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Ten Commandments, The (Blu-ray Review)

27 Mar, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 3/29/11
$19.99 two-DVD set, $39.99 two-disc Blu-ray, $89.99 six-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo,
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek, John Carradine, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson.

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments highlights how much Hollywood has changed since the 1950s. With its three-and-a-half-hour running time, The Ten Commandments would been spurned by most studios in an era of high theatrical turnover — or turned into two films. But at the time, it seemed that no one but DeMille, who was coming off a Best Picture Oscar for The Greatest Show on Earth, held the kind of influence needed to make this film.

DeMille had made a silent movie called The Ten Commandments in 1923, which is included in the collector’s set on a Blu-ray bonus disc (which might make it the oldest film yet to be released on Blu-ray). The silent version runs just over two hours, but only the first 50 minutes or so cover the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt. It serves as a prologue to a morality tale in what was at the time a modern setting, dealing with a corrupt contractor who ignores the lessons of the Bible.

As the film industry turned to color and widescreen, DeMille decided to remake that prologue as a full examination of the life story of Moses, covering the first 30 years of his life that aren’t detailed in the Bible.

The release of his “remake” in 1956 was only 33 years after his first version, but looking back at the rapid evolution of Hollywood in the early days makes that gulf seem so much wider. (For perspective, the original Star Wars came out 34 years ago and can still hold its own with the films of today).

The second half of DeMille’s new version covers roughly the same ground as his earlier version — Moses’ return from exile to lead his people to freedom, the parting of the Red Sea, the revelation of the Commandments and the false worship of the golden calf.

Had it been made today, I suspect DeMille would have made only the first half (which still runs more than two hours), which the studio would have billed as a “prequel” to the earlier film.

The 1956 version turned out to be the final film DeMille directed (he died in 1959), and it’s obvious it was a very personal project for him — and not just because he covered up the heart attack he had on the set to ensure the film would be completed. Not only does DeMille personally introduce the film, he also serves as narrator, as if playing the audience’s surrogate grandfather telling the story.

The Ten Commandments remains a splendid piece of entertainment despite its reputation as a source of some pop culture hokeyness. The film’s distinctive pageantry, ponderous dialogue and a solid cast make it memorable, but Charlton Heston in his signature role as Moses makes it iconic. This may be a long film, but it's never boring.

Comparing DeMille’s two versions, there’s a kind of newsreel quality to the historical scenes of the silent film, as if black-and-white gives the footage an air of authenticity. While the 1956 version is larger than life in scope, the bright colors and wide angle blocking really make it feel like a movie.

The results of the HD restoration are mostly quite good, a result of the large frame employed by Paramount’s VistaVision cameras. Colors are vivid and details are crisp and clear, and a majority of the film looks spectacular. The resolution is so good you can see the tiniest of bumps and other marks on the actors' skin.

More problematic are scenes containing visual effects. As is a common trait for films of the era, even when the effects were state-of-the-art at the time, several composite shots contain very visible matte lines that are almost distracting in 1080p (but aren’t as noticeable in standard-def).

Of course, the only real way to avoid that would have been to reprocess the visual effects, which not only could have gotten prohibitively expensive but raises other issues of film preservation.

The effects themselves are a bit dated, especially the animated pillar of fire. And the Burning Bush isn't quite burning so much as it is backlit with wavy yellow lines. But the parting of the Red Sea remains one of the enduring images of cinema, even if in the back of our minds we wonder what a fully rendered CG version might look like.

I’d also note that the film is still split onto two discs for the Blu-ray version, even though its about 20 minutes shorter than Gone With the Wind, which was able to fit onto a single disc.

Most of the extras on the disc are carried over from the previous DVD versions, including newsreel footage and commentary with a DeMille historian. The previous making-of featurette has been replaced with a terrific new 75-minute retrospective.

Called “Making Miracles,” the new documentary offers interviews with cast members, film historians and family members to broaden the view of what it must have been like to make this picture. Particularly fascinating is the involvement of Fraser Heston, Charlton’s son whose birth in 1955 came just in time for him to play the infant Moses. Heston offers a doubly unique perspective as not only as someone with familiar knowledge of the film through his father’s stories, but also as a film enthusiast not unlike the audience at home.

The packaging is kind of awesome. Not that it’s not going to take up a lot of shelf space (it is), but it’s just as epic as the movie. The outer box contains a panoramic view of the Red Sea, and sure enough it parts in the middle so you can access the goodies inside. The discs are contained within a plastic replica of the Commandment tablets.

There’s also a booklet of color photos and several production sketches, including one drawn on the back of a menu from the Paramount commissary. I wonder if they still serve the “Heston Strawberries”?

Ten Commandments Box Set

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