The Ten Commandments on Blu-ray disc
By Jim Bray
Cecil B. DeMille crafted what's arguably the ultimate in cinematic pageantry with his version of the life of Moses. And with the Blu-ray edition, Paramount has given it a fitting tribute by offering it in newly restored version that positively shines with new life.
The spectacular 1956 movie, a staple on TV each spring, stars Charlton Heston in the role of the Hebrews' deliverer from bondage in Egypt. There isn’t a lot of need to get into the storyline here, since that everyone and his dog has seen this movie at least once by now. Suffice it to say that this sprawling “cast of thousands” epic is not only a moving and powerful religious epic but a story of the best – and the worst – of what makes us human beings.
The cast is outstanding. Heston’s screen presence is magnificent and he makes a terrific Moses, the Prince of Egypt who throws it all away to do what’s right. Yul Brynner is equally magnetic as Rameses, the evil and jealous son of Sethi who’ll stop at nothing to get, and to hold, onto the Egyptian throne. Then there’s Sethi himself, played exquisitely by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter, who gets all the worst lines), and great supporting actors including Edward G. Robinson, Debra Paget, John Derek, Vincent Price and Yvonne de Carlo. They bring star power, indeed – but more important they bring talent, experience and credibility to their roles.
The sets and the special effects are also top notch, though the effects are limited by 1950’s technology. But the parting of the Red Sea and some of the shots of Egypt at the height of its glory are real toys for the eyes. And this Blu-ray is the best way so far to see them, though the high definition picture also gives away some matte lines you may not have noticed in earlier viewings.
The restoration is excellent, truly bringing new life to this aging classic. It isn't perfect, but it's darn fine. Not only that, but the process by which they restored the film is fascinating.
I spoke with the head of Paramount's restoration team, Ron Smith, about bringing The Ten Commandments into the 21st Century, and he told me that even though the film had been worked on in 1997, it still needed a full, top to bottom restoration to do it justice. That's how quickly technology marches on these days.
"There was really no quick fix for this film," Smith said. "We had to go back to the original negative and until now it wasn't really possible to do what we did." Smith says they approached the job in the way modern moviemaking is done.
"It's funny because restoration and modern postproduction are now on the same track, " Smith told me. "Basically what happens is that with a new movie and an old movie that you're restoring the first step is you actually scan the film and turn it into data files, so we scanned it at 4K VistaVision, which is roughly 6000 pixels by 4000 pixels, about double the resolution at which most new movies are scanned."
This makes for huge files, as anyone who's stored digital media on a computer can imagine!
"We take a large snapshot of each film frame and basically work on it frame by frame for restoration," Smith said, "And scene by scene for color correction. It just wasn't possible to do that 10 years ago; the technology didn't exist."
Smith noted that since they scanned the film at such high resolution, it's ready to go for whatever higher definition format might come along next. "It's definitely future proof," he said.
Not only that, but the restored version is in some ways even better than what was seen in theaters in 1956. "With the technology we're using now, you're seeing what's on the negative for the very first time," Smith said. "You didn't even see that in theaters because everything to this point has been a reduction of some type, so nobody has actually seen what the negative looks like until we started scanning it." He said they were amazed, literally every day, saying "Wow, this is this really something!"
Of course, higher resolution also shows up the flaws – as anyone who has ever upgraded his audio and/or video equipment knows. And The Ten Commandments, with its old by still eye-popping special effects, is no exception. "You can certainly see where some of the effects are in the picture," Smith said, "But it's still pretty amazing the way that they managed to construct the Treasure City and how they managed to do the Red Sea effects – it's literally 5,6,7 different layers of footage and effects plates layered on top of each other. It was a very bold undertaking at that time."
Smith noted that they also took a whack at upgrading the audio tracks, which had deteriorated to the point that they needed a lot of work. Not only was the dialogue track sounding thin, but the effects track – particularly the louder the effects – had deteriorated as well. "So, for instance, the crashing of the Red Sea or any loud passages or effects were distorted and very painful," he said.
So they found sound effects and ambiences that match what's in the film. "We were able to actually find things that matched perfectly," Smith told me, "Sounds with the exact same frequency as the ones already in the film and we would sort of wrap them around to try masking the distortion and I think they did an incredible job."
They did a better job than I'd have expected from such an old sound track, even to some decent rumbling from your subwoofer during scenes such as when they're moving the gigantic blocks of stone. "We had to find low frequency effects that matched what was already there on the screen without making it sound new or too fresh," Smith admitted. "We just wanted to make it sound like the original only a little bit bigger."
When my review sample arrived, I couldn't wait to stick it in my Oppo Blu-ray player and witness the events unfold in 1080p on my 106 inch front projection screen. I skipped right to the second disc so I could ogle the parting of the Red Sea, which still works remarkably well today. And, yes, there are matte lines galore but overall they've done a fine job on the restoration.
The film is available in a couple of different incarnations, a deluxe, six disc Blu-ray/DVD package, two disc Blu-ray and two disc DVD. Paramount sent me the basic Blu-ray package, which splits the film into two parts – the break coming at intermission, just as it should – and which also includes a few supplements on the second disc.
Naturally, the Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with a dts-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that makes surprisingly good use of the rear channels at times. The audio, despite the restoration, isn't going to pop out of your screen or your speakers the way some modern films on Blu-ray do, but it's a remarkable achievement nonetheless.
The super deluxe limited edition Blu-ray/DVD combo boxed goes like this:
The basic Blu-ray package breaks down this way:
This is the version for people who want the movie but who don't care about the collectors' aspect of the deluxe edition.
The Ten Commandments brings to mind the old saw "they don't make them like that anymore," because it's very true. Today, such epics are done digitally, using CG to create crowds, armies, fantastic structures and the like. But Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments did it old school, with the proverbial cast of thousands and special effects that, while remarkable for their day (and surprisingly good even today) do give away their origins via matte lines, extra grain, or obvious animation.
But none of this takes away from one's enjoyment of this true epic in the grand Hollywood tradition, and if you've pined to see it presented as well as humanly possible, this is the version for you regardless of which package you purchase it in.
Copyright 2011 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.