4-hour epos by Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious filmmakers at the time, featuring an endless array of Hollywood stars and a story of truly biblical proportions. It is with an enormous amount of pride that Paramount Home Video has now released the ultimate version of "The Ten Commandments" on DVD in a 2-disc set that restores the full glory of this memorable film.

"The Ten Commandments" follows the life story of Moses, as it is told in the Bible. After Pharaoh ordered all first born sons of each Hebrew family to be killed in order to avoid the fulfulling of a prophecy, Moses’ mother puts the infant in a cradle and sets it free to float downstream, hoping the boy would escape certain death that way. Incidentally, Princess Bithiah (Nina Foch) detects the cradle on the river and immediately embraces the baby as their own for the lack of an own heir, keeping its origin a secret. Over the next 30 years, Moses (Charlton Heston) is raised in the royal Egyptian palace and is in a constant struggle with his brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) for the throne. Pharaoh is more and more favoring the active Moses over the zealous Rameses, because Moses is very charismatic and uses his powers to make the country’s slaves content. One day, Rameses finds out the truth about Moses’ past and reveals it for everyone to see, claiming Moses is the deliverer, the one who will according to the prophecies lead all slaves into freedom, bringing the Egyptian empire to a fall. Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) renounces all of Moses’ rights and leaves it to Rameses to determine his fate. In an abominable move, Rameses decides to leave Moses on his own in the desert, hoping he would die and forever forgotten.

Moses crosses the desert all the way to Israel however, and becomes part of a group of nomads. The fact that he survived the strains of the desert is indication to him that there is a God at work. When he gets to Mount Sinai, the mountain where God is supposedly living, he decides to climb the steep slopes of the rugged mountain to face his maker and ask him for deliverance of his people. But God has other plans. God makes Moses indeed the deliverer and sends him back to Egypt to deliver the Hebrew people and lead them out of slavery. But first, Moses has to face Rameses to convince him to set the thousands of slaves free.

Everything about "The Ten Commandments" is big. The settings are gigantic, the story is epic, the characters are larger than life, and so are the gestures. The film exhibits a great deal of theatrical and melodramatic acting, and grand postures, but in the entire context and feel of the film, this is not even a bad thing. "The Ten Commandments" is beautifully produced and choreographed. It is impressive at the very least and almost overwhelming at many times. In his money shots, DeMille is staging over 12,000 extras and 15,000 animals, and especially the exodus scene when Moses is leading the Hebrew to freedom, is incomparable to anything seen ever since, as is the chariot scene of Rameses chasing the trail of freed slaves. The ultimate highlight of the film despite these orgiastic crowd scenes is nevertheless Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Despite its age, this is a truly timeless special effect sequence that is as captivating as it was over 40 years ago, just like the presentation of the deadly plagues Egypt finds itself ridden by, and of course the delivery of the Ten Commandments by God’s striking finger.

Despite its magnitude and splendor, the film is extremely powerful in its narrative however. It is a solid story, based on a script that that leaves nothing to be desired. Perfectly cast with some of the industry’s superstars of the time, the movie weaves magic like only few do. Charlton Heston is once again the soulful protagonist, as he was in numerous films at the time, while Yul Brynner is giving an exhilarating performance as his half-brother Rameses. The two are like fire and water, two opposites, and yet both are powerful actors that manage to have an electrifying onscreen presence throughout, but especially when paired up in scenes. The list of actors and actresses is too long to go into detail here, but they all help immensely to make "The Ten Commandments" the achievement it has come to be. Lavishly fitted out with elaborate and colorful costumes and decorations, they all help conjuring up vivid images of a time long gone.

About 10 years ago, Paramount has done a major restoration of "The Ten Commandments" which is evident on this release of the film on DVD. It is presented in a 2.20:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD, that is enhanced for <$PS,widescreen> TVs and the sharpness if the picture is simply staggering. The image is clean and mostly free of any artifacts as a result of the film’s considerable age. The picture is rich, with plenty of detail, also restoring the complete glory of the movie’s Technicolor process. The colors are vibrant and strong, creating seas of colors and hues in the many crowd scenes. No color bleeding or <$chroma,chroma noise> is evident there, and the compression of the film transfer has been done as meticulously as the original restoration. There is not a hint of a digital artifact visible anywhere on this release and I have never seen the film look so good before! This disc is a shining example, how DVD can literally help preserve movies for all time to come.

With the movie’s restoration, Paramount created a new sound mix of "The Ten Commandments", which is presented on this release in a full <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track. The track has been cleaned up and as such there is hardly any noise or hiss evident. Only in very delicate passages the original sound is overlayed with an ever so slight hiss, which is technically unavoidable, and as a matter of fact hardly noticeable either. The mix itself is majestic, revealing a wide mix across the front speakers for Elmer Bernstein’s phenomenal orchestral score. Due to the age of the film, the sonic spectrum of the dialogue is a bit limited however and sounds thin throughout. In a few scenes you will notice a bass extension for the subwoofer, and some surround effects for ambience, but for the most part these channels are used quite sparingly and mostly to enhance the soundfield in specific scenes rather than across the board. This DVD release of "The Ten Commandments" also contains three trailers for the movie, and it is interesting how they have changed over time, focusing on completely aspects of the film. The first one from 1956 is the most exhaustive one, running for several minutes. It features Cecil B. DeMille himself, telling the story and background of the story, introducing all the main actors of his film. It is a very interesting trailer, nicely complemented by others from 1966 and 1989.

Although I believe probably everyone has seen this film before, there can be no doubt that this DVD will nevertheless make you fell like you experience the film for the first time. The outstanding picture and sound quality of this release makes this 2-disc set a must-have for every DVD owner.