Review - The Ten Commandments 50th Anniv. Coll. Ed. (DVD-2006)
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The Ten Commandments 50th Anniversary Collection (DVD-2006)

Paramount Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski


Paramount Home Entertainment celebrates Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments with a new 50th Anniversary Collection 2-disc DVD set. 


Cecil B. DeMille, one of the controversial and important figures in early cinema, was praised as an innovator and helped establish Hollywood as a center of world cinema.  He was a showman and a master of spectacle.  But his films were also criticized as excessive, vulgar and schlocky.  Still, he enjoyed both career longevity and wide audience popularity. 


His notable films include the silent 1927 The King of Kings and the 1934 Cleopatra with Claudette Colbert, as well as the 1952 Best Picture Oscar winner The Greatest Show on Earth.  Film historian David Thomson also asserts that his 1930’s westerns hold up amazingly well. But his most famous and gargantuan project is undoubtedly The Ten Commandments.


The nearly four-hour biblical epic detailed the life of Moses and the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.  Starring Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Pharoah Rameses, Anne Baxter as Nefertiri and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi, and featuring a symphonic score by Elmer Bernstein, mammoth sets, special effects and, literally, a cast of thousands, The Ten Commandments clearly set out to awe its audience.


It continues to draw huge annual television audiences to this day.  With pictorial tableaux and a stiff, stilted silent-cinema style of acting, it remains vivid storytelling.  So much happens plot-wise in just the first twenty minutes or so.  And despite the amount of camp, literalized religious fervor and hokiness, it somehow manages to work in that way that only DeMille could achieve.


Try to remain unaffected by the massive exodus scene with the majesty of Bernstein’s score heightening the effect.  Or try to resist the parting of the Red Sea which DeMille saves to near the end of the film, or the seriousness in Heston’s famous voice some three-years before his role as Ben-Hur.  This may be meretricious filmmaking, but it is grand storytelling by a skilled cinema craftsman.  And all the spectacle was achieved with neither Cinemascope, Cinerama nor 70mm, but rather with the clarity and simpler effectiveness of the VistaVision process. 


As a boy, DeMille had been exposed to, and influenced by, Wagner’s operas, and agreed with the composer’s contention that action, setting, language and music should blend together into a perfect pattern. He felt he achieved that end with The Ten Commandments.


DeMille had actually made The Ten Commandments once before in 1923 as a silent film.  That version cut back and forth through time to tell two separate stories—the biblical story of Moses and also a modern day morality tale involving two brothers—one a saint, the other a sinner.  The 1923 version had pretty spectacular special effects all its own—especially for the time period--and it contained two-strip Technicolor sequences and striking cinematography.  It remains an unusual film. 


For this 50th anniversary set, Paramount has included both versions of DeMille’s epic.  The silent version has been restored and features an outstanding organ musical score by Gaylord Carter.  Oddly enough, the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea appear in the film in black and white and only in their original two-strip Technicolor form as extras on the disc (without having been restored).  An interesting audio commentary by author Katherine Orrison can also be selected for the silent film.


The other disc in the set, the 1956 The Ten Commandments is the same disc issued on DVD previously within the past couple of years.  It contains a fine film transfer, a six part documentary on the film, an audio commentary by, again, Katherine Orrison (who, incidentally, wrote a book on the making of the film).  Newsreel footage and trailers round out the extras.  The set is also attractively packaged.  While this set falls somewhat short of the standard of the towering 4-disc special edition of Ben-Hur, with which it is meant to compete, it is undoubtedly an important release and worth acquiring for the inclusion of the silent version of the film alone.


As for the 1956 version, say what you will about DeMille. But the fact that a seventy-five-year-old man could direct and pull-off a gigantic project like this that would exhaust a thirty-year-old, and go out in a blaze of glory with his final film is reason enough to obtain this lavish example of Hollywood filmmaking.


Paramount Home Entertainment’s 50th Anniversary edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is another one of those must-own DVDs.



2006 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams



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