Judge Ryan Keefer wonders if you've heard about the one where Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Edward G. Robinson walk into a bar...
"It would take more than a man to lead the slaves from bondage. It would take a god."
In light of the recent amazing treatment that Warner Brothers gave Charlton Heston's biblical epic Ben-Hur and coinciding with the 50th anniversary of The Ten Commandments, Paramount has released another version of The Ten Commandments two years after putting out a solid Special Edition in 2004. Is this one worth your hard earned $20?
Facts of the Case
Things are pleasant and quaint in Egypt. You've got the Egyptians and the Hebrews, and the Hebrews are slaves under the conditions of the Egyptians. But the Hebrews believe a prophecy, the story of a boy who will eventually lead them to freedom. And the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses, perhaps reacting to this, decides to have the male children killed in order to curb this prophecy. However, one Hebrew mother decides to send her son Moses along the Nile to prevent his death. He is found by Rameses' daughter, who raises him as her own. Moses is brought along as an Egyptian prince, winning the hearts and minds of the royalty, notably a princess named Nefretiri (Anne Baxter, The Magnificent Ambersons). He has a jealous, but equally ambitious brother in Rameses II (Yul Brynner, The King and I, The Magnificent Seven). Rameses I sends Moses to the city of Goshen to build a tribute to the pharaoh, but also as a test to see if he can rise to the occasion. And despite the rumors of Moses doing controversial things like letting the slaves rest one day a week or allowing them to eat some grain, he does manage to come through for the pharaoh.
But that doesn't mean that things are all hunky dory in Moses' life. Eventually word comes out that Moses is a Hebrew, which leaves him confused and unsure of his place in the world. He decides to live as a slave and things take a turn when an Egyptian named Baka (Vincent Price, The Fly) and a slave named Joshua (John Derek, who married Bo) clash over a slave girl named Lilia (Debra Paget, Love Me Tender). Moses kills Baka and is caught, and his punishment is to be banished into the desert. And that's all before you learn about the Hebrew side of Moses, the red sea thing, the plagues and pestilence threats onto Egypt, everything! I've gotta keep some form of suspense when it comes to the plot of the film, because at over three hours, if you read a thorough plot synopsis, your head would hit the keyboard.
In recently watching both Heston biblical epics (or as I like to call them, "biblipics"), one of the things that differentiates this film from Ben-Hur is that as opposed to Judah Ben Hur, Heston's Moses portrayal seems a lot more stoic, without any real emotion or depth. And for that matter, Brynner's role as the man who would eventually be Pharaoh of Egypt is a little bit better, but he experiences a tragedy in his life that one would think would effect him a lot more that just sitting there with his head down. And even with those performances (which ultimately aren't too bad), there are others that are fairly surprising. As Moses' wife Sephora, Yvonne DeCarlo (McLintock!) is solid as a rock, no matter what her husband does (come on, any husband who disappears for 40 days to climb a mountain had better come back and carved his wife's likeness into it, am I right?). And as the diabolical Dathan, while it was first surprising to see Edward G. Robinson swing an English accent, his performance is a revelation as well.
What makes this film good is probably how much of a subject matter expert Cecil D. DeMille (King of Kings, The Greatest Show on Earth) was in his quest to portray Moses' life as accurately as possible. Several thousand books and photographs were used to create the set props, and DeMille helped his writers cultivate a screenplay of over 300 pages. One of the reasons Heston was cast as Moses was how closely he resembled an existing statue of Moses. With DeMille's almost customary use of tens of thousands of extras, the resulting film is a compelling story of a man's desire to fulfill a prophecy, particularly after meeting what he considered to be the Supreme Being.
The disappointing thing about this release is that is just seems to mainly port the extras over from the 2004 Special Edition. The audio is OK, and the video looks good, perhaps even unchanged from the Special Edition (I haven't seen it to compare definitively). And to see this film in widescreen, presented in VistaVision is something to behold. The making of documentary is pretty good, but only runs for about 40 minutes. The first part is devoted exclusively to Heston, as he discusses at length what it was like to play Moses. The second part covers the casting of the film, and DeMille's granddaughter occasionally provides some recollection of her grandfather's actions to secure the actors. Wow, Rameses' son even shares a couple of thoughts, including that his death was also supported by a wax figure likeness of him while Rameses mourned. And yes, legendary composer Elmer Bernstein shares some of his thoughts on the film and his part in creating the score. As a testament to his eye for casting, DeMille had Heston and Brynner in mind for the roles of Moses and Rameses, and even a heart attack during production wouldn't interrupt his making of the film. The production of the film (with a lot of home movie footage) is discussed, along with how tough it was to film in Egypt and Sinai. And of course, the almost obligatory look at the amazing director's life is covered as well. It's a nice (albeit small) look at this epic. The trailers and commentary are duplicates, but the commentary with author/historian Katherine Orrison is active (over both the 1956 and 1923 versions) and provides a lot of additional information that are amazingly revelatory. Speaking of the 1923 silent version, it's on the third disc of the set. And it's a worthy inclusion. Despite being over 80 years old, it looks good, and the Technicolor Exodus scenes are on this disc as an extra to boot. All in all, having silent films like this on DVD is the reason why film preservation is so necessary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from some really cool packaging (including a plastic window with Heston's likeness on it that folds out to the three disc set) and the silent film on DVD, there doesn't appear to be too much different from this version than the Special Edition from a couple of years ago. The reason why Warner Brothers is producing superior versions of their films is that they include more extras on top of the stuff they port, and you don't get that impression here.
If you've got the 2004 Special Edition of The Ten Commandments, there's very little to encourage you to double-dip on this one. Completists will probably pick it up, and it's relatively inexpensive. However if you haven't bought any version of it yet, this is the one.
Heston, DeMille and the masses of people that make up The Ten Commandments are acquitted as a result of their excellent work in making the film. Paramount is found guilty for phoning in what could have been a fairly exhaustive edition that seems a little hollow.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by author Katherine Orrison on Color and Black and White Versions
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