“Let my people go”. Charlton Heston’s casting is perhaps one of the greatest examples of finding the perfect person for the seemingly insurmountable task of bringing the larger-than-life biblical character of Moses to life. Heston’s chisel jaw, booming bass-rich voice, and stoic and grandly statuesque posturing comprised all the requisite theatrics and drama required to stand out-and not become swallowed by-the resplendent spectacle of a Cecile B. DeMille production.
The Ten Commandments was a monstrous success at the box office, grossing an enormous $65MM from a not small $15MM budget (that’s over $977MM adjusted for inflation). It would garner seven academy award nominations, winning for Visual Effects, and become a mainstay of Passover family entertainment on television after a long theatrical run and theatrical re-runs. It was considered good old-fashioned traditional filmmaking even in 1956 and was the antithesis of noir filmmaking (as Katherine Orrison so succinctly states in her commentary). It remains today a mesmerizing accomplishment of vision and Cecile B. DeMille’s most remarkable accomplishment.
The Production: 4.5/5
“And God said Let there be light, and there was light. And from this light, God created life upon earth. And man was given dominion over all things upon this earth and the power to choose between good and evil. But each sought to do his own will because he knew not the light of God’s law. Man took dominion over man, the conquered were made to serve the conqueror, the weak were made to serve the strong, and freedom was gone from this world. So did the Egyptians cause the children of Israel to serve with rigor, and their lives were made bitter with hard bondage. And their cry came up unto God. And God heard them and cast into Egypt, into the lowly hut of Amram and Yochabel, the seed of a man upon whose mind and heart would be written God’s law and God’s commandments, one man alone against an empire.”
The Ten Commandments is the story of Moses. The great biblical figure was saved from the cruel edict of Rameses, Egypt’s Pharaoh, which commanded all first-born Hebrew males to be killed. Rameses feared the prophecy that a Hebrew child would be born and grow to free the enslaved Hebrews and lead them to salvation. So, Moses was placed in a reed basket and set afloat upon the Nile. Through the reeds he traveled in the basket until discovered by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and though she knows the child was son to a Hebrew slave, she embraces him as the son she had prayed for since her husband had passed. She names him Moses and raises him as half-brother to Rameses II. Years later, Moses serves the Pharaoh Sethi along with his jealous brother who vies for his father’s affection being ‘born of his body’ and competes with Moses for the love of the beautiful Nefretiri while he maneuvers to become the future ruler.
Soon, Moses discovers his origins, and rejects the comfort and privilege of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s home to be amongst his enslaved people. The Pharaoh discovers this and banishes Moses, proclaiming that his name never be spoken again (a great dishonor in these times). Moses sets out across the desert where he begins a family, but one day, God appears to Moses as a burning bush and commands him to journey back to Egypt and free the enslaved Hebrews. His journey is fraught with peril, turmoil, and miraculous deeds, but Moses never tires. God visits upon the Egyptians the great plagues and Moses leads his people in a great exodus – the journey through the wilderness to Mount Sinai and the revelation of the commandments from God himself.
We discuss epics today as films with scale and scope that defy the common movie-going experience, and that is no different than how audiences have considered epics in decades past. However, before the advent of more accomplished visual and special effects, the scale and splendor of movie epics were achieved through the very real physical presence of mind-bogglingly expansive (and expensive) sets, the deployment of vast swaths of extras, and the very real sense of scale born from the creative eyes and spirits of cinema’s most masterful filmmakers. David Lean, Richard Attenborough, and others of this class of filmmakers relished in the splendor of what was capture by the canvass of film; films like Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Ben Hur each achieved such scale, but epics are meaningless without a compelling and intimate tale at their core. The Ten Commandments may favor scale and boldness over the intimacy, but at the center of this story is Moses and his very personal journey of discovery and destiny for something greater than all humankind.
The Ten Commandments is a sweeping epic of, well, epic proportions. The scale of production was grand and the achievements in visual effects illuminated these accomplishments. DeMille was a master of overt dramatic gesture, techniques he crafted and honed from his pre-cinema acting days and his directorial efforts in the silent era of film. The Ten Commandments unabashedly harkens back to the grandeur and theater of melodrama, but DeMille does succeed many times in producing a modern (for the time) sensibility for drama over melodrama.
This incredible 4K release opens with the wonderful overture written by the late, great Elmer Bernstein, followed by the rare introduction by director Cecil B. DeMille himself, in which he acknowledges the unusual nature of his presence before the picture begins. He explains that many years of Moses’ history are missing from the primary source text but were ‘filled in’ by historians (in accordance with the ancient texts of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, The Midrash, and of course the Holy Bible).
“Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created 3000 years ago; the 5 books of Moses.
This 1956 film, lauded as the 10th Greatest Epic of all time as ranked by 1,500 members of the ‘creative community’ in AFI’s 2008 rankings of the ten best films in ten distinct genres, is a partial remake of DeMille’s own 1923 silent film. Many cast and crew from that first piece joined DeMille again on this much grander – and successful – retelling. The screenplay is the work of a committee, Joseph Holt Ingraham, Arthur Eustace Southon, who adapted their own books (Pillars of Fire, On Eagle’s Wings and Prince of Egypt) and Dorothy Clarke Wilson, and is awash in historical detail, glorious pageantry, and the structure of tried-and-true narrative flow.
“Oh, Moses! Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”
Charlton Heston achieves the perfect tone, stature, and pitch as Moses. Moses is a fascinating figure and Heston’s magnitude upon the screen – handsome, heroic, and humble – fill the myth and man of Moses most suitably. Moses’ great doubts of the Almighty God persist in the tale of The Ten Commandment, but his compassion for the enslaved give rise to his arrival into the role he was born to and that his journey down the Nile ignited – all of which Heston delivers exceedingly well.
The cast assembled for The Ten Commandments is superb. Yul Brynner exudes the ‘villainy’ of Rameses II with aplomb; Edward G Robinson is solid as the devious and depraved Dathan (though critics at the time found his portrayal somewhat troublesome); Anne Baxter as lovely and deliberate as Nefretiri, and it is a great joy to watch Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Pharaoh Sethi I. Among the wash of other stars, standouts include Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, and Vincent Price as Baka. the Master Builder.
Released in 1956, many years before the passage of the American Civil Rights Act, it is difficult to imagine how the subject of Moses’ contemplative pursuit to find himself, questioning how any man could be a slave, could have been viewed by audiences with anything but compassion for those in American society still relegated and mistreated by those in power. That may seem a tangential thought from this grand telling of the biblical stories told in the great book, but at the core of The Ten Commandments is the question of ‘what makes man’ and why is man so cruel to man; as is stated early in the film “God made man, man-made slaves”. DeMille always considered the star of this film to be God and the extraordinary journey of one man to free the chosen people of God. Though slavery in America had ended a less than hundred years before this film premiered, the lingering effects were pronounced. DeMille’s film, then, is a remarkable feat of popularity, spectacle, and statement for the treatment of all men (and, as is inherent to this story, reverence for the word of God), delivered at a precarious time in American society.
DeMille would direct no more feature films following The Ten Commandments, though he had sought to remake his own The Buccaneer. He would die before getting the chance to sit in the director’s chair and set to film – and history – any more of his vision and passion. His final film would become his most successful and most seen of all his movies.
3D Rating: NA
Newly released in 4K (from the 6K scan of the original VistaVision negative back in 2010 by Motion Picture Imaging), The Ten Commandments is a visual feast. As with the previous Blu-ray edition, the gloriously rich red and gold dominated title cards are immediately stunning. Mere moments into the film, the care and attention poured into the restoration of the original print calls out its accomplishment, and throughout the entire experience of this epic film it never fails to delight and amaze with the extent of repair and faithfulness on display. The applied HDR brings out deeper contrast and a little more of the inky and rich colors used. The level of detail was strong on the Blu-ray edition and appears to have a little edge here in that area.
Photographed in VistaVision (Director of Photography Loyal Griggs, A.S.C), using Mitchell VistaVision cameras, the production is adorned with bright colors, from skies of warm blue, vistas of golden sands, outfits of deep gold, red, and pale blue, and flowers of many colors. They are reproduced here in High Definition with eye-popping precision. It is simply stunning.
The outlines created by rear-screen projection and blue screen effects are noticeable at times – but that is a product of this film’s time. I am still awed by how magnificent The Ten Commandment looks 60+ years since its original theatrical run. It is an outstanding accomplishment in preservation of the film grain and the clean-up of the print to look anew. The presentation with splendor of the richness of color, framing, light, dark, and tone of this film is cause for celebration.
I watched this on a 65” panel and found the results incredible. Our well-trusted archivist, Robert Harris (RAH), noted in his A few words about… thread that, “The single problem that I had with the Blu-ray was a lack of air in the blacks, and the 4k has precisely the same anomaly, with detail missing in virtually anything black. This does not come from HDR, which seems to have been used sparingly. The film plays nicely with projectors.”
I can see what RAH is talking about even on the panel so I do recommend checking out his full comments (including some of his legendary dry humor) as there is no other human alive that I trust more to know about these films should look.
Thank you, Paramount. More like this, please!
The uncompressed English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a carry-over from the previous Blu-ray. It is crisp throughout, with no issue from the dialogue concentrated in the center channel, the clarity of Elmer Bernstein’s orchestral achievement, rumble of the gallops of chariots, and the whispers and moans of Moses’ name spoken throughout are wonderfully presented. Surround sound – directional effects and envelopment – are often minimal, but you will barely notice as the film unfolds.
The power, swish, and tumult of the Red Sea as it parts, in addition to still being a spellbinding special effect, sounds terrific.
One more shout-out to Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant score. Every score buff should have a copy of this magnificent accomplishment in their collection.
French mono audio option is also available, with additional non-English mono options on the provided Blu-ray version of the film.
Special Features: 3/5
This release is light on extras (and is missing the original 1923 version made available as part of last year’s Blu-ray release). What is provided here is mainly the fascinating commentary, and of course the simply stunning masterpiece itself.
Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments: This is perhaps one of my favorite audio commentaries ever recorded. The exquisite details Ms. Orrison provides, both in the production of the film, contained within the frames, and the historical (and recent unearthing’s in Egypt) relevance and influence upon DeMille’s film is of constant fascination. This is an absolute must listen. Those
Commentary by Katherine Orrison: Continuation of Ms. Orrison’s commentary.
Newsreel: The Ten Commandments – Premier in New York (2:24): This may be short, but it is fascinating to see footage of the stars arriving for the premier (including Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and John Wayne), with crowds gathered to catch glimpses of the stars, with a backdrop of the glitz and bustle of New York City.
- 1956 “Making of: Trailer
- 1966 Trailer
- 1989 Trailer
The Ten Commandments has rightfully earned its place in the annals of great cinematic accomplishment. A revered American epic, beloved by millions and the staple of many households at Passover. Once it begins it is difficult not to see this long film through to conclusion. Plagues, slave revolts, the word of God, and the destiny of a single man and an entire people are all pieces of Cecile B. DeMille’s magnum opus and all enrapturing elements in the story of Moses’ life. The moment we see the true character of Moses, who this man really is, comes early in the film when the mercy he shows and compassion for the enslaved is strident. It is a moment of heroism and hope that is one of my favorites. Highly Recommended!
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