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The Ten CommandmentsThe Ten Commandments 4K disc is a serious upgrade

By Jim Bray
April 8, 2021

If you thought Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments looked great in its Blu-ray version, wait till you get a view of the new, 4K disc version.

It may have been created from the same master as the 10-year-old Blu-ray, but the extra resolution and High Dynamic Range allow for a spectacular "new" version of this spectacular film.

It's kind of analogous to the 4K Lord of the Rings trilogy, which looked tremendous in its DVD and Blu-ray versions, but then the 4K version came along and blew them right out of the water.

And, funny, while upping the video ante often makes the seams, the flaws, show up more, here, the obvious blue screen shots are still obvious, but appreciably smoother than they appeared on the Blu-ray version (which also accompanies this new 4K pressing in the box – along with a digital code).

Yeah, as someone who watches this movie every year around this time, this is the version to cherish.

At least until the 8K version arrives!

The remastering/restoration of the film for its 2011 Blu-ray turned the film into a 6K file, so even in the 4K version it's "dumbed down" a tad. Doesn't matter, but it does make me wonder if they'll have to upconvert it to 8K from 6K when the time comes (assuming it does). I'll be curious to see.

In the meantime, check out the fine detail here, especially in close up shots. And the colour! And the black levels! This really is a transfer for the ages, though I must admit that some of the longer shots – and many of the blue screen shots – aren't nearly as good. This is typical, however, and the overall film looks so good it's almost as if it were shot yesterday (except the performances from the mostly-dead cast might be a tad more wooden…).

As nearly everyone knows by now, Charlton Heston stars as Moses, the Hebrews' eventual deliverer from bondage in Egypt. The meandering storyline starts with Pharoah's order to kill all the new-born Hebrew children to prevent one of them from growing up and delivering his people from that bondage. Except one baby is saved and adopted by an Egyptian princess to raise as her own.

Naturally, that'll come back to bite her a couple of hours of running time later.

I'm not going to be bogged down recounting a story nearly everyone knows; suffice it to say that this "cast of thousands" epic motion picture is not only a moving and powerful religious epic but it's also a story of the best – and the worst – of what makes us human beings.

The cast is outstanding. 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 really worth seeing, especially in 4K. 

As I mentioned in my review of the Blu-ray back in the day, the excellent restoration isn't perfect, but it's darn fine and the process by which the film was restored is fascinating. Here's an excerpt:

"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.

"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.

As mentioned above, we'll see…

Smith, continuing, "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.

They managed to find effects and stuff like that that they needed, and put the film back together that way. And it works, mostly. 

Alas, even though they did a fine job, the audio (DTS HD-Master Audio, no Atmos required) is the weakest part of the restoration. It's obviously sourced from old analogue files and it shows, but until the technology comes along to create whole new, digital soundtracks, this is about the best we can expect.

Or is it? My 4K disc of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, has an all-new soundtrack that's so good it is worth the price of admission by itself. Were the dozen or so years between Commandments and Odyssey enough that analogue recording had advanced that much? I have no idea, but I wish The Ten Commandments sounded as good as Kubrick's epic.

The single 4K disc manages to hold the entire film (complete with an audio commentary track by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic The Ten Commandments). The accompanying Blu-ray stretches the film over two discs (I assume it's a straightforward porting of the earlier version), and includes some extra supplements on the second disc. It isn't new stuff, but if you missed the original Blu-ray release you might enjoy it.

One thing you don't get in this new release is extra discs with even more stuff. So, you have to live without the inclusion of Cecil B. DeMille's original 1923 Feature version and some other stuff you could have gotten depending upon the earlier version you bought (there are about as many of them as there are extras in the film!).

This, however, is the version of The Ten Commandments for anyone who wants to have the movie at its best, but don't really care about the collectors' stuff.

In this age of CGI effects, it's fascinating to see a movie that did it the old-fashioned "they don't make 'em like that anymore" way, with a literal cast of thousands, gigantic sets, and (albeit old tech) BIG special effects (the parting of the Red Sea, for example, doesn't exactly look real, but it looks spectacular anyway).

But all that aside, the Ten Commandments deserves to be seen because it's an important story – as DeMille himself points out in a pre-film (but post-overture) address he makes to the audience, in which he asks (I paraphrase) "are we to be ruled by the whims of dictators, or live as free men."

A message, and a question, at least as important right now than it has been in any time past.

Copyright 2021 Jim Bray
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