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Ten Commandments (Limited Edition Gift Set), The

Paramount // G // March 29, 2011
List Price: $89.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 23, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Ten Commandments has for many years now been as much a network television staple when Easter and Passover
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draw near as It's a Wonderful Life is around Christmastime. More now than ever, there's no need to tune into ABC to once again experience Cecil B. DeMille's sweeping Biblical epic. Sure, Paramount's high-definition release loses those pesky commercial breaks and all, but the greatest allure of this Blu-ray set -- aside from the film itself, of course -- is one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous restorations yet witnessed on the format.

As if anyone reading this review really needs a recap of the premise, The Ten Commandments opens in ancient Egypt as the soldiers of Pharaoh Ramses I slay the firstborn children of the Hebrew slaves. One baby escapes, cast into the Nile in a basket and quickly discovered by the Pharaoh's childless daughter. Moses (Charlton Heston) is raised not only as a member of the royal family but is considered the favored son of Ramses' successor, even moreso than Seti's own son, Ramses II (Yul Brynner). There is little at which Moses doesn't excel. As Ramses II struggles to oversee the building of Seti's treasure city, Moses is effortlessly expanding the reach of his uncle's empire. Ramses is infatuated with the lovely Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) -- or at least for the power she may have to offer him -- and yet she only has eyes for Moses. It's all but certain, regardless of the break in bloodline, that Moses will ascend to the throne. That certainty fades as Moses learns of his true heritage. Rather than turning away from being the son of a slave, Moses instead embraces it, toiling away in the same mudpits as the rest of his Hebrew brothers. It soon becomes clear that Moses may be the prophecized Deliverer, and being ousted from the kingdom sets into motion the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the exodus of the Israelites, and, of course, the delivery of the Ten Commandments.

As widely adored as The Ten Commandments is the world over, it's been stung by its share of criticism throughout the years. A number of the performances, particularly those of Anne Baxter and Edward G. Robinson, are
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scoffed at as being campy. Some of the dialogue -- particularly that "Oh, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!" line that's quoted in snarky blog posts year after year -- creaks along. Some of the ambitious effects work hasn't aged well, particularly the unconvincingly animated pillar of fire that stops the Pharaoh's army dead in its tracks. In fact, some of the blue screen effects are so crude that it's difficult to believe that The Ten Commandments was released the same year as Forbidden Planet, a film with a leaner budget that made far more masterful use of many of these same techniques. If I stop and put on my Internet Movie Reviewer hat, then yes, I can see where these complaints are coming from. There's a part of me that knows that Ben Hur and Spartacus are superior efforts in so many ways. At the same time, I really couldn't care less.

Every time I watch The Ten Commandments, I get wholly and completely swept up in it. What some people point to as campy, I see as operatic. This is a larger than life story, and accordingly, The Ten Commandments is a larger than life film. Everything about it -- the staggeringly lavish production design to the thundering performances all the way down to the physical dimensions of the VistaVision negative -- is massive. Honestly, its lack of restraint ranks among its most towering strengths. The Ten Commandments is so big -- in scope, in length, and in every other conceivable way -- that it's hard not to get caught up in the spectacle of it all. There's an unmistakeable sincerity to the film as well that propels it along. The purity and simplicity of its message -- of responsibility, of loyalty, of sacrifice, of freedom, of the good and just triumphing over evil -- feel like something Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, and...well, everyone in any way associated with The Ten Commandments truly believe in. There's a definite power to that, and it's infectious. Charlton Heston makes for a wonderfully compelling square-jawed hero, and his decision to play it relatively straight as Moses serves as a strong anchor for the film, making the larger, more operatic performances surrounding him seem that much more
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grounded as a result.

So much of its imagery continues to resonate deeply with me. The ominous rolling fog that represents the Angel of Death, for instance, is still haunting. Though not the least bit graphic, the slaying of the first-born Hebrew children remains shocking: weeping parents leaning over cribs...soldiers walking away with bloodstained blades. Despite being older and more cynical now than when I was first swept away by The Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea still leaves me in awe, and the seams in the visual effects don't distract me in the slightest. Film historian Katherine Orrison mentions in her audio commentary that The Ten Commandments' ratings on ABC rise as the film goes along, presumably because many viewers wait until its final sixty to ninety minutes to dive in. Certainly the film's most memorable moments all take place in that last hour and a half. This is when Moses first demands that Pharaoh release his people from bondage. It's when the plagues tear this Egyptian kingdom apart. The spectacle of untold thousands of extras recreating the Exodus, the pillar of fire, the iconic parting of the Red Sea, the Pagan orgy of lust and wine in worship of the golden calf, the handing down of the Ten many of its defining scenes appear relatively late in the film. I can appreciate why so many viewers would prefer to skip past the first half of the movie, and yet despite The Ten Commandments' daunting runtime of three hours and forty minutes, my interest never wanes. DeMille has skillfully crafted an epic that warrants such length, and it's so nimbly paced that it feels as if The Ten Commandments clocks in at half that time. It's consistently captivating in a way that more modern epics rarely are. The word 'classic' gets tossed around somewhat loosely anymore, but a film as enduring as The Ten Commandments is more than deserving of the label. Paramount has wholly done it justice with this lavish six-disc collectors' set too, one that's every bit as colossal and awe-inspiring as The Ten Commandments itself. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.

No matter how dizzyingly high your expectations for The Ten Commandments may be, this Blu-ray set will eclipse them. I've made it a point to seek out as many of the large-format films and classic Technicolor releases that have found their way to Blu-ray thus far, but even with as strong a point of reference as I felt I had, this masterful restoration of The Ten Commandments still caught me completely off-guard. I'll keep rambling on about how extraordinary this presentation is in a moment, but first, open the screenshot below to its full size. There's nothing I could tell you that a screengrab like this can't convey far more effectively.
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I'm in awe. Simply put, the crispness and clarity on display throughout The Ten Commandments are without equal. The VistaVision photography reveals a sense of texture and detail that I don't believe I've ever witnessed on Blu-ray, easily outclassing even modern CGI blockbusters with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. A large-format film like this demands to be viewed on a colossal screen, and the meticulous production design of The Ten Commandments more than holds up under the scrutiny of high definition. The lavish costuming and lush flora are bolstered by a sumptuous, vivid palette that leaps clear off the screen as few other films have on Blu-ray. Who knew Eastman Color was capable of something like this? As a larger format like VistaVision is so fine-grained and boasts so much more resolution than a more traditional 35mm film shoot, the texture is velvety smooth throughout. There's a brief comparison between the unrestored negative and the gleamingly polished final product, and that something so breathtakingly gorgeous could be culled from a source so faded and battered is far beyond my understanding. There are no traces whatsoever of damage or wear. Its appearance is consistently filmic throughout, not marred by the slightest flicker of edge enhancement, digital artifacting, or excessive digital noise reduction. The image does expectedly degrade during scenes with optical effects, but these make up a relatively tiny percentage of the film's length overall and should in no way be considered a flaw in the presentation besides.

It's apparent with even a passing glance that no expense was spared in this restoration of The Ten Commandments, and the end result is flawless. This isn't simply one of the most extraordinary presentations of a Hollywood spectacle from the 1950s; it's one of the most indescribably beautiful releases on Blu-ray, period.

As this collectors' edition of The Ten Commandments presents the film on DVD as well as Blu-ray, I snapped a couple of comparison shots to give a sense how much of a revelation its high definition visuals truly are. These images do, of course, need to be expanded to full-size to appreciate the difference.
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Facing a runtime that approaches four hours in length, Paramount wisely chose to spread the The Ten Commandments across two dual-layer Blu-ray discs. Extras on these discs are kept to a minimum to offer these AVC encodes as much headroom as possible, and the bitrate is indeed kept remarkably high throughout. As is the case with all of the other VistaVision releases on the format that I'm aware of, The Ten Commandments is presented on Blu-ray at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

Bolstered further by a six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, The Ten Commandments sounds nearly as wonderful as it looks. Perhaps its greatest strength is Elmer Bernstein's orchestral score as it roars from every speaker, and even the diagetic music showcased in the film takes full advantage of the multichannel setup. I'm also impressed by the heft of The Ten Commandments' lower frequencies, such as the massive stones dragged to build Pharaoh's treasure city. The music aside, the mix roots the bulk of the activity across the front channels, but The Ten Commandments' most incendiary sequences certainly reach out to the surrounds, such as the frantic clatter of hooves as the final plague takes root, a fiery hailstorm, and the parted Red Sea as it comes crashing down. The rear channels also contribute some reverb in the palace's more cavernous chambers, the echo of God's booming, disembodied voice, howling desert winds, and haunting cries from afar. The Ten Commandments' dialogue is consistently reproduced cleanly and clearly, and no hiss, distortion, pops, or crackling ever once creep in to diminish the experience. It's also appreciated that as wonderful as The Ten Commandments sounds on Blu-ray, it doesn't come across as overcooked or artificially enhanced; the audio sounds natural and authentic throughout. This is a tremendous effort and again far exceeds anything I could've hoped to hear.

Dolby Digital stereo surround tracks are offered in English and Portuguese, and the disc also includes monaural dubs in French and Spanish. The Ten Commandments features optional subtitle streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Paramount is issuing The Ten Commandments on Blu-ray in two separate editions. The less lavish of the two is essentially a movie-only release, with the nearly four hour film spread across both of its two discs and otherwise limited to an audio commentary, a newsreel, and a gallery of trailers. That two-disc set is still an exceptionally compelling release, given the breathtaking quality of the presentation, such a tremendous commentary track, and, of course, The Ten Commandments itself. Needless to say, it pales in comparison to the six-disc collectors' edition reviewed here. It's as if Paramount looked at the limited editions that Warner has released over the past few years, smirked, and trumped them at just about every turn.

The packaging alone is astonishing, and it ties into the film itself rather cleverly. The sturdy cardboard box features a wraparound of the title, the number of the limited edition, and Charlton Heston as Moses, with lenticular animation of the parting Red Sea behind him.
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Just as the Red Sea parts, so too does the box depicting it:
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Among the treasures waiting inside are a set of postcard-size reproductions of costume designs by Arnold Friberg and an array of other artists, all printed on heavy card stock. A second envelope includes a congratulatory telegram from Adolph Zukor to Cecil B. DeMille regarding the 1923 production of The Ten Commandments, a heartfelt letter from Charlton Heston to DeMille about the christening of his son (who, as you likely know, played the baby Moses in the film), as well as a reproduction of Heston's travel schedule to Egypt, the Paramount commissary menu with some Pharaoh costume concepts sketched in pencil on the back, and a comment card from what I'm assuming is an early screening in Salt Lake City. There's also a full-color reproduction of the souvenir program from 1956, showcasing a sprawling assortment of gorgeous paintings by Arnold Friberg as well as headshots of the cast, Biblical excerpts, and an introductory letter by DeMille. The last of the printed extras is a hardcover book. Though there are some smatterings of text, its allure primarily revolves around its 45 pages of photographs, spanning both incarnations of DeMille's The Ten Commandments. It's a mix of production stills, behind-the-scenes shots, conceptual artwork, storyboards, and even programs from the 1923 release of the original silent film. The discs themselves come packaged in a large plastic recreation of the red granite tablets bearing the commandments. Each half snaps together nicely, sealed by magnets. The two discs featuring the 1956 film are on one side, and the Blu-ray disc with the bulk of the extras are on the other, joined by three DVDs. I'll admit that the side with four discs is a little cumbersome to deal with, requiring a bit more pressure to dislodge than I would've liked. The third Blu-ray disc is also hidden behind one of the DVDs. That's a very minor concern, and overall, I'm floored by the thought and care that went into the packaging for this limited edition. I'm now especially curious to see how Warner's long-promised collectors' set of Ben Hur will stack up by comparison.

Without question, the most noteworthy extra in this limited edition collectors' set is Cecil B. DeMille's original 1923 production of The Ten Commandments. While it's not altogether unusual to see another film offered
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as an extra on a Blu-ray release, it is remarkable for one to be presented in high definition as well. I'm thrilled to say that this is the case here: this silent film is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p, and I believe that's a first for a major Hollywood studio handling a release themselves. I wouldn't place this presentation in the same league as the most gorgeous silent releases on Blu-ray -- Criterion, Kino, and Masters of Cinema have set the bar exceptionally high -- but it still looks terrific by any reasonable standard. This silent version of The Ten Commandments features its score in Dolby Digital stereo, and the titles are optionally subbed in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. For those unfamiliar with DeMille's earlier take on this story, this is a very different film. Less than half of it is devoted to the story of Moses, and the early years of his life and the familial relationships had not yet been explored by DeMille. Its focus is instead on the exodus -- complete with the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea -- and, of course, on the issuing of the commandments. From there, the film leaps to what was then the present day for a Cain and Abel story about two brothers: one virtuous and the other a proud sinner who's soon consumed by his disregard for the laws of the Lord.

The inclusion of a second film would've been enough of an extra as it is, but The Ten Commandments features its own set of bonus material as well.
Extras for the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments
  • Audio Commentary: Katherine Orrison, the author of "Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments", contributes the first of her audio commentaries on this Blu-ray set. Orrison delves into why she feels DeMille's 1923 version of The Ten Commandments is in some ways the superior of the two, and her intense familarity with both films allows her to skillfully compare and contrast key sequences, note the close similarities in production design between them, and point out which members of the cast and crew helped shape both movies. Orrison is particularly talented at giving the film a sense of context, explaining why some of the imagery and setpieces would have had a particularly profound impact on viewers in 1923, and she's also able to explain some of the more obscure references that would be unlikely to mean anything to the average viewer nowadays. From notes about where DeMille would find leopards and lions for his films all the way to an exploration of production design in the years between art nouveau and art deco, this is a consistently engaging audio commentary, and Orrison has no trouble maintaining the conversation throughout The Ten Commandments' two hour and sixteen minute runtime.

  • Hand-Tinted Footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea Sequence (21 min.; HD): DeMille was a great admirer of the Handschiegl color process, and he had his own personal print of The Ten Commandments tinted using this technique. All of this footage is bathed in one color or another, and red smoke, the orange pillar of fire, and the dazzlingly deep blues of the Red Sea take even greater advantage. This footage is presented in high definition and looks incredible, by the way.

  • Two-Color Technicolor Segment (9 min.; HD): DeMille allowed Technicolor's cameras to shoot alongside his to showcase what their latest two-strip color process could produce. This footage is also presented in high definition but rarely looks the part.

  • Photo Gallery (HD): The last of the 1923 film's extras is a still gallery that showcases a number of behind-the-scenes photos and several congratulatory telegrams.
The extras for DeMille's second
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take on the story are spread across all three discs.
Extras for the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments
  • Audio Commentary: Katherine Orrison returns for her second commentary track on this lavish collectors' edition. Despite the daunting length of carrying a nearly four hour commentary by her lonesome, Orrison's intimate familiarity with The Ten Commandments and her immediately engaging personality make it well worth taking the time to explore. Quite a number of her comments aren't addressed elsewhere on this disc, such as DeMille's disinterest in casting actors who'd appeared in The Egyptian, Paramount's resistance to funding a Biblical epic of this scale, the movie's more subtle hints that Moses had taken a wife in Ethiopia, the astonishing support of the Egyptian government for the location shoot, and touching on other actors considered for key parts. As was the case with her commentary on DeMille's 1923 film, Orrison does a marvelous job offering a sense of historical context, both to the period in which The Ten Commandments is set as well as the state of mind in the mid-1950s as its cameras rolled. As is to be expected given its substantial length, there's really not all that much overlap with the documentary on the third disc in the set, making this commentary that much more of an enthusiastically recommended listen.

  • The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles (1 hr., 13 min.; HD): Laurent Bouzereau's feature-length documentary on the making of The Ten Commandments is wonderfully comprehensive. It begins by charting the pre-production of the film, noting that what at the time was the most expensive movie yet produced really didn't have a budget defined at all. The extensive planning and research are also explored, as are a slew of terrific casting notes, such as some of the iconic actresses originally considered for the role of Nefretiri. There are also a number of comments about the lavish production design, such as how one of Anne Baxter's dresses required five months to construct. Making Miracles moves from there to the location shoot in Egypt and the lengthy post-production period that soon followed. The extensive effects work is covered in great detail, from something as simple as a garden hose spewing red dye all the way to a look at the original plates behind the parting of the Red Sea. Among the other highlights are Elmer Bernstein's score, The Ten Commandments' enormous critical and commercial success, and the extensive effort that went into this spectacular 6K digital restoration. Part of what makes this documentary so endlessly engaging is the personality that radiates from the interviews, and that sort of color -- young Eugene Mazzola passing out while wearing a skullcap; a story about a loudmouthed but quick-witted extra prompting Cecil B. DeMille into calling "lunch!" -- keeps it infectiously fun to watch. This is an exceptionally informative documentary, but the personalities and well-deserved pride held as tight a grip on my attention as the facts that are revealed. Of all the terrific extras on this Blu-ray set, Making Miracles
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    may be the one that's the most essential viewing.

    Making Miracles is presented in striking high definition, and the documentary features optional subtitles in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

  • Newsreel: The Ten Commandments -- Premiere in New York (2 min.; HD): As many newsreels as I've come across on Blu-ray, I'm not sure I've seen one transferred in high definition before...certainly not one that looks as gorgeous as this. The two-and-a-half minute clip marvels at The Ten Commandments' red carpet premiere, complete with appearances by DeMille, the film's many stars, and an array of other celebrities such as John Wayne, William Holden, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

  • Trailers (13 min.; HD): The trailers for The Ten Commandments span more than three decades. The two re-release trailers -- one from 1966 and another from 1989 -- are both short and relatively straightforward. By far the most noteworthy of the three is a ten minute making-of trailer from 1956. This preview features a lengthy introduction by Cecil B. DeMille in his office, and he narrates the primary points of the story and also shows off the red granite tablets as well as various artistic representations of Moses.

  • Photo Gallery (HD): Finally, an extensive still gallery features close to three hundred images in all, and they're spread across nine different categories: "Storyboards and Concept Art", "Costumes", "Production", "Moses", "Press Kit", "The Stars", "Set Visitors", "Premiere", and "Around the World".
Also included are three DVDs, following the same structure as the Blu-ray set: two discs containing the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments and a third with the remaining extras.

The Final Word
One of Hollywood's most enduring epics roars onto Blu-ray in a release as colossal as The Ten Commandments itself. A breathtaking restoration further heightens Cecil B. DeMille's trademark visual spectacle, and its lossless soundtrack is as perfect as any classic film I've encountered on the format. Of the limited edition collectors' sets I've had an opportunity to experience on Blu-ray to date, The Ten Commandments ranks by far as the most striking, and the collection's many hours of extras are all well-worth taking the time to explore. It's also appreciated that Paramount is offering The Ten Commandments' many admirers the opportunity to choose, and a two-disc Blu-ray release without such expensive bells and whistles is being released alongside this lavish set as well. A slew of large-format Biblical epics are swooping onto Blu-ray in the weeks leading up to Passover and Easter, and there's no question which film of those I'd most eagerly reach out for to watch again. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.

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