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.

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May 2024