Polishing ‘The Ten Commandments’

dvd review

It seems as if some films are perpetually being restored, with each new version touted as better than the last. That said, I can assure you that the new DVD and Blu-ray edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is pretty impressive—and probably definitive.

Paramount returned to its original VistaVision Technicolor camera negatives and scanned them at 6K resolution, resulting in breathtaking images that pop off the screen. (For the record, VistaVision was not just another 1950s widescreen process: it actually employed a much larger frame size, not unlike IMAX, that traveled through the camera horizontally, instead of vertically. This yielded a vast improvement in clarity and resolution. VistaVision movies still look good when they’re reduced to 35mm, but being able to access the original negatives for video purposes makes a world of difference.)

I’m also a sucker for clever packaging, and the presentation here is a knockout. Charlton Heston, as Moses, appears on a clear plastic slipcase over a lenticular print of the parted Red Sea. After you ease off the slipcase, you “part” open the—

—box like a prize package to reveal its contents, including a replica of the tablets which house the 2 Blu-ray and 4 standard discs. (Does this flirt with sacrilege for the sake of commercialism? It’s debatable, but then, a great showman like C.B. DeMille did that all the time.)

There are other goodies inside, including reproductions of original costume designs and other paper artifacts, along with a handsome hardcover souvenir book. And, as in the last DVD release a decade ago, there is a great-looking print of DeMille’s 1923 silent-film version of The Ten Commandments, which updates its Biblical material with a corny modern-day story. But the most important “extra” is a new 75-minute documentary by Laurent Bouzereau that supplants the bonus features from the last go-round—although he does rely on the 2002 interviews with Charlton Heston and composer Elmer Bernstein, who have both passed away since then. The new documentary is solid and upbeat, featuring DeMille’s granddaughter Cecelia DeMille Presley, who was present for the filming in Egypt and Hollywood, DeMille biographer Scott Eyman and archivist James D’Arc, author Katherine Orrison, and Paramount archivists who have salvaged costumes, props, and jewelry from the massive production. The film’s stars are all gone now, so Bouzereau relies on two surviving cast members, Eugene Mazzola (the Pharaoh’s son) and Lisa Mitchell (one of Jethro’s daughters), who share warm and colorful memories of their work on the film—and their impressions of the imposing but fatherly DeMille. (It’s a real shame not to hear from the likes of Anne Baxter, Nina Foch, or Vincent Price. If only Hollywood was documenting its history before the DVD revolution came along…)

Newsreel coverage of the production, color home movies of the exodus from Egypt, and best of all, rare footage of the components that were used to create the unforgettable Red Sea sequence—shot in the Paramount tank in Hollywood—enhance this behind-the-scenes portrait. Fraser Heston, Charlton’s son, is particularly eloquent, although both he and his father are allowed to spin several hoary jokes about DeMille that are now the stuff of legend, though not likely to be true. (I will admit they’re all funny, if you’ve never heard them before.)

There aren’t many movies that genuinely warrant this kind of deluxe treatment, but The Ten Commandments is certainly one of them. If it matters to you, it’s worth the investment to upgrade your copy, whether you favor DVD or Blu-ray.


  1. Bruce Crawford says:

    There is one star still living, Debra Paget is alive and well and living in Houston Texas.

  2. Rinaldo says:

    Is there any chance that somewhere in the extra materials (as digital page scans, if we can’t have an actual book) is the original souvenir book? I used to buy these back in the days of road-show film releases (all gone now, I fear), and this was an unusually colorful and elaborate one. I remember that it had details about the special cloth patterns devised for each of the 12 tribes.

    The last time I saw the movie was in Munich, dubbed into German. I should see it again!

  3. Jeff Heise says:

    This is a stunning box set, and probably the finest example of a classic film on Blu-Ray (only Kino’s THE GENERAL rivals it for clarity of image). Having seen 10C in numerous formats-I even survived the disastrous “SuperVistaVision” 70mm print from 1989 that converted the aspect ratio from 1.76:1 to 2.35:1 and had Yul Brynner’s jug of magic water disappear below the frameline and “So Let It Be Done” also below the frameline at the end-the film has never looked or sounded better. I attended the digital screening of this film at the American Cinemateque last year and had been eagerly awaiting this box set-most worth the wait! Now, where is SAMSON AND DELILAH?

  4. Ron Merkj says:

    I had the chance to see the restoration projected on digital media last Sunday at San Francisco’s legendary Castro Theatre, on it’s big screen, and while the sound and color and most of the images look great, I’m disappointed that the restoration team didn’t go back to the pre-optical elements, especially in the big effects scenes and get rid of the blue lines around the statues in the great sequence where Moses shows off the treasure city to Sethi. Some of the rear project shots also look a lot more contrast than I remember them in a recent 35mm print. I don’t think we should change anything, but make it as good as digital technology will allow from existing elements. I’m sure Mr. Demille would not have objected to losing the matte lines around the characters, or the join lines of multiple elements in some of the big scenes. So, next time Paramount is thinking of spending some more money on this great film, let’s dig into the optical and effects elements and see what can be done to improve the overall look of those scenes. Otherwise the film is as thrilling as the first time I saw it at age 12 at the Adams Theater in Newark, New Jersey. Who else by Heston could deliver the line, “Behold his mighty hand,” and have us believe that he believes it? And who else could deliver the line, but Nina Foch, to Judith Anderson in which she warns here, “Your tongue will dig your grave, Memnet.” Classic lines, classic actors, and a truly “alone in it’s very own film pantheon,” that’s this film which has now thrilled me at least 50 times. Ron

  5. Kay Noske says:

    Hello, Leonard! I just saw the restored original 10 Commandments (complete with corny modern story) at our wonderful George Eastman House, and it was breathtaking even only a few “spots” of color, so this is a very exciting bit of news for me. I will definitly be investing in this! As it is written, so let it be done!

  6. Paul Penna says:

    I agree, the film looks fabulous, one of the best, if not the best, classic film restoration/transfers I’ve ever seen. This was a film, like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” whose visuals stunned me as a kid when I saw it in original release, and which have remained firmly in my mind’s eye ever since. I must say, though, that the parting of the Red Sea, even as a kid, always looked like a special effect with the underpinnings all too obvious, but on the Blu-Ray I actually got goose-bumps. The wonderful sound accorded Elmer Bernstein’s score is a big plus, too. The Exodus section, with the visuals, the sound plus the awareness that those aren’t digital effects, but really are thousands of people and gigantic sets, was breathtaking.

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