The Ten Commandments Review
They don't make films like The Ten Commandments anymore. In some respects that's probably a good thing but there's no denying that the sheer breathtaking scale of the movie is testament to an art that got lost somewhere along the way. There will probably never be another filmmaker like Cecil B.De Mille - but there wasn't another one back then either. His films are far from art but they are fantastic showmanship and what he lacks in subtlety and taste, he makes up for in guts and verve. It would be easy to mistake The Ten Commandments for a great movie rather than what it is, namely a great spectacle and a fascinating movie experience.
Beginning with the escape of baby Moses from death via a basket floated along the nile, through his adoption by the Pharaoh (Hardwicke), his exiling into the wilderness and his return as the instrument of God's vengeance demanding the release of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt, the film tells a well known story somewhat, er, slowly. It's rarely less than amusing, partly thanks to some appalling dialogue, and sometimes quite exciting but the pacing is liable to make most viewers feel a little restless. Luckily, the first half of the film - up to Moses's encounter with the flaming foliage - is saved by some sly performances. Cedric Hardwicke is a hoot as the wicked old Pharaoh and Edward G.Robinson and Vincent Price camp it up as sniggering bad guys. Best of all is Anne Baxter's gorgeous and very wicked Nefretiri who plays both ends against the middle, prepared to sacrifice everything for revenge when spurned by the man she loves. The scale of the production is often hugely impressive - De Mille is very good at handling large numbers of extras - but the unimaginative staging gets a bit tedious at times. De Mille frequently seems to place the camera and then only move it when it's absolutely necessary.
The second half is more eventful as we follow Moses from his demand to Pharaoh to "Let My People Go" to the ascent of Sinai to get the Commandments and get rid of the orgiastic idolators. This half contains all the famous scenes - SPOILERS AHEAD (although if you don't know this you really should be ashamed of your general knowledge); the turning of the water into blood, the night of the Angel of Death, the parting of the Red Sea, the tablets of stone, the Golden Calf... it's like seeing tales from a picture book that you read when you were young being brought to life in gloriously literal detail. De Mille has no truck with good taste; if the bible says a golden calf then that's exactly what we get. He's not interested in subtle narrative, he likes spectacle and lots of it. This results in scenes which are the very essence of kitsch, not that I'm complaining. The parting of the Red Sea is simply gob-smacking, even 45 years on. It's not a particularly great effect by modern standards, but the concept and execution of the scene are Hollywood magic at its most enjoyably vulgar and it has something about it that is just unforgettably big. The pictures are painted with beautiful technicolor effects, notably the green talons of the Angel of Death creeping across the night sky. It's often very silly as well but in a rather wonderful way - I cherish the cartoon representation of the Word of God being burned into the stone as Charlton Heston speaks to himself in a particularly pompous manner (he plays the voice of God as well as Moses).
Actually, joking aside, Heston is the reason the film works as well as it does. He holds it together and his slight woodenness adds a vital credibility - much as Gregory Peck did in The Omen, a film De Mille would doubtless have adored and which this one has far more in common with than most other religous epics. Charlton Heston has probably made more bad films worth watching than any other actor, most of them overrated films like Ben Hur which are so self-important that people mistake size for greatness. The Ten Commandments is a pretty bad film too, but that's not really the point. You couldn't afford to make this nowadays, at least not without resorting to extensive CGI - and computer graphics are no substitute for thousands of extras and huge sets. De Mille's bad taste is vibrant and entertaining - this is surely the only U certificate film to feature an orgy sequence followed by a mini-apocalypse. His images often have a primal power - they got into my head when I first saw this film as a young child and have never really left. Little touches like the cries of despair from the mothers whose children have been slain are what make this emotionally powerful as well as impressive on a purely technical level.
Of course, on any rational level it's a load of old tosh. The beautifully sinister images of the Angel of Death descending on the Egyptians can't quite atone for the abysmal dialogue - "Is life in bondage better than death ?" muses hunky slave Joshua before being assaulted by bit part actors who are either playing very bad Egyptians or playing Egyptians very badly. Virtually everything Anne Baxter says is likely to reduce the most po-faced viewer to a fit of giggles, while Yul Brynner adopts the wise approach of donning a fixed grimace and wearing a succession of interesting headgear. And yet... it really doesn't matter. You either watch ten minutes of this and give up or give in to the sheer crazy scale of the thing and have a good time. It's easy to see why this movie dragged so many people away from their television sets in the late fifties; there really was nothing like this to be seen on the box and at times, De Mille achieves things which will never be surpassed; the vision of the Israelites toiling across the desert to the Promised Land is a potent reminder of the injustice which the book of Exodus enshrines and which are still all too familiar. His heart is in the right place even though his commonsense frequently seems to have taken a trip to la-la land.
So how important is this film ? It's referred to in the trailer as "the greatest motion picture ever made", which it clearly isn't. But it's certainly one of the most popular films ever released and it's a key stage in the Hollywood fight back against the menace of television. As an epic it's nowhere near as good as El Cid or The Fall Of The Roman Empire, but it's considerably less po-faced than Ben Hur. In De Mille's hands, reverence turns to camp and complex religious metaphors become clunkingly literal but that's part of a long, if not so honourable, showbusiness tradition - and make no mistake, this is showbiz not art. On that level, it's something of a classic.
Given the notoriety of Cecil B.De Mille - few other directors have so many anecdotes attached to them - you would have thought this could have been a stunning special edition. However, Paramount didn't seem to be aware of this.
Luckily, we do get the second best thing, which is a truly staggering picture. Along with North By Northwest this is the best remastering for DVD of a film from the fifties that I can recall seeing. The detail is beautifully sharp, there is little grain and only some very minor artifacting in some of the night scenes. Best of all, the colours are simply astounding, something which is particularly important with this film where the colours are so important to the visual scheme. It's hard to believe, looking at this transfer, that this film is 45 years old. The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer which is correct for the Vistavision process which was used. The video quality is presumably enhanced by the decision to spread the film (all 222 minutes of it) over two discs. Since it was designed to be shown with an intermission, I don't find this a problem.
The soundtrack is not so outstanding, although perfectly acceptable. According to Widescreen Review, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was created by combining the original stereo music tracks with the original sound elements, which does not replicate the stereophonic soundtrack which was used for the theatrical roadshow release. As a consequence, the music dominates what surround field there is and dialogue remains stubbornly monophonic. Turn your volume up though and it sounds quite impressive, especially during the big set-pieces.
The only extras on the release, found on disc 2, are three trailers for the film, from 1956, 1966 and 1989. These are amusing and reflect the changing methods of selling a film to the public. The first is the longest, about 9 minutes, and consists largely of an illustrated lecture from De Mille about Moses which encompasses Michaeangelo, the Torah and the painting of Van Dyck. It's deliciously self-important stuff and well worth seeing for fans of daft publicity material. The other two trailers are shorter, both under a minute, the second emphasising the reputation of the film and the third indulging in a nostalgic reflection on how films used to be 'bigger' than they are now.
However, you also get the original Overture to the film, an impressive work by Elmer Bernstein, an introduction from Uncle Cecil that establishes his apparent belief that he is the messenger of the Lord, the Entr'Acte after the intermission and the exit music. So it is a more impressive disc than it initially appears.
There are 48 chapter stops, 29 on disc one and 19 on disc two.
This is a film that should be seen by anyone interested in the history of popular filmmaking and which is genuinely one of a kind. That may not be a bad thing actually, but De Mille was a great showman and knew how to put on a good spectacle even if he had distinct limitations as an artist. The disc is technically very impressive, with a stunning picture, but only average in terms of special features.