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Ten Commandments - 50th Anniversary Collection, The

Paramount // G // March 21, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 31, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) belongs to an exclusive club. It's one of the very tiny handful of pre-1965 movies not made by Disney that mainstream audiences will still unhesitatingly watch, and about the only such film other than The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life that still airs occasionally in prime time on a major television network. That The Ten Commandments has endured where others have dropped off the middle-American radar is all the more surprising when you consider that DeMille's epic story of Moses was, for all its spectacle, extremely old-fashioned even when it new. 

The $13 million production is a partial remake of DeMille's 1923 silent film of the same name (more about which later). Born of Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt, Moses (Charlton Heston) is rescued from death by Princess Bithiah (Nina Foch) and, unbeknownst to Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), raised as his surrogate son alongside blood heir Rameses (Yul Brynner) and Nefreteri (Anne Baxter), who will marry whomever Sethi names his successor.

Ambitious Rameses, plotting with Chief Hebrew Overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), uncovers Moses' true origins and banishes him to the desert. But Moses survives, and his fall coincides with a religious awakening that all men should be free from bondage. After marrying sheep herder Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), Moses is charged by God (voiced by Heston) to return to Egypt to free his people.

The Ten Commandments is a remarkable piece of entertainment quite unlike anything else in cinema history, though not so much in terms of its spectacle. DeMille was nearly 75 years old by the time The Ten Commandments was released, made at the end of a long career mostly spent in the silent era. His style never really changed all that much, which inadvertently becomes an advantage here. His "tableaux" compositions, a style common to silent films, work enormously well, with endless shots strikingly composed to resemble something like classical paintings. Nearly all of this was achieved on Paramount soundstages in Hollywood rather than outdoors on location. Except for the Exodus sequence (with its curiously underused Gates to the City of Per-Rameses) and scattered establishing/transitional shots and background plates, very little of the film, much less than 5%, was actually filmed in Egypt. Nevertheless, the film does a marvelous job evoking (an imaginary Hollywood vision of) Ancient Egypt, especially in its scenes depicting the ancient empire's remarkable feats of engineering.

Indeed, these are far more successful than the film's greatly overrated and widely variable special effects, which are more epic in conception than convincingly realized, and not up to the level of, for example, that year's other nominee for the Visual Effects Oscar, Forbidden Planet. Indeed, some effects shots in the 1923 silent version are better than those recreated here.

Elmer Bernstein's epic score, light years away from the no-budget movies he had been scoring only a few years before (Robot Monster, Cat-Women of the Moon), is similarly orchestrated B-I-G in the Wagnerian sense, just right for the colorful images onscreen.

The acting, too, is of a type that would be ridiculous in a contemporary drama but entirely appropriate for these larger-than-life characters in a story literally of biblical proportions. Charlton Heston got to be so good at this kind of thing that when he did "normal" movies it was hard for audiences to accept him playing subtle parts. And Yul Brynner, a larger-than-life persona if ever there was one and as such difficult to cast, is exactly right as Rameses, so much so that he's just about everybody's idea of Egyptian (and Siamese) royalty, Mongolian-Russian heritage aside. Only Anne Baxter's flamboyant Egyptian princess, given to such extravagant gestures and enunciation ("Oh, Moses -- MO-zuss!") that she comes off as a female female impersonator, goes over the top.

Amidst all this, the film offers many fine performances that transcend the often stilted dialogue. Cedric Hardwicke, in a part curiously written with enormous sympathy (isn't he the guy working all the slaves to death?), is very good as Sethi, and the scene where Moses breaks his heart by refusing allegiance is a highlight of the film's first act. (Both he and perennial heavy Douglass Dumbrille gamely shaved their heads for the film.)

Edward G. Robinson's scheming and unscrupulous Dathan is so repellant you can almost smell him while Vincent Price makes the most of his small role as Egyptian engineer Baka, a name that probably made Japanese audiences titter (baka in Japanese means "idiot"). Judith Anderson, as the Egyptian Memnet, has several good scenes with both Nina Foch and Anne Baxter.

Film buffs will get a kick spotting actors in tiny, often uncredited parts. Mike Connors, Gail Kobe, Clint Walker, Michael Ansara (his voice instantly recognizable), and Robert Vaughn, among others, are all there somewhere. Watch closely and you'll note Woody Strode appearing in two different parts, while H.B. Warner makes his last credited appearance as an old slave dying amidst the exodus. Warner looks emaciated and near death himself, a disturbing sight.

It's interesting to note that except for Heston, almost no one in the leading and major supporting parts was under long-term contract to Paramount at the time. Partly this was because by 1954, when shooting began, most of the big studios had dumped their pricey pool of contract players, but it's still interesting that so few had any real association with the company. Indeed, for all his support of the blacklist, DeMille had no problem bolstering his marquee names with actors like the gray-listed Robinson, who struggled during the height of McCarthyism due to his liberal political views.

Indeed, virulent anticommunist DeMille's aim with The Ten Commandments partly was to liken the ancient Egyptians to the Soviet government, a tenuous parallel at best, as awkwardly alluded to during DeMille's on-camera introduction: "Are men the property of the state," he asks, "Or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today," he concludes, before announcing that "the story takes three hours and 39 minutes to unfold," which must have elicited a few groans from the audience.

Video & Audio

The Ten Commandments was among the first films shot in VistaVision, the horizontal film format used mainly by Paramount on its big films from about 1954-1961. The 16:9 DVD, at 1.77:1, looks good but not as pristine as it might. It's unknown whether Paramount's home video department went back to the original negative but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't. The image has very strong color but still looks grainier and less sharp than it perhaps should. (In profile Heston's Romanesque nose breaks up digitally, resembling an escalator.) The audio, however, offered in both a 5.1 surround and Dolby Surround mix (as well as a mono French track), is superb. English subtitles are included.

The 1956 Ten Commandments wisely is presented on two discs: the first act on disc one runs about two hours and fifteen minutes, with act two clocking in at about an hour and a half. Included are the original overture, DeMille's introduction, the intermission card, entr'acte, and exit music.

Extra Features

Supplements include a six-part (for legal reasons) documentary, in full-frame and running 37 minutes in all. More hyperbole than historical, it features the late Elmer Bernstein and a presumably old interview with Charlton Heston, with the latter especially telling amusing but obviously apocryphal stories. Granted, many of the cast and crew have long since passed away, but the show does no better than tracking down Eugene Mazzola (Ramses' son), Lisa Mitchell (one of Jethro's daughters), Vicki Bakken (Egyptian courtesan) and a few others - a disappointment.

Much better is the excellent Audio Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic The Ten Commandments. Ms. Orrison's scene-specific talk is extremely detailed and impressively researched. (Viewers take note: The commentary doesn't actually begin until after both the overture and DeMille's introduction.)

Also included is a Newsreel: The Ten Commandments Premieres in New York City where, at the Criterion, stars from the film and other dignitaries arrive for a doubtlessly long evening of introductions and movie unspooling.

A trio of 16:9 trailers round out the program, including DeMille's long-winded "making-of" trailer running a good 10 minutes, and reissue trailers from 1966 and 1989.

A third disc offers the complete 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, which runs 136 minutes and is presented at the proper projection speed. The image is astoundingly good for an 83-year-old movie, as sharp as many classic Hollywood films from the late-1930s and '40s. The silent film includes English inter-titles and stereophonic pipe organ accompaniment. French subtitles are available.

Moses appears only in the film's "prologue," which plays like a Reader's Digest version of the story, boiling the tale from the final plague of Egypt to the golden calf down to the film's first 50 minutes. This is followed by the main story, a modern tale set in San Francisco that applies God's Laws to the modern world.

The prologue scenes are as lavish as the 1956 remake, with the exodus virtually a shot-for-shot remake. Moses here is played by 62-year-old Theodore Roberts, in a sharp contrast to Heston's performance.

Finally, 15 minutes of Hand-tinted Footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea is included separate from the film. The color (apparently not 2-strip Technicolor, as has been widely reported) is rather amazing, but the print is pretty scratched up and worn, so Paramount Home Video was right in not inserting it into the feature presentation.

Parting Thoughts

The 1956 version of The Ten Commandments is a one-of-a-kind movie not to be missed, and Paramount Home Video's presentation here does both versions justice. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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