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The Ten Commandments:50th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2006

    The Ten Commandments:50th Anniversary Edition DVD Review
    SRP: £16.73

    Picture

    The picture appears to be in the ratio of 1.78:1, mimicking its original VistaVision, and has been anamorphically enhanced. Although not a patch on recent movie transfers, you have to remember the work that has gone into restoring such vintage fare as The Ten Commandments. As such, I have awarded DeMille's 1956 milestone a pretty high mark because I feel that the colour, clarity and detail of the print is quite staggering. It has its flaws, too, but these are primarily the fault of the original print and should not detract from the glorious spruce-up that the film has undergone. Although released earlier with a very decent transfer, there has been some degree of effort to clean up the movie still further. Colours are simply outstanding, extremely deep and rich, so bold, in fact, that they seem to leap from the screen. Not at all realistic, mind you, but still a wonderfully vibrant and hyper-real image. There's so much to make example of, but the costumes are especially resplendent - Pharaoh's bright blue war-helmet, Moses' red robes and almost anything that Nefretiri wears for instance - and the Nile being turned to blood is a vivid delight. Check out the sickly green cloud of the Angel Of Death, too. Skin tones appear a little dark, however, and blacks, although good for the most part, can occasionally stray into grey.

    Matte-lines, an unfortunate circumstance of the film's vintage, are starkly apparent throughout, seemingly enhanced by the extra clarity and sharpness. Edge enhancement, overall, is minimal, but there are several times when it does rear its ugly head - the immense buildings can suffer, as can individual figures set against vast backgrounds, or amidst crowds. But, as I say, this is minimal. FX shots sometimes seem a little shimmery - the staff turning into a snake for example - but this is probably down to the original film stock that was used.

    The image is remarkably clear, just look at the detail on those costumes, or on the hieroglyphics on the temple walls. Even guards, like the stalwart giant Clint Walker, standing in the background benefit from the sharpness and clarity of the transfer, as do a lot of the crowd scenes - like the Israelites preparing to leave during the Exodus sequence, which is smartly rendered with colour, depth and finite detail despite the huge numbers of cast involved. Some close-ups look absolutely beautiful. Anne Baxter often wears gorgeous silver or golden robes and the gleam and shimmer from these look wonderful, and yet still allow you to see all the intricate design that has gone into them.

    Print damage is still evident, make no mistake. But it is slight, with only wear and tear and the odd nick or scratch to mar the picture. Though I did notice a thin horizontal line in the upper half of the image during some scenes, that looked as though the negative had been scored with a scalpel. But, overall, this is a fine transfer, that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.

    The original 1923 silent version comes with a fullscreen 1.33:1 image that has been restored to very pleasing effect. Although there is some print damage and a fair bit of flickering, the picture is remarkably clear and stable. There are a couple of frame jumps and some fades, but this print is in surprisingly good condition, all things considered.
    The Ten Commandments:50th Anniversary Edition Picture

    Sound

    Well, considering the age of the film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 makeover (that also graced its prior incarnation) is fairly well thought-out. The film is certainly widened-up, with quite an extensive depth across the front soundstage, that steers some of the effects and the dialogue quite effectively around the speakers. There is some agreeable presence to the low end, and the full range, whilst hardly as scintillating or as detailed as a more latter-day release, is delivered with clarity and warmth.

    Elmer Bernstein's score sounds suitably rousing and imperious when called for, yet is also rendered with subtlety and softness at other times. Dialogue is only ever swamped by the overall bombast of the material once - which I'll come to in a moment - and nor does it sound tinny, or harsh. We don't get much in the way of surround to savour, but there are moments when the mix delivers some agreeable attempts at enveloping us with sound, such as the storm of burning hail that features nice steerage around the room, the charging of Pharaoh's chariots and the subsequent parting of the Red Sea, and even the creeping passage of the Angel Of Death which leaves the wailing of the unseen bereaved in its wake. But the booming voice of God, which should have reverberated deeply around the full set-up, is a bit of a letdown. In fact, this features the instance of dialogue-swamping that I mentioned earlier, with some words and lines sounding quite muffled and immersed in the mix. This may be something to do with the original track, of course ... but it is still a shame that nothing more could have been done to clean it up and provide it with some extra power and weight. This is God, afterall.

    Still, I found the 5.1 track to be the best one on offer. The Dolby Surround has clarity and presence, but lacks the necessary depth to represent the dramatics, losing ground in the directionality and the widening of the soundstage.

    The original 1923 version comes with a new score composed by Gaylord Carter that is presented in a crystal clear Dolby Digital 2.0 track that had me lunging for the volume control almost immediately. I'm not actually sure if the mix really is as loud I remember it - but the fact is that I just could not stand the church organ music that Carter furnishes this epic film with. It may be in keeping with the material, but it just sets my teeth on edge. However, if you like this sort of thing, then you will be amply rewarded with this mix.
    The Ten Commandments:50th Anniversary Edition Sound

    Extras

    What really marks this set of extras out for me are the commentaries that Katherine Orrison, author of Written In Stone: Making Of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, provides for the two features. She is amazing value, providing such a wealth of material, anecdote, personal feeling and memory, trivia and production detail that it will take a couple of sittings just to take it all in. Now, I'm a chat-track devotee, so I love all this stuff anyway, but Orrison is simply one of the best commentators that I've heard, right up there with Sir Christopher Frayling in her devotion to, and knowledge of, her subject matter. But the clever and indeed, vital, aspect of her discourse is that she is so enthusiastic about the two versions of the film that you cannot help but be infected by her passion. There is simply no let-up in her good-natured, fact-packed and lively commentaries. She appears to know everyone in front of, and behind the cameras, and can quote them quite liberally and accurately. Every scene, every effect, every single facet of the film's production - and its impact upon the world, and especially herself - is comprehensively chronicled in a free-flowing and energetic manner that drives along without a single stutter and virtually no lulls whatsoever. And that's some feat considering that she is talking through nearly six hours of film. Clearly in love with both movies, and all their performers, she is thankfully not too blinded by DeMille's awe-inspiring light as to sweep under the carpet the many gaffs that his epic productions contain. Listen out for the audio-goof with the dog's head playing piece, and the magical staff changing between Moses' hands, among other errors, that she is keen to point out. She has the air of a historian - clear, articulate and full of direction and purpose - yet is never stuffy, dry or patronising. She even admits that she gushes over sets and art direction the same way that other women gush over babies. Absolutely tremendous stuff, folks.

    Going out on a limb, I have to say that the only way I would ever watch the silent 1923 version again is with her engaging accompaniment. It certainly beats that atrocious church organ music!

    Disc 2 also contains the 6-Part Making Of which, with a Play All option, clocks in at 37.36 mins. Now this, I'm afraid, could have been better. Don't get me wrong, it is still very good and covers quite a lot of ground, but with a film as epic as The Ten Commandments, I would have expected a fair bit more. Under the chapter headings of Moses, The Chosen People, Land Of The Pharaohs, The Paramount Lot, The Score and Mr DeMille, we get to meet Charlton Heston, DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, Eugene Mazzola - who played Rameses' unfortunate son - and the late, great Elmer Bernstein, who all offer up reminiscences and a few quite trivial anecdotes. It's all very pleasant and chatty, and full of production photos and archive footage, but, taken as a whole, it is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should have been. We learn precious few treasures about the mythical DeMille, his granddaughter is far too enamoured by her experiences on the set and meeting all the stars, to dish any dirt. And Moses, himself, can recall nothing but fondness for the time he spent in his robes and mighty beard. The whole thing is pretty sugar-coated, lacking the passion and enthusiasm that Katherine Orrison provided in her commentaries, despite the fact that she had a hand in the production of this documentary. On the plus side, we learn that Heston's own newborn son won the part of the baby Moses in the basket, Elmer Bernstein only came on-board when the original composer, Victor Young, fell ill and that one pivotal sequence has a character replaced by a waxwork dummy. With some nice storyboards on show and snippets of hard-graft that went into the building of the colossal sets, the piece could have gone a lot further into the huge undertaking of the cast and crew to bring one of the Bible's most loved sagas to the screen.

    “His directing style was to hire people ... and leave them alone,” informs DeMille's granddaughter, which is the closest the documentary gets to nailing the powerful essence of Hollywood's greatest showman.

    We also get a vintage Newsreel (2.24 mins) from the star-studded New York premier of the film, which is just a flickering, scratchy old promo showing the movers and shakers arriving.

    Then we get a selection of trailers to round out the 1956 version's roster of extras. The first of which, entitled 1956 Making Of Trailer, runs for 9.58 mins and rather grandiosely announces “The Coming Of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments” before launching us into a veritable Bible class taught by DeMille, himself, amid paintings, stone tablets, statues and artefacts, as he lectures us on the story of Moses. A devout believer, obviously, his approach is still informative and offers quite a radical departure from the usual marketing hype. You really get the sense that he truly intended to educate the masses with this movie. There are scenes from the movie liberally intercut with his sermon, to illustrate his teachings. The other two trailers are much more straight forward - one from 1966 and the last from 1989.

    Disc 3 offers us the original hand-tinted footage from the silent 1923 version. The sequence shown is the Exodus and the Parting Of The Red Sea (14.58 mins). There isn't much colour to be seen, and what there is can appear quite muted and bland, but this is hardly surprising considering the work was painstakingly crafted by hand, and the footage has long since fell into disrepair. Sadly, print damage flickers and scratches its way throughout much of this. But, it is still nice to see after the effort that went into producing it.

    Not a bad set of extras, really, but Orrison's commentaries certainly deliver the meat of the matter, whilst the documentary feels more like off-cuts from the main course.
    The Ten Commandments:50th Anniversary Edition Extras

    Verdict

    The Ten Commandments is a great big colourful romp through one of the Bible's top stories. Both of DeMille's versions have a lot going for them. The 1923 edition has all the right ingredients of large scale spectacle, ripe performances and Big Moments, but it also has the clever time-shift scenario to lend contemporary credence to God's list of ten. As a dual-period piece, it works remarkably well. But, of course, the major draw with this set is obviously the remake with Charlton Heston. Although lacking the emotional wallop that you'd expect from such an overwrought saga, the movie is pure entertainment from start to finish. The stars acquit themselves with over-the-top abandon, emoting for all they are worth, and the set-pieces are grandstanding moments of high drama and visual splendour. I've got my own problems with the matte shots and the location-hopping, but I have to admit that I still find the film a pleasantly light and breezy telling of what could have been a morose and heavily-righteous story. History may have marked it out as a classic, but to my mind it is just a lavishly-mounted, afternoon-swallowing event-movie. Terrific Hollywood-soaked hokum ... but certainly no classic, in my opinion.

    The Anniversary Edition is truly blessed with Katherine Orrison's wonderful commentary-couplet which, alone, make the release worthy of obtaining. The 6-part Making Of isn't too shabby, but when compared to the documentaries that adorned the recent, and not un-related, Ben-Hur re-release, this still comes up short. However, with its slightly improved picture quality thrown into the mix, as well as the inclusion of the original version, this 3-disc set is pretty much essential to its fans. And, that said, The Ten Commandments is still recommended for all lovers of epic cinema.

    The Rundown

    Movie

    7

    Picture Quality

    8

    Sound Quality

    7

    Extras

    7

    Overall

    8

    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10
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