The Ten Commandments appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on these single-sided, dual-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. My attempts to give Commandments a letter grade were tough enough due to the age of the film, but these were exacerbated by the movie’s many effects shots. In addition to big set pieces like the parting of the Red Sea, much of Commandments used mattes and rear projection behind the actors. These elements clearly muddied the picture to a degree that wouldn’t have existed without such intervention.
As such, I felt as though most of my concerns about Commandments’ image really dealt with its aged effects. Though the film exhibited fine sharpness during most scenes, quite a few others came across as soft and hazy. Some of these occurred during effects-free moments, but the majority of the fuzzy shots happened when the picture featured more than one element. At times those scenes could become rather nasty to watch; the effects have not aged especially well. Nonetheless, I found most of Commandments to appear rather crisp and detailed.
The image also lacked moiré effects and jagged edges, and I witnessed no signs of edge enhancement. One might expect a film from 1956 to display some print flaws, and one would be correct. However, I thought Commandments provided a relatively clean presentation. Occasional examples of speckles, grit, streaks, blotches and scratches appeared throughout the film, but these were never overwhelming. I should note that many of these occurred due to the complex visual elements I mentioned; effects-heavy or rear projection scenes definitely displayed the most significant defects. The nature of he procedures utilized made these flaws unavoidable.
Colors were a highlight of Commandments. The Technicolor production featured a very broad and lively palette, and the DVD rendered these hues with fine accuracy and vibrancy. Reds seemed to be especially brilliant and rich, and I also found greens to come across as quite fine; when we saw Jethro’s daughters dance for visitors, their outfits showed off the solid nature of the hues.
Black levels also looked rather deep and dense, and shadow detail appeared quite natural. Low-light scenes provided appropriately dark but not excessively thick images; for example, the sequence in which Moses met his real mother showed some fairly fine delineation. Ultimately, The Ten Commandments presented a satisfying picture for its age, though the flaws inherent in its visual techniques rendered much of it more problematic than I’d like. Nonetheless, I felt pretty happy with the image. Due to the various concerns, I didn’t feel comfortable with a grade above a “B”, but I also thought the disc replicated the source material in a mostly satisfying way, and the movie occasionally looked quite glorious.
More consistently satisfying was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Ten Commandments. Most films of the era provided monaural sound, and even when they included multichannel mixes, the results usually seemed to be fairly uncompelling. However, I thought the soundtrack for Commandments was surprisingly rich and involving.
The soundfield didn’t give us a great deal of variety, but it supported the movie to a good degree. Music offered the most involving aspect of the mix. Elmer Bernstein’s score showed very solid stereo separation, and the surrounds bolstered the music well. Effects were a more limited partner in the affair, though they added some depth to the proceedings. For most of the film, those elements seemed to be essentially monaural in nature, but large crowd sequences opened them up well.
Basically, the bigger the scene, the stronger the environment, and the track became quite active during the movie’s showier pieces. The hailstorm plague was engrossing and active, and the romp through the Red Sea also demonstrated fine dimensionality and breadth to the track. The rears really came to life well during those sorts of sequences, and I even detected decent split-surround usage; for example, on occasion wind whipped from speaker to speaker. All told, the soundfield showed good life and activity, and it made much of the film livelier than I expected.
Audio quality was also surprisingly fine. At times some speech demonstrated modest edginess; Brynner’s lines were usually the most affected. However, I felt that most of the dialogue sounded quite good, as Commandments offered speech that was generally warmer and more natural than I expect from the era. Music lacked tremendous range, but I thought the score came across as fairly well-defined and rich; at times the high end sounded a bit tinny and thin, but for a film of this era, the music was quite clear and vibrant.
Effects also showed mainly positive attributes. They sounded clean and accurate throughout the film, and although they betrayed their age at times, I still found them to appear acceptably realistic and bold. Some distortion occasionally accompanied these elements - such as when the slaves raised the obelisk - but these occurrences happened very infrequently. A little background noise and hiss also marred the presentation at times, but these stayed modest for such an old movie. In the end, I was very happy with the soundtrack of The Ten Commandments.
The 2004 Ten Commandments DVD appeared to offer the same picture and audio as the 1999 release. Although the 2006 version’s press release indicates it was “pristinely restored and remastered”, I saw and heard no differences from the earlier discs. The new one showed all the same positives and negatives.
While the 2004 “Special Collector’s Edition” included a nice set of extras, this “50th Anniversary Collection” improves on those. It replicates everything from its predecessor and adds a few new components as well. I’ll mark everything unique to this set with an asterisk. If you don’t see a star, that means the element also appears on the SCE.
Spreading across Discs One and Two, we find an audio commentary from Katherine Orrison, the author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments. Orrison gives us a running, screen-specific track. She doesn’t start to talk until a few minutes into the disc, as she only begins after the overture and DeMille’s introduction. However, once she launches into her chat, she rarely pauses.
Orrison offers one of the best commentaries of this sort I’ve ever heard. She delves into virtually every aspect of the production. I couldn’t hope to address all the topics she mentions, but she tells us about elements such as casting – including actors considered for the parts – as well as DeMille’s style with the actors, their costumes, and other changes like the need for tinted contact lenses. Orrison chats about props, sets, locations, and the script. She gets into biographical notes for DeMille and other participants, and she lets us know many factors related to the story’s historical aspects. Lots of fun trivia bits – including goofs and continuity issues – appear as well as anecdotes from the set. Orrison demonstrates a consistently high level of energy, and she shows great enthusiasm for the film, which she clearly reveres. Although I don’t feel the same way about Commandments, that didn’t prevent me from truly enjoying this terrific commentary.
The other extras fall exclusively on DVD Two. The six-part documentary runs 37 minutes and 36 seconds. This piece combines movie clips, some behind the scenes materials, and interviews with Cecil B. DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, composer Elmer Bernstein, and actors Charlton Heston, Eugene Mazzola, Vicki Bakken, and Lisa Mitchell. We learn a little about casting, the shoot in Egypt, the effect of DeMille’s heart attack on the production, filming in Hollywood, this score, and DeMille’s working methods. We also get a lot of general anecdotes. After so much detail from Orrison’s commentary, there’s not all that much left to say in this documentary, and honestly, it doesn’t try very hard. The program remains quite general and fluffy overall, as it mostly talks about how wonderful the flick was and how big the production was. Some decent notes emerge along the way, but this doesn’t come across as a terribly satisfying program as a whole.
Next we get a newsreel called “The Ten Commandments Premiere in New York”. This 143-second clip works like most of its ilk, as we watch notables arrive at the screening. Lastly, the trailers area presents three pieces, all from different eras. Most interesting was the original 1956 ad. At 10 minutes, this was probably the longest trailer I ever witnessed, and it was one of the oddest as well. Much of the clip showed DeMille; first he expanded upon the introduction that starts Commandments, and he also talked about the flick as we saw shots from it.
The other two trailers were more pedestrian. One came from a 1966 reissue, and at 60 seconds in length, it offered much less information. Lastly, we get a trailer from the 1989 reissue. This 100-second snippet mainly touted the wonders of big-screen viewings, and it also promoted the newly-remastered six-track audio.
Over on DVD Three, we get the big attraction from the “50th Anniversary Collection”: the full *1923 Version of The Ten Commandments. Also directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this silent rendition lasts 136 minutes and presents a very different take on the film. This one starts with Egypt in the midst of the plagues and progresses through the exodus and the arrival of the Commandments.
Those elements fill the movie’s first 50 minutes and then it takes a very strange twist. We come to modern day and meet the McTavish family. The mother (Edythe Chapman) is a real Bible-thumper, and her nice son John (Richard Dix) follows her. However, son Dan (Rod La Rocque) doesn’t believe in God.
Into their home comes a homeless girl named Mary (Leatrice Joy). Both brothers fall for her, but she marries the sinful, ambitious Dan. The movie follows their triumphs and travails as we learn that God and the Commandments trump everything else.
The Biblical parts of the movie are interesting to see, but the McTavish sections are a real drag. They make this a tedious piece of moralizing with nothing special to it. Those bits could appear in many other stories, and they dilute the potential impact of the Biblical parts, especially since those offer much greater room for power and drama. I think it’s cool that the 1923 version appears here, as it obviously boasts historical value. Unfortunately, it’s a bad movie.
At least the DVD presents it well. The film looks much better than expected. It suffers from a fair amount of softness, but source flaws are shockingly absent. The movie offers a very clean piece. The added stereo score sounds quite good too. This is a fine transfer.
If desired, we can watch the 1923 Commandments with another *audio commentary from Orrison. She provides a running, screen-specific chat. She tells us biographical information about the cast and crew as well as production notes, comparisons with the 1956 version, and information about the era in which this one was made. Orrison tries particularly hard to put us in that period’s mindset since she believes you need to view a 1923 movie with 1923 eyes.
Unfortunately, I think Orrison simply tells us what she likes about the flick too much of the time, especially during its third act. For the last portion, she does little more than gush about props and narrate the tale. Still, much of the time she remains chatty and engaging. This commentary doesn’t compare with the one she recorded for the 1956 version, but it does have many good moments.
DVD Three also includes *Hand-Tinted Footage of Exodus and Parting the Red Sea. This 14-minute and 57-second segment shows those segments with very minor coloring. They look brown more than anything else, and the tint adds nothing to the presentation. Indeed, since the quality of the source is very bad, it looks much worse than the main feature.
After 50 years, The Ten Commandments remains the best-known cinematic representation of Moses. However, I don’t think it’s the highest quality rendition, and the film hasn’t held up terribly well over the years. From hammy acting to cheesy sets to silly dialogue, Commandments suffers from the overblown pomposity that commonly affected epics. However, I must acknowledge that the movie receives a good treatment on DVD. The disc offers very solid picture and sound, and it also presents a roster of extras highlighted by two good audio commentaries and the film’s original 1923 version.
For folks who don’t already own a Commandments DVD but want one, I’d definitely recommend this 50th Anniversary Collection. However, I’m not so sure those who already own one of the prior releases need to upgrade. I noticed no improvements in picture and sound. The inclusion of the 1923 Commandments is a strong attraction, though. I didn’t care for it, but I’m sure many fans would love to see it. If you fall into that category, then this would be a smart purchase.
To rate this film, visit the original review of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS