[28 March 2011]
By now it’s cliché to say “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but no other phrase appropriately describes the epic proportions of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Running a gargantuan 231-minutes (including the intermissions and such), DeMille’s powerful motion picture aptly fulfills its duty in delivering a larger than life biblical episode, complete with terrific special effects, massive sets and grade-A movie stars. The Ten Commandments is big, bold, even daring entertainment. I think God would be proud.
Like William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959), The Ten Commandments wraps a massive biblical narrative around a personable human story, in this case the tale of Moses (Charlton Heston). As found in the early works of the Bible, Moses is born a Hebrew slave, but sent away by his mother in order to avoid the Pharaoh’s wrath. Ironically, Moses is rescued by the Pharaoh’s sister who then raises the infant as her own.
Flash forward some years later and Moses, now the Prince of Egypt, has gained favor in Pharaoh’s eyes, not to mention those of Nefretiri (a deliciously campy Anne Baxter). Meanwhile, Moses’ brother, Rameses (Yul Brynner) jealously plots to put an end to Moses’ reputation, fearing him to be the prophesized “deliverer”, or the one who would free the Hebrew slaves.
As the Bible story goes, Moses’ true identity leads to his expulsion from Egypt and subsequent spiritual awakening. Moses becomes a servant of God, and sets out to do His will – striking vengeance against those formerly close to him – following a road that eventually culminates with the Ten Commandments, or the revelation of God’s sacred laws.
Cecil B. DeMille was like a Golden Aged James Cameron. A perfectionist, sometimes to a fault, DeMille always thought in terms of BIG, BIGGER and BIGGEST. With The Ten Commandments (a remake of his own 1923 silent film of the same name), DeMille goes for broke, delivering an epic along the same lines as Cameron’s contemporary blockbusters, more specifically Titanic. DeMille’s films, which also include The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Samson and Delilah (1949) and Cleopatra (1939) amongst others, strived for more than just artistic entertainment. It was not enough to merely enjoy his extravaganzas, DeMille wanted to blow audiences away.
With The Ten Commandments, DeMille scrapes and claws his way to reach such ends. You can practically hear the man sweating as he tersely lends his voice to the proceedings, acting as narrator and, oddly enough, as the show’s presenter (he actually walks out from behind a curtain to introduce his spectacle), as though worried the parting of the Red Sea weren’t enough to convince audiences of his film’s epic scope. That opening monologue serves as a means to remind audiences that, despite the occasional camp-factor, this is a BIBLICAL tale and must be taken seriously – the Lord – er – DeMille will not be mocked.
Yet, despite his incessant pleas for audience respect, DeMille’s film contains a surprisingly high degree of, shall we say, goofiness. Heston, ever the dramatic thespian, plays Moses so intensely the performance at times feels mawkish. The third act in particular graduates the character from relatable personality to angry, vengeful prophet. As a consequence, Moses no longer carries any weight; he’s not real enough to arouse our sympathy. It doesn’t help that Heston wanders from scene to scene boldly declaring bold proclamations boldly, whilst boldly chewing up scenerey (“The Lord of hosts will do battle for us. Behold His mighty hand!”), I wondered how this man could ever be a father, or a lover (possible exchange at breakfast: “Woman, bring me my toast, or fill the Lord’s vengeance! Son, do get thee hence to school, or feel your father’s great and jealous wrath! And bring me some butter!”) Tellingly, I was reminded of the great Terrence Stamp’s performance in Superman II where he played the character of General Zod in similar overstated fashion. I half expected Moses to blurt out: “Rameses, kneel before God!”
Of the remaining performers, it is Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter who steal the show. Brynner, as he so often did, carries more weight than was probably necessary in what is essentially a supporting role. Trudging about with that sly grin forever splashed upon his face, the actor portrays Rameses as a cocksure snake, one who effortlessly destroys people’s lives and never regrets (and maybe enjoys) doing so.
Baxter proves even better. As Moses’ (former) lover, Nefretiri, the actress must exude love, hate, sadness, hope, heartache, and wrath all in one beat. Audiences must care for the Egyptian princess, but then hate her all the same. Baxter pulls of the role with aplomb; we believe in her slightly exaggerated personality (“Moses! Moses! Moses!”) because we get where it stems from – a love, or addiction, for a man who cares nothing for her. As such, while she may cause a good deal of destruction, we never fault her for the crimes she commits. Talk about a difficult role.
The remaining cast, including John Derek’s peculiarly tanned Joshua, Edward G. Robinson’s appropriately annoying Dathan and Yvonne De Carlo’s Sephora (and look Vincent Price!) chip in some fine supporting bits, even if they are constantly overshadowed by the “A-listers”, and the costly effects.
Which, I suppose, is the reasoning behind The Ten Commandments’ existence: to show off God’s miracles via slick visuals, and Hollywood trickery. Several set pieces come to mind – the burning bush, the raising of the Pharaoh’s city – but it is the parting of the Red Sea that proves most memorable. Incredibly, the sequence continues to enthrall even by today’s standards, mainly due to DeMille’s immense, operatic directing, and finely tuned atmosphere. Like a true magician, DeMille understood the importance of the set-up. He teases us with patches of dark clouds formulating in the distance, the occasional flash of lightening; increasingly choppy waters. And so, by the time Moses raises his hands to carry out the deed, the audience is ready to accept the magic. That’s true filmmaking right there.
And yet, once the big moment happens, the remaining 45-minutes or so feel arbitrary, despite their alleged importance. The Ten Commandments doesn’t build towards its titular objective, but instead powers towards the big Red Sea miracle. At that point, most, if not all, plot threads resolve themselves—the people believe; Moses believes; Rameses and Nefretiri sit alone, vanquished on their thrones. God’s wrath is complete. Yet, DeMille surges along, providing us with an “orgy” sequence, and that painfully long Ten Commandments episode (during which Heston dramatically casts about to and fro) – one that feels more gimmicky than necessary.
From there, the film jumps from moment to moment – Moses comes down from the mountain, sees the golden calf, and destroys it; a brief earthquake ensues. A drastic cut takes us some 40 years into the future. Moses, now old, speaks of feeling God’s wrath (huh?) and then walks away, waving goodbye to his people. This sendoff fails because at this point, we don’t know these people anymore, or what happened to them since the whole golden calf bit. The film offers a few brief lines to sum up the narrative and we arrive at our conclusion. Why not have Moses stand atop Mount Sinai, on his way to collect the commandments, and overlook his people? Because that would’ve shortened the film by roughly 30-minutes; and apparently that’s not EPIC enough! (In point of fact, the 1998 DreamWorks animated film The Prince of Egypt finished with Moses coming down from the mountain carrying the Ten Commandments – which, I think, would have served as a better ending for DeMille’s picture. I’m just saying.)
As it stands, The Ten Commandments offers a fully rewarding experience. The first few hours or so fly by; the FX are extraordinary; the characters compelling. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with enormous gusto. This is a film that dreams big, and dares to achieve the impossible: it brings God to Hollywood. They certainly don’t make them like this anymore.
For this review I checked out The Ten Commandments: Blu-ray/DVD Limited Edition Combo Set (DVD/Blu-ray Combo). At first I was overwhelmed by the enormous package, but then slightly disappointed once I had combed through the various extras attached.
Arriving in a specially crafted, beautifully realized package that parts to unveil two plastic DVD cases (designed to look like the Ten Commandments) along with a plethora of additional (if not extraneous) goodies. If items such as “Charlton Heston’s Egypt Schedule,” or “Costume Sketches,” or a replica of a menu containing DeMille’s sketches on the back get you off, then this is the set for you. There’s a handsome 24-page hardcover book entitled “Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments: An Epic Journey” that covers the making-of process of the film, and another simply titled “The Ten Commandments” that tells the biblical story using Bible verses and pre-production paintings. Other items include the replica of a “Reaction Note” written by a fan who attended a pre-screening; a Western Union telegram from Adolph Zukor to DeMille expressing his love of the film; a brief note from Paramount; and a replica of a Charlton “Chuck” Heston letter to DeMille.
Okay, these were nice, if not superficial. The books were cool, but I wanted more in-depth “making-of” coverage, so I dove into the disc-set. Sadly, I was disappointed. This is essentially a DVD set that also happens to feature a Blu-ray version of The Ten Commandments. Four of the discs offer the exact same content (the 1956 film, footage of the World Premier – featuring John Wayne, no less – a few trailers, and a single commentary), except on separate Blu-ray/DVD formats. A fifth disc contains the 1923 film on Blu-ray; while a sixth features a 75-minute “making-of” documentary, along with an extensive photo gallery.
That’s about it. Maybe I’m just being picky, but when a Limited Edition set costing roughly $59.99 offers six discs, I want more than just the film. Sure it’s nice to have on both formats, but how about a 4-disc set that places the film on one disc (on both Blu-ray and DVD)? Also, what’s the point in placing the same special features on both formats? Give me one disc filled with special features and I’m good. I really don’t care if they’re in HD, just keep it simple. The entirety of this set stank of counterfeit – as though the studio just padded multiple discs with the same stuff as a means of selling more copies. After all, who wants a two-disc set when you can have an even bigger six-disc combo package, even if it offers nothing more?
Even so, the film looks extraordinary on Blu-ray. Sure the blue screen shots look a little shaky (with the black line surrounding the actors clearly defined in the format), but otherwise the image looks solid. Colors are lush and bright; wide shots, particularly those set in Egypt, look terrific. The Exodus sequence in particular, comprising of hundreds of extras, is absolutely spellbinding. I liked the parting of the Red Sea sequence, as the water contrasted nicely with the dark clouds; the image presented offered crisp, near-exceptional detail.
Elmer Bernsteins’ tremendous score thundered through my sound system, practically shaking the house down when turned to half volume. In short, it’s never sounded better. At one point I unplugged the surround audio and listened to the movie from my TV speakers and was surprised to hear a nice audio separation. At times the dialogue audio sounds slightly muddled, but not enough to warrant any complaints. Rear channels picked up some nice elements, but most of the force came from my front two speakers, which is just as well for a film shot in 1956.
Overall, The Ten Commandments: Limited Edition Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Set presents the film in an extraordinary light. It looks and sounds great, too bad the extras don’t follow suit. In actuality, if there’s a standard 2-disc Blu-ray (or DVD) package out there, you’d save a ton of money and get everything you would get with the 6-disc set (save for the slightly creepy, silent 1923 film, and all of those goofy package fillers).