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Paramount Studios presents
The Ten Commandments (1956)

"Hear O Israel. Remember this day when the strong hand of the Lord leads you out of bondage."
- Moses (Charlton Heston)

Review By: Jesse Shanks   
Published: May 19, 2004

Stars: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson
Other Stars: Yvonne DeCarlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine
Director: Cecil B. DeMille

MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:51m:10s
Release Date: March 09, 2004
UPC: 097360502848
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- BB+C+ A-

DVD Review

Is there any movie that has been seen more times between theatrical releases, television broadcasts, and home video, except perhaps The Wizard of Oz? Even still, and despite its flaws, there is an attraction in seeing the film in its original widescreen with a juiced up soundtrack. The special effects are just as cheesy as they ever were—the lame "piller of fire" effects, the Nile turning to blood, and so on. In many ways, The Ten Commandments comes off as one of those amateurish bible story films, athough perhaps the greatest of the genre, and it is only the Hollywood melodrama that sets it off as something less than an authentic interpretation of the Bible in its faithfulness to the sacred writings.

Cecil B. DeMille appears in a rarely seen introduction to the film that sets a strange goal for The Ten Commandments. The director, a quintessential figure in the early decades of Hollywood, was reaching the end of his career, which had begun with DeMille a pioneer of filmmaking itself with The Squaw Man starring Dustin Farnum in 1914. This film was somewhat of a remake of an earlier version made in 1923, which featured the story of Moses in an extended prologue to a modern-day tale of two brothers in San Francisco à la D.W. Griffith's multi-layered tales in 1916's Intolerance. Creating one of the best-loved films of all time in The Ten Commandments served as the capstone to DeMille's legendary career.

By the time Charlton Heston made this film, he had been in Hollywood for less than a decade and had yet to make the films that would define his persona. His performance is as overwrought in this movie as any in his career, except perhaps Planet of the Apes, but it is also indelible and almost as much a part of the Hollywood of the 1950s as any committed to film. Heston was still on the way to a remarkable career that includes some of the most famous films ever made, but it is his role as Moses that marks him to the point where, even four decades later, he is referred to as "Moses" by friends and enemies alike.

Yul Brynner's performance as the pharoh Rameses is equally indelible. His elegant indifference is the perfect foil for Heston's earnest humility and provides a perfectly believable giant-sized figure, truly one of the great kings of Egyptian history. Especially believable is Rameses' inability to grasp the forces that are confronting him in his own realm as "God personified on earth in the two lands of Egypt." Brynner zoomed to fame with his stage and film performance in Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I and went on to create some of the most famous roles of all time in films including Anastasia, The Buccaneer, The Magnificent Seven, and Westworld, but his film credits are not as extensive as one might expect. Interestingly, Brynner won his Oscar for The King and I the same year that The Ten Commandments was nominated.

Legendary horror actor Vincent Price as the master builder Baka, and gangster legend Edward G. Robinson as the overseer, Dathan, are as out of place as they ever were—but who could imagine The Ten Commandments without them? "Nyah, whaddya gonna do now, Moses? Nyah." However, look for Robinson's dance in front of the Gold Calf to see an actor who was totally committed to a role. Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses' wife Sephora was a long way from her television role as mistress of The Munsters, then in the midst of a very distinguished career. John Derek, later to be known more for his wives than his acting, portrays the young hothead Joshua, who loves Lilia (Deborah Paget) and is Moses' right-hand man on the military side of things. Other notables in the cast include Nina Foch as Bithiah, Cedric Hardwicke as Seti, Judith Anderson as Memnet, and Martha Scott as Yochabel.

The story, for those who don't know it, begins with the birth of Moses (recently born son of the star, Fraser Heston) in the classic portrayal of the prediction told of a "slave deliverer" to be born among the Hebrew slaves. The pharaoh, Seti (Cedric Harwicke), orders death for all the slave newborns and this baby is only saved when his mother, Yochabel, sets him adrift in a basket on the Nile. The basket ends up in the hands of Bithiah, the sister of Pharaoh, to be raised as a prince of Egypt. Very quickly, we move to a young Moses in conflict with Rameses, the son of Pharaoh, for the favor of the Egyptian king and the potential to follow him as the ruler. Anne Baxter, famous for her Oscar-nominated role in 1950's All About Eve, portrays Nefertiri, the woman destined to marry the new Pharaoh. She loves Moses and is broken-hearted when he is revealed to be the son of Hebrew slaves and ultimately banished from Egypt.

Moses finds his true path in life when he is drawn onto the holy mountain and meets God face-to-face. He is told to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrews to their promised land. By now, Moses' enemy Rameses is the Pharoah and Nerfertiri is his queen. Rameses is not inclined to let the slaves depart and Moses must call upon the power of God to convince him. This is not a place to examine or debate the relative magical and mystical aspects of the tale in Exodus. Even as a child, something about the way God and Moses obtained the release of the slaves was disturbing, and DeMille reproduces the biblical story faithfully, even reverently.

Biblical stories offered a chance to do some epic bits of epic business, as well as present subject matter that skirted the standards and might be objectionable in a less-than-holy story. There are some great early scenes of Moses overseeing the building of the burial city of Seti and the exodus from Egypt is awesome—actually the best part of the movie, even though the special effects sequences get all the press. The orgy at the foot of Mount Sinai gets pretty raunchy by the standards of the era in some interesting vignettes within the overall party scene.

Oddly, the story kind of peters out at the end after the gigantic potency of the escape across the Red Sea and the reception of God's law, and I have always thought that the movie should have ended with the Exodus. Obviously, though, the receiving of the ten commandments is necessary, even if lengthy.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The video transfer is topnotch and, despite the way that the special effects are cheesier looking and many of the optical effects are poorly represented, this is as good as this film can look. The colors are very rich, even painfully so in some scenes. The details are crisp and many sequences look as fine as any color film of that era. Ironically, the only Oscar that The Ten Commandments won was for Best Special Effects, which perhaps says more about the level of achievement in that era than anything else.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: I have never liked the Elmer Bernstein score for this film and consider it one of the weakest aspects; the often annoying tinniness of the television version is the the worst of the film. Not much can be done about the score, but the reprocessed sound is a good as it can be and is reasonably listenable. The Ten Commandments received one of its Oscar nods for Best Sound Recording. The ambience of the back channels is limited but there is a home theater quality to the transfer that gives it something to recommend itself.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Katherine Orrison
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: The Making of C.B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments provides a wealth of detail about the film, its history, and the actors.

Various short documentaries examine aspects of the production and the people who created it and are a treasure to those who love this film.

Moses (7m:36s): Charlton Heston and others examine his selection for the role of Moses.
The Chosen People (7m:33s): Features the legendary actors who make up the supporting cast.
Land of the Pharoahs (6m:10s): Covers filming on location in Egypt.
The Paramount Lot (6m:51s): Covers filming back on the Paramount lot.
The Score (2m:50s): DeMille chooses Elmer Bernstein for the music.
Mr. DeMille (6m:43s): The legendary director is profiled.

Newsreel: The Ten Commandments Premiere in New York (2m:24s): It is always fascinating to view these old publicity newsreels, which is how people used to get their news about entertainment. Besides the actors in The Ten Commandments, other luminaries such as Tony Curtis and John Wayne are shown attending the premiere.

1956 Making of Trailer (9m:59s): DeMille hosts a promotional description of the film with some interesting information about his conception of Moses and some of the historical sources, locations, and artistic history of Moses' depiction.

1966 and 1989 Trailers: (:60s and 1m:41s): The first emphasizes the return of the original film, and the second covers the restoration of the 70mm Vistavision film with Dolby six-track sound.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

If you love The Ten Commandments, then you will love this DVD, which is chock full of information and features a very good transfer of the film. Now you can forgo the endless commercials when viewing this epic.


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