Review: The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)

When you talk about classic films that have served as the basis for modern movies being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, you’d have to include Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. With a budget of $13 million, it was the most expensive film of its day, and its success likely went on to lead studios to greenlight other epic films like Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Lawrence of Arabia, which certainly paved the way for bigger and bigger films down to our day. 

 

As I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, as much as I’m a film lover, I have some gaping holes in the list of classic films I’ve seen. After checking off Spartacus and My Fair Lady I was happy to add Commandments to my list, especially when the new 4K 

HDR version released for the film’s 65th anniversary arrived at Kaleidescape.

 

With a run time of 3 hours and 51 minutes, Commandments is a whopping 127.1 Gigabyte download, meaning there is a significant amount of information here that couldn’t fit onto a single 100 GB 4K Blu-ray disc. For those looking to see this movie in its finest quality, the Kaleidescape version is the way to go.

 

According to Paramount Home Entertainment’s press release:

 

As part of the restoration done in 2010, the film was scanned in 6K and those files were the basis for this brand-new Dolby Vision version, which shows off the full beauty of the original VistaVision negative. The VistaVision format used special cameras to feed 35mm film into the camera horizontally in order to capture a wider image spread over two 35mm film

COMMANDMENTS AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic gives a great sense of what it must have been like to see an “event” film in the age of the movie palaces.

 

PICTURE
Colors are rich and vibrant throughout, and there’s a surprising amount of detail in the images, although the seams sometimes show in the Academy Award-winning effects work.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix is mainly spread across the front three channels, resulting in clear presentation of the dialogue.

frames, giving VistaVision twice the resolution of regular 35mm film. In addition, Paramount spent well over 150 hours doing new color work and cleanup on the scan. The move to Dolby Vision created the opportunity to further improve the look of the film: blacks are enhanced and improvements were made to smooth out special effects mattes to create the most vibrant and pristine image possible. The 4K film presentation contains an introduction by DeMille, an intermission, an overture/exit music card, and an entr’acte card, along with a DTS-HD 5.1 lossless soundtrack.

 

Viewing these epics certainly gives you a glimpse into the spectacle that was not only filmmaking but film-going in that earlier era of cinema. At nearly four hours, this would have been an evening event that played at a classic movie palace like Radio City Music Hall, possibly with a live orchestra performing before the movie, and it’s easy to imagine crowds of well-dressed filmgoers out for a night on the town working their way down aisles and into the auditorium to find their seats while the overture that precedes the film plays. As the music stops, the screen fills with images of curtains opening to reveal director DeMille introducing the movie and explaining the lengths they went to to ensure its accuracy and how they relied on historians to fill in the missing 30 years of Moses’ life not chronicled in the Bible. In fact, it’s not until 8:30 into the run time that all of the credits and opening pomp have concluded and the film actually starts.

 

Of course, with a film of this length, audiences would get restless, so there is an intermission—more accurately an entr’acte—where they could file out to the lobby, use the restroom, grab some concessions, and discuss the film’s exciting first half. 

Following the conclusion, the house lights would raise and the audience would slowly shuffle out as the film’s score played and an “Exit Music” card filled the screen.

 

I’ve been to many opening nights of major films, but they no longer carry this kind of gravitas and event feel, a bit how I imagine air or train travel would have been like in the early days.

 

This first half of the film (up to the entr’acte at 2 hours 16 minutes) concerns itself with the biblical account of Moses found in Exodus Chapters 2-3, where Moses (Charlton 

Heston) is found as a baby floating in a basket on the Nile River and raised by Bithiah (Nina Foch), a daughter of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke). Sethi’s son, Rameses (Yul Brynner) is jealous of Moses’ success and attention and rivalry for the throne, and after Moses kills an Egyptian, master builder Baka (Vincent Price), Rameses banishes Moses from the land, where he is forced to wander in the wilderness. There he discovers Jethro (Eduard Franz) and marries his daughter Zipporah (changed to Sephora in the film, Yvonne De Carlo), and ultimately receives his assignment from God (in the form of a burning bush) to release his people from Egypt’s bondage. The second part of the film focuses on Exodus 5-14, with the ten plagues delivered against Egypt, and Pharaoh Rameses ultimately freeing the slaves from bondage and letting them leave Egypt, only to change his mind and then confront Moses at the Red Sea; and then accounts from Exodus 20 and 32 where God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses while the people craft a Golden Calf to worship after Moses has spent so long on top of Mount Sinai.

 

Despite DeMille’s opening comments, there is some liberal interpretation of the events actually recorded in the Bible, with characters added, storylines extrapolated, and timelines moved around. A more accurate telling of Moses’ story can actually be found in DreamWork’s excellent 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt. I was also surprised the film chose to gloss over and just mention seven of the ten plagues, arguably some of the most exciting parts of the Exodus account. We also get the classic “Old Hollywood” oddness of casting young people to play older characters, with the woman playing Moses’ adoptive Mother, Foch, actually being a year younger than Heston. 

 

Accuracy aside, this is a sweeping tale that is a visual spectacle, especially the grand outdoor scenes filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the Sinai Peninsula. Where Spartacus was known for hiring a cast of thousands to portray the Roman armies, I never really felt like I was seeing that immense scale of people up on screen. Here, however, in the scenes where the Israelites are working as slaves building monuments and then when leaving Egypt, the screen is literally filled with people and animals, giving it a massive scope and scale. The sheer enormity of the production and logistics of filming these scenes is incredibly impressive, especially when you understand that every person and animal on screen is real—something that would surely be created far less expensively in CGI today. The results of the restoration process are certainly impressive, with clean, sharp-edged images and tons of detail throughout. Excessive grain has certainly been cleaned away, but without giving the film an unnatural look. 

 

Closeups reveal the intricacy and ornate designs of Egyptian necklaces and jewelry and carvings, or the texture of fabric and cloth worn by Pharaoh, and the pebbling and wear in stone blocks or monuments. Even long-range shots—such as one of a mass group of slaves harvesting straw to make into bricks—have great depth and focus.

 

Colors are also rich and vibrant throughout, such as when Moses returns from Ethiopia with tribal people in bright-colored dress, or the many golden elements throughout Egypt, or the sparkles and shimmer found in drapes, Pharaoh’s headdress, and other costumes. Shadow detail is good throughout, including interior scenes lit by torches producing nice golden hues and rich shadows. 

 

Interestingly, there were two moments when the color “green” is specifically mentioned where the objects are not green. One is when an Ethiopian princess says she wants to give Moses “this green stone from our mountains” and the stone is blue 

looking, and another scene where they are told to raise a green pennant and the pennants are more a teal/light-blue color. Whether this was due to missing elements or just the difficulties of working with the Technicolor film negative I can’t say.

 

I also never noticed any of the excessive soft focus (Vaseline on the lens) that seemed to plague every scene showing Varinia (Jean Simmons) in Spartacus. Image quality throughout Ten Commandments was consistently terrific, less a couple of scenes (such as one of Moses wandering in the desert and another where he goes to the burning bush) that looked far more aged/less restored than others, perhaps due to damage to the original negative.

 

Of course, one can’t expect perfection from a 65-year-old film, and there are bits where Commandments shows its age. Process shots filmed using either matte paintings or rear projection are noticeably softer and grainier, making them stand out even more. There are significantly visible black edges around objects in the foreground of composite shots. Also, some of the scenes—for example the women bathing before Moses is discovered—look like they are shot on a set.

 

While certainly dated by today’s standards, the Academy Award-winning effects 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

in the film—Moses’ staff turning into a serpent, Death coming into the Egyptians’ homes, and especially the parting of the Red Sea—still hold up remarkably well, and I can only imagine how impressive they would have been for their time.

 

Sonically, even though the film has a new 5.1-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, it is mostly a three-channel affair across the front speakers. Dialogue remains clear and easy to understand, anchored in the center channel, with the orchestration given some room and width across the front left/right speakers, as well as some of the crowd and army noises. If anything was mixed into the surround speakers, it certainly didn’t overly call attention to itself.

 

With the advent of CGI, it’s likely we will never have a modern film of the scope and scale of The Ten Commandments. Ranked as one of the AFI’s Top 10 epic films of all time, and nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), The Ten Commandments is certainly a film worthy of your home theater. There’s also no doubt it has ever looked better than what we have here, and while its runtime is a bit daunting, the intermission provides a natural breaking point, making it easy to split over two evenings, giving you a wonderful trip back into classic Hollywood. 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

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