The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne DeCarlo, Anne Baxter
Extras: Commentary Track, News Reel, Trailers

During the 1950s Hollywood saw a 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 dished out dazzling colors and hues, sure to completely flabbergast every moviegoer at the time. One of the films of that era was "The Ten Commandments", a 4-hour epos by Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood's most prestigious filmmakers of that period, 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 Blu-Ray 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 — not history. After Pharaoh Sethi I ordered all first born sons of each Hebrew family to be killed in order to avoid the fulfilling of a dreaded prophecy, Moses' mother puts the infant in a cradle and sets it free to float down the Nile, hoping the boy would escape certain death that way. Incidentally, Princess Bithiah (Nina Foch) discovers the cradle as it floats down the river and immediately embraces the baby as her own. With her husband dead and she being childless, Bithia raises the child but keeps his Hebrew heritage a secret from everyone. Over the next 30 years, Moses (Charlton Heston) is raised in the royal Egyptian palace where he is in a constant struggle for the throne with his exceedingly jealous brother Rameses (Yul Brynner). Over time the pharaoh is more and more favoring Moses, the overachiever, over the zealous Rameses and his hunger for power.

By accident, Rameses finds out the truth about Moses' past one day and reveals it for everyone to see, claiming that Moses is the dreaded deliverer; the one who will, according to the prophecies, lead all slaves of Egypt to 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 be forgotten.

But Moses crosses the desert all the way to Israel, and becomes part of a group of Bedouin nomads. The fact that he survived the strains of the desert is indication to him that there is a God at work and when he reaches Mount Sinai one day, the holy mountain where God is supposedly living, he decides to climb the steep slopes of the rugged rock to face his maker and ask him for deliverance of his people. While God does make Moses the deliverer and sends him back to Egypt to free the Hebrew people and lead them out of slavery, first, Moses has to face Rameses to convince him to set the thousands of slaves free. A task that is beyond the capabilities of any human being.

Everything about "The Ten Commandments" is big. It is a spectacle in the truest sense of the word. 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, which often feel very awkward, but in the entire context and feel of the film, this is not as bad a thing as it may seem. "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 people 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 55 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. The pretentious religious harping – which sounds like broken English because of its stilted wording – is getting a bit tedious during the 4 hours but that is a small price to pay for such an epic movie. 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 20 years ago, Paramount has done a major restoration of "The Ten Commandments" which is evident on this release of the film on Blu-Ray. I was expecting a decent transfer, but one that shows its age. Never had I expected the glorious transfer I was allowed to be hold on this release. From the movie's opening shot of floating clouds, which could easily have come from a contemporary film, such was the clarity and sharpness, all the way to the interior and the countless effects shots, the transfer is simply staggering. Rich in detail, incredibly sharp, reveling in definition, and with colors that are as powerful and vibrant as if they were shot yesterday, this transfer is leaps and bounds above any previous version of this movie.

I do not know how Paramount did it, but the result is simply staggering and you will have to see this transfer to believe it. While special effects may look dated – rear projections and matte sots are easily evident – it is the quality of the film as a whole that took my breath away.

With the movie's restoration, Paramount has also created a new sound mix of "The Ten Commandments", which is presented on this release in a full DTS 5.1 HD Master 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 sound field in specific scenes rather than across the board.

This Blu-Ray release of "The Ten Commandments" also contains a commentary track featuring Katherine Orrison, the author of "Written In Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments" in which she explores many of the production aspects of the movie. Also included is the vintage news reel covering the film's Premiere in New York.

Three trailers for the movie are also included, 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.

There is but one gripe I have with this release, and that has to do with the disc swap. Spread across two discs to ensure maximum quality, I think Paramount missed an opportunity here to create a more seamless presentation. When inserting the second disc, one would expect the film to immediately pick up and continue playing with all settings in place. Sadly, in this case you will have to sit through tedious trailers and opening screen yet again, followed by the main menu, etc. This is clearly a usability failure that was very disappointing.

Although I believe probably everyone has seen this film before, there can be no doubt that this Blu-Ray Disc will nevertheless make you feel like you experience this film for the very first time. If you enjoy these monumental spectacles of old, this is a disc you simply have to add to your collection.