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The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments – 50th Anniversary Collection on DVD

Cecil B. DeMille crafted what's arguably the ultimate in cinematic pageantry with his tale of the life of Moses. And with this 50th Anniversary edition, Paramount has given it a fitting tribute by including DeMille's original (and very different) silent version as well.

The spectacular 1956 movie, a staple on TV each spring, stars Charlton Heston in the role of the deliverer of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. There isn’t a lot of need to get into the storyline here, since we believe 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 quite powerful religious tale 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 so he can do what’s right. Yul Brynner is equally magnetic as Rameses, the evil and jealous son of Sethi who’ll stop at nothing to cement his hold on the throne. Then there’s Sethi himself, played exquisitely by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), and all the great supporting actors including such names as Edward G. Robinson, Debra Paget, John Derek, Vincent Price, Yvonne de Carlo. They bring star power, indeed – but more important they bring skill, talent and credibility to their roles.

The sets and the special effects (especially the sets) 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 DVD is the best way so far to see them, though the high resolution also gives away some matte lines you may not have noticed in TV viewings.

Paramount’s DVD of the 1956 film is also presented in anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, and this means that those who’ve only seen the film on TV are in for a treat because they can now see the shots as they were crafted, with no panning and scanning.

So you see more wonder, more epic, more scale (more matte lines!).

The colors are bright and rich, and close-ups generally look very good, but overall there’s a aged look and some smeariness/runniness to the colors that would probably be taken care of with a good restoration.

Audio’s pretty good, though the volume's a tad low. It’s supposedly presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and though we didn’t notice a lot of surround, the overall audio quality is very good. The musical score stretches across the front channels beautifully, sweeping us up with the epic scale of the production. The dialogue is located (as it should be) at the center channel, but the quality isn’t as good as the music’s.

This is a two disc set that stretches the 220 minute movie over the two discs, broken at intermission. We’re glad they chose the proper place for the changeover, where it makes logical sense. Such is not always the case with multi-disc DVD’s.

Extras appear to be mostly recreated from the last DVD release of this film, and include a very interesting, though somewhat repetitive at times, running commentary by Katherine Orrison, who wrote “Written in Stone – Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments.” She has some fascinating bits of knowledge and knows where all the mattes begin and end. There’s also a six part documentary on the film, a newsreel of its premier in New York, and some trailers. It's a good mix of stuff.

This is one of those films that should be in the library of all who love movies at their biggest and best. While it isn’t as good as William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, it’s more spectacular at times and is still a wonderful movie in its own right.

The real gravy here, especially for those who never bought the last DVD version of the movie, is the inclusion of the 1923 silent version. Also directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this full frame black and white film looks great and includes a real musical score performed on a Wurlitzer organ. It sounds great!

The sets and special effects of the silent film are excellent for their day – as awesome in their own way as the 1956 version's. But the movie itself is very different: the Moses part of it only takes up less than an hour of the 136 minute running time! The rest of the film is a morality tale set in the present (for that time) that tries to show that the
Commandments are just as relevant "today" as they were in ancient times.

The "contemporary" story follows a mother with two sons, one a God-fearing and humble carpenter (sound familiar?) and the other an unbeliever who's determined to prove his mother's teaching of the Ten Commandments is of no use "today". But the story is better than this may sound. It may be moralistic and moralizing, but it's also a heckuva yarn.

Extras for this version include another commentary by Katherine Orrison and a hand-tinted version of the Exodus section to the parting of the Red Sea. It's interesting to see,
but the black and white version has better picture quality.

The Ten Commandments, 1956 version, from Paramount Home Entertainment
220 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget,
Written by Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredrick M. Frank
Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

The Ten Commandments, 1923 Version, from Paramount Home Entertainment
136 min. full frame, Dolby Digital stereo
Starring Theodore Roberts, Estelle Taylor, James Neill, Edythe Chapman, Rod La Rocque
Written by Jeanie Macpherson, Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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