Mon, 30 Nov 2020

The Ten Commandments

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: neas MacKenzie and Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank

Stars: Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), Debra Paget (Lilia), John Derek (Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), Vincent Price (Baka), John Carradine (Aaron)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1956
Country: U.S.
The Ten Commandments Blu-ray

The Ten Commandments

Cecil B. DeMille's opulent Technicolor Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, a version of which he had previously directed in 1923, is the cinematic equivalent of really bad religious art: Those who love it and find it spiritually moving truly, deeply love it, while everyone else would think it just plain vulgar if it weren't so delightfully kitschy.

DeMille, never one for subtlety (or good taste, for that matter), paints his blockbuster portrait of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt with the brash masterstrokes of a true Victorian impresario-no vista is too grand, no King James-inspired line of dialogue too portentous, no moral too obvious. Yet, despite all this flamboyant grandiosity, the film has a strangely stage-bound quality, the result of DeMille's visual skills never having moved much beyond his beginning career as a theater director and his decision to stage the whole film like a pageant. In the silent era, DeMille was a virtuoso pioneer of lighting (see 1915's chiaroscuro-lit The Cheat, for example) and spectacle (too many films to list). But, while other cinematic visionaries forged ahead by exploring new possibilities for the medium, DeMille remained largely mired in a static aesthetic that favored postcard-ready posturing over movement and visual fluidity. Granted, he constantly fills the frame with awe-inspiring imagery, but you can always sense the frame itself (the movie's simultaneous grandeur and restrictedness is probably why it has played so well on television for so many years).

The 1950s was the era of big-budget sword-and-sandal movies and Biblical epics, and with The Ten Commandments, DeMille wanted to make the biggest of them all. Budgeted at $13 million (about $125 million in today's dollars), it was half a decade in production, with massive sets, a cast of thousands, and location photography in Egypt where Moses himself had walked 3,000 years earlier (although so much of the movie was shot on sets with blue screens that the impact of the location photography is thoroughly overshadowed by the production's overall staginess). It was to be the last movie DeMille would make, and also his most successful. In fact, The Ten Commandments was the box office leader of the entire decade, unsurpassed until The Sound of Music (1965) a decade later, and one of the prototypes of the modern blockbuster.

Charlton Heston, in the role that would come to define his career both cinematically and politically, stars as Moses from the time he is a young man until the day of his death just outside the promised land 40 years after liberating the Hebrews. Heston had already achieved leading-man status by that time, having worked primarily in anthology television dramas in the early '50s before landing half a dozen major roles in a wide variety of films, including The Naked Jungle (1954) and Secret of the Incas (1954), the latter of which was a major influence on the Indiana Jones franchise three decades later. His breakthrough came when DeMille cast him as a circus manager in his 1952 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Greatest Show on Earth, although it was his casting four years later as Moses that would transform him into a cinematic icon best known for playing stoic historical figures (he would win an Oscar three years later for playing the titular vengeful Jewish prince in William Wyler's Ben-Hur). With his chiseled features, upright demeanor, and commanding voice, he was the perfect choice (albeit not DeMille's first) for the movie's picture-postcard vision of Moses.

In fact, the less Heston is buried under make-up and wigs, the more effective he is as an actor. When playing the young Moses, then a Prince of Egypt whose Hebrew ancestry is hidden by his adoptive mother, he is strong and virile-a true screen presence. DeMille is clearly intrigued by Heston/Moses's hypersexualized masculinity at this point in his character arc, otherwise he wouldn't have lavished so much time on the Egyptian princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) trying to seduce him or a shepherd's seven giggly Southern-fried daughters ooh-ing and ahhing over him as if they had never seen a man before.

However, in the movie's second half, when Heston becomes "Moses the Biblical Icon" with the flowing white beard, he devolves into a near parody of stern moralism. Gone is the virility, replaced instead with dull stoicism and righteousness. In fact, you can witness the very moment when it all changes, which is also the movie's most inadvertently hilarious scene: After coming down the mountain where he heard God in the burning bush, Heston's close-cropped beard and short brown hair have been suddenly been replaced with a longer, grayish beard and an absurd gray pompadour that would look right at home on a cut-rate televangelist. It is as if, rather than returning from a face-to-face encounter with God, Moses has wandered in from a bad-and I mean really bad-day at the parlor. After that, you can track the passage of time through the graying and growing of Moses's hair and beard, which becomes ever bigger, fluffier, and more patently absurd the closer he gets to freeing the Hebrews.

Unfortunately, that is the direction the movie heads as a whole, right into the realm of ham and cheese. Neatly divided into two halves-the first following Moses as a young man who gradually learns of his true heritage and is eventually expelled from Egypt and the second following his return to Egypt under God's command to free the Hebrews from slavery-The Ten Commandments runs for a ponderous three hours and thirty-nine minutes. In the process, it brings down with it a cast of notable actors, although a few manage to stand tall even with their portentous King James-inspired dialogue. These include Edward G. Robinson, saved by DeMille from the ravages of the blacklist, as the Hebrew turncoat Dathan and Yul Brynner as the pharaoh Rameses, Moses' hardened nemesis.

Of course, what audiences really wanted in The Ten Commandments, aside from feel-good Biblical piety, was spectacle, and DeMille delivered all his budget would allow. Back in the silent era, DeMille had perfected the art of delivering sex and nudity within the narrative framework of moralistic Bible stories, a spectacle much different than what the more conservative 1950s would allow. When the Hebrews defy God and conduct an orgiastic paean to a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments, you can almost feel DeMille going back to his roots, wishing he could include a few naked breasts or a suggestion of lesbianism in there, just like the good ol' days. But, alas, the orgy has to be restricted to lots of drinking, wild carousing, and women riding on men's backs, but nothing more.

Instead, DeMille fills the spectacle quota with scenes on a grandiose scale, such as the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt, which reportedly used some 20,000 extras, and big-budget special effects. For the movie's true climax, we get the glorious parting of the Red Sea, which at the time was considered the greatest image ever seen on-screen. DeMille was intent on using every facet of the cinematic medium at his disposal for the glory of mythmaking; it's as if his goal were simply to overwhelm his audience, which is perhaps why the movie gives you so little to think about when it's over. Today, the special effects in The Ten Commandments have a quaint, old-fashioned charm that belies the spiritual quality some people apparently saw in them. Perhaps audiences were deeply moved by the sight of Heston/Moses parting a sea or God as a cartoonish pillar of fire writing the Ten Commandments one by one on the side of the mountain, but it's hard to feel much gravity in a movie that is so consistently and unapologetically hammy. Despite DeMille's proclamations of serious intent, which he delivers in person at the beginning of the film like the true showman that he was, The Ten Commandments, for all its fire and brimstone, may be one of the cinema's greatest accidental comedies.

The Ten Commandments Three-Disc Digibook Blu-ray Set
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 (1956 version) / 1.33:1 (1932 version)
Audio

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 moanural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural (1923 version)
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Portuguese, Spanish
    Supplements

  • Audio commentary by film historian Katherine Orrison
  • Newsreel: "The Ten Commandments Premiere in New York"

  • Trailers
  • 1923 film The Ten Commandments with optional commentary by Katherine Orrison
  • Hand-tinted footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea sequence
  • Two-color Technicolor segment
  • The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles documentary
  • Photo gallery
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 10, 2020

    COMMENTS
    The transfer of the The Ten Commandments included on this three-disc Digitbook edition is the same one that we saw on Paramount previous two Blu-ray released in 2011 and 2017. There's really nothing to complain about here, though, as that transfer, which was mastered from a 6K restoration done in 2010, looks gorgeous. The film was originally shot in VistaVision, a process whereby film is exposed in the camera horizontally, rather than vertically, which allows for a flexible aspect ratio anywhere from 1.66:1 to 2.20:1 when printed down to standard 35mm. The transfer on this disc is nicely framed at 1.78:1, which is a good compromise for widescreen television since The Ten Commandments is one of those films that doesn't have a "true" aspect ratio (on the negative itself, the aspect ratio is 1.66:1, but it was presented in various ratios throughout its theatrical exhibition). The gaudy Technicolor image looks excellent, with bright, vivid colors. The version of The Ten Commandments included here is also the complete road-show version, with an overture, entr'acte, and exit music, as well as a two-minute introduction by DeMille that is routinely omitted when the film is televised. The Ten Commandments was originally recorded in stereo and then remixed into six-track surround for its 1989 theatrical re-release. Presented on this disc is the same DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack included on the the previous Blu-rays. The soundtrack is quite impressive, with good separation among the speakers. This is particularly effective in the supernatural scenes, such as when God speaks from the burning bush or when the Angel of Death, envisioned as gray smoke, moves throughout Egypt. Elmer Bernstein's orchestral score sounds rich and full, and dialogue is always clear.

    As with the previous editions, this one is packed with supplements. One of the biggest inclusions is a high-definition presentation of DeMille's 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments, which is a fascinating historical artifact that is well worth watching. The transfer of the film is quite impressive, with great detail and a filmlike appearance that bears strikingly few signs of age and wear. Alongside the film we also get two historical bonuses: the "Parting of the Red Sea" sequence that was shot in two-color Technicolor, the first use of the newly developed photochemical process in a major studio production, and the "Exodus" and "Red Sea" sequences in the Handschiegl color process (a mix between hand tinting and lithography) that DeMille preferred and used in many of the his films in the 1920s (the clip included here was scanned from DeMille's personal nitrate print of the film). Although both sequences have been restored by the George Eastman House, the Handschiegl clip is in much better condition, whereas the Technicolor clip is in pretty rough shape. We get an in-depth, if overly worshipful, screen-specific audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments. Her thorough research of the film's production and DeMille's career really shows in her commentary, which is packed with all kinds of intriguing insider information, albeit with a few too many exclamations about how "wonderful" the movie is. Orrison recorded a commentary for the 1923 version, as well. There are three theatrical trailers: a 10-minute trailer from 1956 featuring DeMille waxing poetic about the movie, a 1966 re-release trailer (although the inclusion of an MPAA-sanctioned G-rating at the end suggests that it actually comes from a later re-release), and a 1989 re-release trailer. The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles is a good six-part retrospective documentary-divided into "Moses," "The Chosen People," "Land of the Pharaohs," "The Paramount Lot," "The Score," and "Mr. DeMille"-featuring interviews with a few then-surviving contributors to the film, including Charlton Heston and composer Elmer Bernstein. Each segment of the documentary is fairly short, and all together they run about an hour. Also included is a three-minute black-and-white newsreel of the film's New York City premiere and photo galleries for both films.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2)

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