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Paramount Home Video presents
The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection (1956/1923)

"What deliverer could break the power of Pharaoh?"
- Moses (Charlton Heston)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: June 22, 2006

Stars: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Theodore Roberts, Charles De Roche, Edythe Chapman, Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, Leatrice Joy
Other Stars: Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, Olive Deering, Douglass Dumbrille, Frank DeKova, Henry Wilcoxon, Eduard Franz, H.B. Warner, Julia Faye, Eugene Mazzola, Fraser Heston, Cecil B. DeMille, Estelle Taylor, Terrence Moore, Nita Naldi, Robert Edeson
Director: Cecil B. DeMille

MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:51m:21s (1956); 02h:16m:04s (1923)
Release Date: March 21, 2006
UPC: 097360412246
Genre: epic


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B BB+A- B+

DVD Review

What a perplexing film The Ten Commandments is. For some it is an undeniable classic; for others, tired old dreck. There's even a sizable portion of viewers that treasure it as a guilty pleasure. I tend to consider it to be all three of those things—often times changing my mind from seeing it as a monumental achievement to a foolhardy ego-trip within a single viewing. The story is captivating and the movie is the epitome of 1950s epics. On the other hand, the acting is labored, the special effects particularly dated, and the filmmaking tiring. Still, even DeMille's most ardent critics have to admit that there's something special at work here. This movie hasn't become a perennial TV favorite just by chance, after all.

Is there any real need for a plot synopsis? Since the film is exceptionally well known and its origins in the Book of Exodus have been a part of world culture for thousands of years, I shall spare you of my tedious description. DeMille's adaptation is faithful enough to the Biblical tale; the screenplay, which is also based on historical texts and contributions from historians, fleshes out the character of Moses (Heston). The most compelling aspects of the movie focus on Moses as an Egyptian prince, warring with Rameses (Yul Brynner) over the love of princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) and succeeding Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke). Heston's chiseled body is a picturesque view of the man, but his performance is stilted in the later scenes that come directly from the Bible. There's a freedom in his interpretation of Moses when the scenes are ones not described in the Old Testament, with Heston creating a triumphant hero who longs not only for power, but also justice. But once he becomes the iconic Moses, sporting a white beard and bushy hair, the once three-dimensional man of ambition becomes flat. Perhaps he's being too reverent to the role's religiosity to create a believable performance.

The rest of the cast is also a mixed bag. Anne Baxter is wonderfully vivid in her role, oozing with envy when she learns of Moses' marriage to Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo) and wonderfully seductive when manipulating Rameses into chasing the Hebrews across the desert. Equally impressive are Cedric Hardwicke and Nina Foch, playing royal siblings with grace and a surprising amount of emotion. Yul Brynner probably turns in the film's best performance as Rameses as he is far more subtle than the rest of the cast and exudes a dominating presence that is truly intimidating. This cast of thousands includes many other familiar faces. Edward G. Robinson's Dathan is a quirky villain, almost too comical to pose any real threat and drawing attention away from the film's central drama. Even more bizarre is Vincent Price's Baka, who would be more at home in a second-rate horror movie instead of a Biblical epic. The bit parts never really work for me, either. There's even an uproariously awkward scene when Moses comes upon the man-starved daughters of Jethro. Watching it in 2006, Moses' interaction with the girls (featuring lines like "Your eyes are as sharp as they are beautiful") evokes an uneasy feeling, as if it could turn into late night Cinemax fare with the drop of a hat.

Not to beat up on DeMille's labor of love without pity, but he clearly is not at his best here. There are some serious flaws in the story's structure. Moses leading the Hebrews in their exodus and parting the Red Sea is shown as the climax, but the film continues through to show the decadence of God's chosen people at the feet of the golden calf. There's nothing wrong with this—in fact it is intricate to the themes of the story—but there's no denying that DeMille's direction sees this as an epilogue, and he loses momentum. Additionally, DeMille's narration of events is unnecessary and, what is more, interrupts the flow of the drama. Instead of seeing Moses' transition from Egyptian prince to Hebrew slave, we are told about it and the result is far less satisfying.

However, despite these criticisms, the film is a spectacle that merits respect. While his accomplishment does not rise to the level of William Wyler's Ben-Hur or David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, DeMille has managed to create a striking vision of the ancient world that ranks as one of the most noteworthy epics of its decade. Chief among its accomplishments are the special effects, which don't work well today but mostly succeeded and set new standards upon its release in 1956. Turning the Nile red with blood and blocking Pharaoh with the Pillar of Light, the effects boldly convey the power of God and mark a turning point in Hollywood technology. There's also the gorgeous production design and costumes, giving a wonderful sense of grandeur and culture. Furthermore, the cinematography is rich in color, with reds, purples, and greens populating the screen to create a glorious montage of images that soothe the viewer during the movie's nearly four-hour runtime.

Watching this epic also offers the viewer a rare opportunity to see a director revisit his earlier work. Well into his seventies when filming, DeMille is remaking The Ten Commandments from his 1923 telling of the tale, which split the focus between Moses delivering his people and a 20th-century family learning the authority of God's laws. The earlier version, also included on this DVD, is more adventurous in its storytelling. However, the decision to chronicle Dan McTarvish (Rod La Rocque) as he purposefully defies the commandments in the 1920s is far too blatant. Seeing the two versions right next to one another, the 1956 remake clearly demonstrates a maturity in DeMille; he is no longer assaulting the audience with gross oversimplifications and allows the story of Exodus play on its own.

What is more, and why I find myself considering DeMille's film deserving of its label as a classic, is how he manages to take the themes of the Bible and relate them to the modern, industrialized world. This is more a movie about man's right to live freely than anything else, with Rameses as a dictator in the mold of Hitler or Stalin (albeit, a family-friendly depiction of such evil). In this respect, The Ten Commandments goes beyond its movie counterparts and serves not only as a testament to its maker's own religious beliefs, but also as DeMille's passionate plea for audiences to bury tyranny in the desert.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes
Anamorphicyesyes


Image Transfer Review: I've never seen the earlier DVD versions of The Ten Commandments, so I can't compare this release to them. However, considering that all of the supplemental materials on the first two discs are identical to Paramount's Special Collector's Edition, I suspect the audio and image transfers are the same, too. Either way, the picture here is far from perfect, with a considerable amount of grain and print defects being prevalent for such a famous, beloved movie. Sometimes the detail is weak and the picture comes across as too soft. However, the colors are vibrant, by and large (especially when the Nile turns red and the sky when Moses returns from Mount Sinai), and there's a nice sense of depth to the image. Blacks also look good, though the shadow detail is nothing exceptional. On the whole, this anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is the best I've ever seen DeMille's film look.

With regards to the 1923 silent movie, it looks exceptionally good. There's a slight flicker to the image, but otherwise it looks surprisingly clean and has tremendous detail. Grain is noticeable, but not distracting and actually gives the picture a film-like look.

Note: The grade below reflects both transfers.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchyes
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a nice updating of the material that doesn't abandon the film's era much. Rear-channel activity is used well, with the surround speakers showcasing Elmer Bernstein's score and making the large crowd scenes much more involving. Sound separation and directionality are also integrated wisely, never over=accentuated but making the parting of the Red Sea and Moses' journey through a sandstorm much more formidable than they would otherwise be today. Dialogue is always audible and the mix is quite clean. The 1956 film also contains a French mono track and English Dolby Stereo mix. The 1923 version plays with Gaylord Carter's Wurlitzer organ score, presented here in Dolby Stereo. It sounds clean and makes for a pleasant listening experience, although it isn't anything special.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 63 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The John Wayne DVD Collection, Titanic
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Katherine Orrison
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Hand-tinted Footage of Exodus and Parting of the Red Seaa presentation of the 1923 version's massive set piece with the hand-tinted coloring.
Extras Review: The content on the first two discs of this set are identical to the "Special Collector's Edition." Beginning with a feature-length commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments, this is a nice compilation of extras. Orrison's commentary track is exceptionally informative, touching upon every conceivable aspect of the movie (she even gets into the film's TV ratings). She is clearly passionate about the material and offers her own analysis of what works and doesn't, making for one of the most candid commentaries I've ever heard.

Next is a 6-Part Documentary (37m:36s) that is made up of individual featurettes that can be viewed separately or all together. Taken together, they feature interviews with members of the cast, crew, and DeMille's granddaughter, and touch upon the movie's production, score, and casting process. Charlton Heston and DeMille's granddaughter offer a vivid portrait of the director in Mr. DeMille, which I found to be the most informative chapter. This isn't a world-class documentary, but it has some nice anecdotes and even gives a brief glimpse of life on the set.

Following the documentary is a newsreel featurette, The Ten Commandments: Premiere in New York (02m:23s). This is the usual collection of stars showing up at the red carpet, but also has a juicy tidbit about DeMille's plans for the film's profits. Rounding out the special features on the second disc are three trailers. The 1956 trailer (09m:59s) has DeMille discussing religious art and introducing the cast. The 1966 and '89 re-release trailers are your traditional movie advertisements.

Continuing with the trailers, there's also a pair on the third disc for The John Wayne DVD Collection and Titanic. This third disc is the reason for upgrading your DVD collection, because it not only houses the 1923 silent film, but also offers the hand-tinted footage of the scenes Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea (14m:58s). The film is quite faded and scratched (showing how impressive the image transfer truly is) and at times it is difficult to read the color. However, much of the hand-tinting looks splendid and definitely shows the viewer the techniques at work in early cinema.

Rounding out the special features is another commentary by Orrison who, sadly, doesn't do as good a job the second time around. Her contributions to the '23 version are minimal, with the majority of this track being a narration of what is happening on the screen. She sprinkles some nice bits of information about DeMille in the early stage of his career, but otherwise this is a lackluster commentary. However, her earlier track and the documentary make the extras well worth a look.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection is a great treat for the movie's fans. Adding to the material previously included on the "Special Collector's Edition" DVD, this new three-disc set adds the 1923 silent film and gorgeous packaging.

 


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