The Ten Commandments (50th Anniversary Collection) Review
For the benefit of the one or two people reading this who don't know the story of Moses, it begins with the advisors to Rameses I (Ian Keith) warning him that of the increasing number of their Hebrew slaves and their talk of a deliverer who is yet to be born. With the life of the children of Hebrew slaves being unimportant, Rameses orders that any sons born to the slaves be slaughtered but Yochabel (Martha Scott), the birth mother of Moses, had no wish to see her son put under the knife of an Egyptian soldier. So Yochabel put the infant Moses (Frazer Heston) into a basket, which she placed in the waters of the Nile, hoping that he might be found by an Egyptian woman who would raise him as her own. Fortunately, for Moses, he is found by the daughter of Pharaoh, Bithiah (Nina Foch), who intends raising the boy within the royal house of Egypt but her spiteful assistant Memnet (Judith Anderson) retains the Levite cloth that Moses was wrapped in, never letting Bithiah forget the origins of her son.
Now grown up, Moses (Charlton Heston) remains within the house of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), who hints that, after his passing, either Moses or Rameses (Yul Brynner) will ascend to the throne. With Nefertiti whispering conspiracies in his ear, Sethi favours Moses, who has shown strength of character in his building of the treasure city of Goshem where Rameses failed. Rameses accuses Moses of being too generous towards the slaves but Moses replies that, "The city is made of bricks. The strong make many, the starving make few, the dead make none." Even Nefertiti has fallen for Moses' charms and Rameses sees everything that ought to be his by birth being taken by Moses. But Memnet calls on Nefertiti one night with the Levite cloth that the infant Moses was wrapped in the day that he was discovered and soon all of the royal court knows of Moses being of Hebrew blood and, in shame, he leaves the palaces of Egypt to stand alongside his people in the straw pits of Goshem. As brothers, though, Rameses and Moses are not far from one another's thoughts and even as one banishes the other into the wilderness, a great battle lies in their future, one that will determine the future of the Hebrew slaves and of their return to the land of Israel.
There are few figures who have had such an influence on the world as Moses. The general assumption of the Old Testament being a dusty collection of books concerned with such people as Jehosephat, Jephath and Jehozadak, irrelevant to 21st-century life, is something of a mistaken one and you don't have to look far beyond Moses for a figure who's influence is still being felt. It is traditionally thought that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Christian bible and these five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - which are collectively known in Judaism as the Torah but which also appear in the Bible and in the Qu'ran. Genesis and Exodus alone are responsible for much of the world's ills. Genesis is, after all, the source of creationism, which has given Christian fundamentalists the opportunity to wage a moral argument, currently enshrouded in the language of Intelligent Design, against those who believe in Darwinism and the evolution of the species. Exodus casts a clear shadow over the history of religion with the Hebrews being the chosen people of God whilst taken as one, the Torah gives the followers of Judaism a strong belief in Israel being their home, not so much one defined by borders but by the very word of God.
Even if we see ourselves separated by distance from the Middle East or from the disagreements over Intelligent Design, the ten commandments brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai are the basis of the laws in modern society with there being 613 further commandments, specifically those in Leviticus, that have strongly influenced our shared social morality. Christianity may place more emphasis on the teachings of Christ and Islam on those of Mohammed but it is Moses to whom Christ is often compared, with the differences between them defining the interpretations of the Old and New Testaments and how Christ's teachings of forgiveness replaced Moses' fire-and-brimstone approach.
It's fitting, then, that one of Hollywood's greatest and longest epics should be set aside for Moses. Indeed, so impressed was Cecil B DeMille in the story of Moses that he filmed it twice, in 1923 and then in 1956, both versions of which are included in this 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition. Taking the older film first, it's a curious feature, little of which actually features Moses. Out of a running time of 136 minutes, the book of Exodus only accounts for 45 minutes but it's an impressive piece of filmmaking. Much of what DeMille achieved would be referenced thirty-three years later when he chose to remake it, particularly the exile of the Hebrews from Egypt and the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, which may look like the piece of gelatine cut in half that it is but which is remarkable nonetheless. Later, when Moses (Theodore Roberts) ascends Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments, DeMille interprets God differently to how he would do it in 1956, preferring to have a ball of fire spit forth the commandments as writing in the sky rather than the later and more literal finger of God. But, surprisingly, the orgy that follows the making of the golden calf is much more debauched here with Kathleen Orrison explaining on her commentary that, with this being a silent film, there was no need for a code of moral conduct in the movies - children, after all, couldn't read the dialogue cards and would not have sat through a film such as this - and so DeMille could get away with much more than he did in his next telling of the story, including a barely-dressed Miriam (Estelle Taylor) willingly draped over the golden calf.
However, the difference in the films is that, forty-five minutes in, the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments jumps forward some thousands of years to present the MacTavish Family, headed by the upright Martha (Edythe Chapman), who spends her evening reading scripture in front of the fire. Her two sons, carpenter John (Richard Dix) and builder Dan (Rod LaRocque) are cut from different cloth entirely - one is a decent man fond of such sayings as, "Laugh at the ten commandments all you want, Danny...but they pack an awful wallop!" whilst Dan sets out to see how many of the commandments can be broken in a single lifetime. This culminates in a Dan insulting God by building a church on filled-in swampland and using cheap concrete unfit for purpose but which also ends with his mother being buried underneath several tons of this concrete when part of the building collapses. Mix Sally Lung, a temptress from the east who's escaped from a leper colony, a speedboat chase and Dan's breaking of the ten commandments - dancing on a Sunday indeed - into this melodrama and you a film that's neither epic, subtle nor effective, losing the spectacle of Exodus in the dreary front room of the MacTavish family home.
DeMille wasn't finished, though, and although he and Paramount had a disagreement over the film's budget - The Ten Commandments cost $1.2m - he was back thirty-three years later with a new adaptation of the story of Moses but without distracting from the spectacle of Exodus. And indeed it's almost all about the spectacle with Cecil B DeMille taking each word of the Old Testament book at face value. As Mike Sutton pointed out in his review of the existing Region 2 release, if Exodus mentions a golden calf, then DeMille puts one in his movie. It still isn't a subtle film but it is a magnificent one, being amongst the most epic of films that's ever been produced and using every one of its 220 minutes to impress upon the viewer its sense of scale. And rarely for a film of such great length, The Ten Commandments rarely feels as long as it is, fairly pushing through its story and not stopping until Moses is in sight of the land God promised him and his followers.
Indeed, so set is this film on trying to fit all of the major events of Moses' life into its long running time that several of the plagues appear to have been lost along the way. The complete list of plagues, beginning after Moses turns his staff into a serpent, is his turning the river to blood, frogs, sciniphs, flies, murrain among the cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian first-born as the Angel of Death slips through Egypt during the Passover. The Ten Commandments portrays the river turning to blood and mentions others but gives over a great deal of time to the damning of the first-born of Eygpt by the Pharaoh himself. As impressive as the Angel of Death is - beginning as a bright green trail in the sky, it falls to the earth and makes slow progress through the streets of the city with wailing and suffering in its wake - it's easy to see why DeMille kept some but cut out others. Sciniphs may well have been a terrible affliction, if not enough to convince Rameses to let the Hebrews go, but it doesn't quite impress the way that the first and last plagues so clearly do. And that remains the justification for the film throughout - the building of the treasure city of Goshem, with Moses overseeing the raising of a great stone needle, is one that brooks no argument against his strength as a leader of men whilst also looking terrific. The burning bush, the exodus of the Hebrews, the column of fire, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea and the writing of the ten commandments on the stone tablets all make use of superb special effects and throughout, looking almost blessed by the importance of the role, is Charlton Heston, leaving such a legacy with this film that those who saw him in public would be confused as to who they were getting, ornery old Chuck or Moses, his face beaming from his hearing the word of God.
Contrary to what that might suggest, it's all too easy to take the whole thing far too seriously, much more seriously than it actually deserves. Vincent Price and Cedric Hardwicke are having far too much fun with their roles as Baka and Sethi for this to be a staid biblical epic whilst Anne Baxter as Nefertiti is almost as poisonous as the snake that did for Cleopatra, kissing Rameses but thinking of Moses, laughing at the Pharaoh's impotence against this slave and whispering treachery in his ear and hardening his heart. The palace of Egypt is a den of subterfuge, out of which steps Moses as the deliverer, this fate beckoning him as Rameses banishes him into the wilderness. There, on Mount Sinai, Moses meets and marries Sephora (Yvonne de Carlo) and is instructed by God to return to Egypt to free His chosen people. Inspired by hearing the voice of God, Moses is as much made welcome in Egypt as the plagues that would follow him but as soon as he tells Pharaoh, "Let my people go!", The Ten Commandments delivers time and time again. It never appears to be a particularly great film but it is a quite wonderful spectacle and although Cecil B DeMille may occasionally confuse the two, it helps to remember that it's often much too vulgar a film to be entirely sympathetic to the Bible. Then again, though, the early parts of the Bible are often spectacularly offensive with a God that's quick to anger often wiping out whole cities, peoples and, in the case of the great flood, almost the entire world bar Noah and his family, so it may be that DeMille pitched his epic just right.
It also certainly helps that The Ten Commandments comes with an Intermission as it give the film a definite structure, something that, being as long as it is, it desperately needs. The Ten Commandments could well have been a plotless epic with Moses wandering from one conversation with God to the next but DeMille keeps the narrative sparse and what one remembers is the sheer wonder of the piece. Everything that one might ever have heard about Moses is in The Ten Commandments, often gloriously and outrageously so and even some fifty years on, DeMilles paints a wonderful picture with the parting of the waters of the Red Sea and the writing of the commandments by the very hand of God. It is, though, at heart not much more than a tale of two half-brothers at the very top of Egyptian royalty who are so very different. It's easy to see how DeMille reworked the material in the 1923 version to fit into the 1956 version with Moses and Rameses replacing John and Dick. In the midst of all the miracles that Moses and DeMille could call on, this small story still makes it through. Of course, it may be more cinematic invention than anything that actually resembles the truth but such arguments continue to this day about the Bible and the truth, or lack of it, therein. Vulgar, cast to excess and consumed by its own seriousness but such a marvellous experience, the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments is the quintessential Old Testament picture and the perfect example of a master showman like DeMille at work.
The Ten Commandments didn't look at all bad on the existing R2 release but this sharpens the picture a little and gives it a touch more colour. There isn't, to be honest, a great deal of difference between the two but looking at screengrabs side-by-side, the R1 looks to have come out marginally the best of the two. Otherwise, the print this has been sourced from is in good condition but there remain a small number of scratches and other marks but nothing that's ever distracting.
This 50th Anniversay R1 Edition
Existing R2 Version
This 50th Anniversay R1 Edition
Existing R2 Version
This 50th Anniversay R1 Edition
Existing R2 Version
This 50th Anniversay R1 Edition
Existing R2 Version
The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround soundtracks that have been included with this release don't sound at all bad but are only barely remixed for DVD. The score is certainly carried through the rear channels - you great a great, booming hit of Elmer Bernstein as the menus come up - but the action only appears in the surrounds intermittently with any extra bass being due to the score. Everything sounds good, though with the disc showing a good range, from the silence that accompanies the Angel of Death to the roar of Pharaoh's chariots as he gives chase following the exodus.
Commentaries: Katherine Orrison, author of Written In Stone: Making Cecil B DeMille's Epic The Ten Commandments, has recorded two feature-length commentaries for this set, one each for the 1923 and the 1956 versions of the film. Given her knowledge of the films, it's not at all surprising that she's full of information on the production and success of both films but it's a joy to hear that this is matched by an infectious enthusiasm for the films and that's she's simply a pleasure to listen to. Her commentaries are much like the Rudy Behlmer ones on archive releases from Warner Brothers, as well as the Roger Ebert one on Casablanca, in that they don't assume that everyone wants a dry commentary stuffed full of facts but one where the host actually sounds excited about what they're watching and in his respect, Orrison just never disappoints. She obviously has a real connection with the films but she brings forward in an offhand, rather than a studied manner, and these are both superb commentaries.
Documentary (37m36s): Katherine Orrison is also thanked on the credits of this feature, which looks back at the production and reception of The Ten Commandments through the eyes of some of those involved in it, including Charlton Heston, Lisa Mitchell and Eugene Mazzola as well as composer Elmer Bernstein. In a comparatively short running time - when dealing with a film of this length, you expect more - the documentary covers a good deal of material but nowhere near as much as does Katherine Orrison on the commentary and this comes off as looking too brief. Heston isn't bad, though, particularly in his telling of the story of how he not only portrayed Moses but also bagged the voice of God.
Handtinted Footage (1923 Version, 14m58s): Available on the third disc, this features, as the title suggests, handtinted footage of the exodus and of the parting of the Red Sea. There isn't a great deal of added colour but it's clearly there although it comes with a cost of a scratchy print that's clearly had no remastering carried out on it.
Finally, there's a Newsreel (2m24s) showing various stars of the film and others (Mr and Mrs John Wayne) showing up for the New York premiere of The Ten Commandments as well as three trailers - a 1956 Making Of Trailer that stars Cecil B DeMille (9m59s) and two much shorter ones from the 1966 (1m00s) and the 1999 (1m41s) reissues of the film.
Clearly Paramount had a good look at Warner Brothers' packaging of the recent 4-disc Ben-Hur set when preparing this as it's one of their very best efforts and one befitting a film like The Ten Commandments. Odd though I think it's not an outright classic, I can't imagine not having a copy of it on DVD and although I was more than happy with my existing R2 release, this is better again, particularly for the two commentaries and for the slightly improved picture quality. And what with only four weeks to Easter Sunday, it's a perfectly-timed release, being the perfect accompaniment to three-and-a-half hours of chocolate-eating on a Sunday afternoon.