Paramount // 1956 // 231 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 28th, 2011
The greatest event in motion picture history.
Sethi: "What evil has done this to you?"
Moses: "The evil that men should turn their brothers into beasts of burden, to be stripped of spirit, and hope, and strength -- only because they are of another race, another creed. If there is a god, he did not mean this to be so."
Born a Hebrew slave but raised by an Egyptian princess (Nina Foch, Spartacus), Prince Moses (Charlton Heston, Soylent Green) may very well be the heir to the throne of Pharaoh (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Richard III). His primary competition is Rameses (Yul Brynner, The Magnificent Seven), Pharaoh's son by blood. Moses initially seems the favorite to earn the position, but his perspective on life begins to change when he learns of his heritage. After Moses murders Egypt's master builder (Vincent Price, Laura) in a fit of rage, Rameses arranges to have his brother banished. It is the end of Moses' days as a prince, but the beginning of the most important journey of his life. After a supernatural encounter with a burning bush, Moses returns to Egypt with the goal of freeing the Hebrew people from Rameses' tyrannical rule.
The first thing that The Ten Commandments wants you to know is that it is a very big, very important, very impressive motion picture. After a stirring overture, none other than producer/director Cecil B. DeMille appears to assure us that this picture is the product of intense historical research -- when the Bible didn't offer the information they needed, a variety of other esteemed historical documents were consulted. DeMille stresses the religious importance of the film, and then reminds us of the film's running time (there is a certain pride in his voice when he mentions just how long it takes to tell this epic story). The famed director also narrates the film, constantly reminding us of what an epic and important story this is: "And God heard them and cast into Egypt, into the lowly hut of Amram and Yochabel, the seed of a man upon whose mind and heart would be written God's law and God's commandments, one man alone against an empire."
And yet, for all of DeMille's purple intonations and painstaking promises of adherence to historical documents (the opening credits list a number of sources, then announce the usage of THE HOLY SCRIPTURES in a massive font underscored by swelling strings), The Ten Commandments is mostly grand old Hollywood melodrama (I'm reminded of the stories film composer Miklos Rozsa would tell about spending many months intensely studying ancient musical traditions of lost societies before scoring Hollywood epics, only to produce typically Rozsa-esque bombast each and every time). The film is unquestionably overloaded with a sense of its own importance, but in a way that only adds to its charm. DeMille's epic, for all of its overblown cheese, is the sort of gloriously ambitious spectacle that simply isn't attempted anymore.
In an era in which vast armies and wondrous sights can be created by computers, it's all the more remarkable to look back on handcrafted epics like The Ten Commandments. Everything about the film is enormous -- the running time (a whopping 231 minutes), the sets (DeMille must have identified with the pharaohs of old more than a little by the time he finished building this movie), the story (which covers an entire life in what occasionally feels like real time), the music (one of the finest early efforts from an eager-to-impress Elmer Bernstein), the special effects (the parting of the red sea remains one of the coolest practical effects committed to film, even though the techniques used to achieve it are now quite obvious)...y'know, everything.
The performances are no exception to this, particularly in the cases of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. Here are two actors for whom the phrase "larger than life" was seemingly invented. Even if their line readings are a little stiff from time to time, Heston and Brynner each bring such a distinctive presence to their iconic roles: Heston presents us with an earthy and masculine Moses, while Brynner infuses Rameses with a sense of cold precision. While Heston owns the first half of the film, Brynner's increasingly hardened portrait dominates the second (there is genuine poignancy during his embittered closing scenes). That's the positive point-of-view. On the negative side, Brynner seems awfully uncomfortable during his early scenes, while Moses becomes a dimensionless bore after his burning bush epiphany.
Elsewhere, Anne Baxter (All About Eve) is memorably over-the-top as Nefretiri, the woman who loves Moses but is forced marry Rameses. She's saddled with some of the silliest dialogue, but infuses it with enough breathless passion to make it work. Edward G. Robinson is amusingly out-of-place in this old-fashioned spectacle, but he's effectively slippery as the scheming Dathan. Vincent Price provides the master builder with abundant sleaze, while Sir Cedric Hardwicke arguably provides the film's most nuanced performance as Sethi. The one major cast member who grows tiresome is John Derek, whose portrait of Joshua is a third-rate Errol Flynn impression.
The Ten Commandments arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very handsome transfer. The film is split across two discs in order to attain the best picture quality possible, and very little about this transfer disappoints. The level of detail is superb throughout, darker scenes benefit from remarkable depth and the film's bright colors pop off the screen during the brighter moments. There are very faint traces of DNR from time to time, but not enough to cause much concern (for the most part, a thin layer of natural grain is left intact). The only real problem comes from the film itself: the optical effects shots (with inserted backgrounds rather than real sets/locations) are painfully obvious in 1080p; there's an awkwardness than one might not experience if watching the film in standard-def. Audio is also quite strong, with Bernstein's score sounding remarkably rich and vibrant. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and the action scenes pack a modest punch (though obviously we're a long way from The Matrix in that department).
Two editions of The Ten Commandments are being released on Blu-ray: this standard-issue two-disc set and a more lavish three-disc edition. The two-disc set is somewhat light on special features. Aside from a commentary featuring DeMille expert Katherine Orrison, we only get two minutes of newsreel footage and some theatrical trailers. If you feel like spending a lot more money, you can get the three-disc set (which includes a making-of documentary, DeMille's silent version of The Ten Commandments and lots of assorted movie swag). While I understand the collectible cards, faux commandments and such being exclusive to the deluxe edition, I really wish the 73-minute making-of documentary had been included on the regular release.
Yes, The Ten Commandments is occasionally stiff, silly and bloated, but the dazzling spectacle and genuine religious fervor of DeMille's direction make it a most enjoyable experience. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent and is well worth an upgrade.
This Blu-ray release is free to go. Now leave, before my heart is
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 231 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Rated G