A sure sign that Easter is just around the corner is yet another home video release of perennial seasonal favorite The Ten Commandments. In years past, we got the multi-disc edition, complete with original silent version of the film. This particular version is rather more stripped down, as far as features go, but it does mark the film’s extremely welcome arrival on Blu-ray.
The first act of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic is as much a tale of Egyptian power politics as it is the story of a man coming to terms with his identity and destiny. We follow Moses (Charlton Heston) as, rising from triumph to triumph, he has the throne of Egypt within his grasp (much to the displeasure of Yul Brynner, the Pharaoh’s actual son and rival for the affections of the sinuous Anne Baxter), only to lose all worldly power when he realizes he is actually the son of Hebrew slaves. Cast out of Egypt, he returns to demand the liberty of his people, and comes clutching a fistful of plagues to make sure his former brother pays heed.
The Ten Commandments is a blockbuster whose scale still dwarfs just about every other epic that followed in its wake. (And, adjusting for inflation, it is still the 5th most successful film of all time, its take considerably more than that of Titanic or Avatar.) As a filmmaker, DeMille wasn’t so much an artist as he was a showman, with all of the delightful vulgarity (I mean that as a compliment) that the word entails. Whatever the moral lesson of his films, it was very often there as a means of getting to the good stuff: all the orgies and whatnot that would duly be punished when the time came, but that director and audience could revel in with impunity for that very reason. When he put on a show, it was a spectacle of the first order, and over half a century after its release, the images in The Ten Commandments still astound and awe. The gargantuan sets and thousands of extras anchor the special effects, which are still impressive, by dint of the grandeur of their conception, even if, from a purely technical point of view, they have since been surpassed.
One of the joys of this film, speaking for myself, is that DeMille demonstrates that if cheese is sufficiently monumental, it turns back into a fine art. And make no mistake: there is a great deal of extremely rich dairy product here. DeMille doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body, and the hammer-to-the-head approach of the film and its attendant camp qualities are announced by the portentous prologue, where DeMille himself addresses the audience and spells out the subtext of the epic. Turns out that this is something of a Red Scare vehicle, with the Egyptians subbing for communists. (Who the Herbrews are in this schema is never explained.) Then, still before the first frame of the narrative has arrived, we get another joy with DeMille’s screen credit: “Those Who See This Motion Picture – Produced and Directed by CECIL B. DEMILLE – Will Make a Pilgrimage Over the Very Ground that Moses Trod More Than 3,000 Years Ago.” Like I said, subtle the man was not.
The script and the cast offer many more pleasures. Heston, of course, comes across like he was born to play the role, but John (later Mr. Ursula Andress, later still Mr. Bo) Derek as Joshua? And what on earth is Edward G. Robinson doing here? Having a fine old time, that’s what. He and Vincent Price know a fine platter of ham when it’s presented to them, and these two dig in with gusto. Good thing, too, when dialogue like “Too many ears tie a rat’s tongue” (??!) lies in wait.
All told, The Ten Commandments, coming as it does in the wake of the end of the Studio System, is a twilight example of the Old Hollywood pulling out all the stops and producing exactly the kind of entertainment it could do so well: loud, colourful, exciting, HUGE, crass, messy, sprawling, spectacular and endlessly rewarding to watch again, and again, and again.
I’m not sure that the boasted “meticulously restored” print is any different from the last DVD release. But no matter: the print is in absolutely pristine condition, and the transfer is gorgeous. The AVC codec bops around a bit, but the lowest rate I saw was over 18 Mbps, while, more often than not, things held around 35 Mbps or higher. The grain is essentially nonexistent, and the colours are as sumptuous and, dare I say it, orgiastic as DeMille himself would have wished. Flesh tones are superb, blacks are deep (and so are the reds, which help created some spectacular and atmospheric backdrops, believe me). The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The 5.1 DTS track is excellent, especially considering the age of the film. The music has a rich tone, and the dialogue is clear (though the sound reproduction is faithful to the point of catching every slight bit of sibilance that the microphone captured of DeMille’s narration). At the same time, there are no surround elements to speak of, barring the score itself, which does represent a bit of a missed opportunity, if one is going to go ahead with a remix in the first place.
Commentary Track: The track is by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments. It’s the same track as on the previous release, but is worth presenting here again, as the history and detail she brings to her discussion is superb. My only (tiny) reservation is that her talk doesn’t begin until the opening credits proper, and a few remarks during DeMille’s remarks would have been welcome. But never mind. This is a terrific commentary.
Newsreel: The Ten Commandments Premiere in New York: (2:24) A nice little window onto the past this, as not only the cast but other members of classic Hollywood royalty (John Wayne, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, William Holden) arrive for the premiere.
Theatrical Trailers: The 1956 making-of trailer, and the 1966 and 1989 re-release trailers.
The minimal extras make me wonder if the film really needed to be split over two Blu-ray discs, but that’s a quibble. The picture is excellent, but if you already own the 3-disc DVD release, there isn’t much reason to get this one, as the extras on the former are far more substantial.