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Home Theater Movie Renter's Guide - April, 2011

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"The Ten Commandments" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

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Synopsis

Taken from the Book of Exodus and other historical texts, this is the account of the life of Moses and his call by God to free the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt.  For 400 years, the Hebrew people have lived in bondage to build Egypt’s vast cities for a succession of Pharohs.  Moses is born of the Hebrews but to save him from death by the Pharoh Seti’s edict, he is sent down the Nile River in a basket.  Seti’s sister Bithia who longs for a child finds him and takes him into her house.  He grows up as a brother to Seti’s son Rameses and becomes a prince of Egypt likely to succeed to the throne.

At age 30, Moses discovers his true lineage and leaves the court to search for his God and his life’s purpose.  Seti turns him out of the palace and he is left to wander in the desert with only one day’s ration of food and water.  After 40 days, he is rescued by a sheepherder’s family of seven daughters who live at the base of Mount Sinai, the holy mountain.  There Moses is called by God in the form of a burning bush and he learns he is the Deliverer prophesized to save the Hebrews from their enslavement.

He returns to Egypt to demand the Hebrew’s release.  When Rameses, now Pharoh, refuses, God brings plagues to Egypt culminating in the death of all first-born males.  When Rameses own son is killed, he relents to Moses’ demands.  The Hebrews leave the next day to freedom.

During their flight, they are pursued by Rameses who has decided to avenge his son’s death by destroying them and Moses.  The Hebrews are saved when Moses parts the Red Sea to let them pass and the Egyptian army is drowned.  Later, the Hebrews faith wavers and they create a false God, a Golden Calf.  Moses comes down from Mount Sanai with the Ten Commandments.  When he sees the people, he smashes the tablets into the Calf and the unfaithful are destroyed.

As punishment, the Hebrews travel for 40 years until finally reaching the Promised Land.  Moses however, does not cross the river Jordan but his purpose and calling have finally been fulfilled – that man should live by God’s law and not in bondage to any other man – the birth of Freedom.

Specifications

  • Paramount Pictures
  • 1956, Color, Rated G, 3 Hr 51 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Codec:  MP4-AVC
  • 1080p
  • English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring:  Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek
  • Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Mild
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

You can see by my extended synopsis that this is an epic film.  In fact, epic is just not a sufficient adjective to describe the experience of watching this Blu-ray on a big screen with a top-shelf sound system.  I have seen The Ten Commandments many times on TV but never unedited.  I’m ashamed to say I never owned the DVD release.  The power of this movie has to be experienced to be believed.  My emotions were cranked to eleven for nearly four hours.  If you’re already a fan, owning this Blu-ray is a must.  There truly is no other film like it.  In my opinion, it defines Hollywood’s Golden Age.  The exodus scenes not only have thousands of extras, there are hundreds of animals and other props in play as well.  The sheer scope of filming these scenes is beyond my imagination.  The performances by all principal actors are typical of the era with over-the-top drama and emotion.  Charlton Heston was born to play the role of Moses and I can’t imagine another actor in the role.  Yul Brenner is deliciously evil as Rameses and Anne Baxter’s portrayal of Nefretiri is both dark and intoxicating at the same time.  I also enjoyed a young Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora.  Of course, she’s probably better-known for her role as Lily Munster which came along eight years later.

This exquisite restoration of an iconic film receives my highest possible recommendation.

Technical

The video restoration is reference quality.  This is a fairly early example of widescreen shooting using the Vistavision format.  The original aspect ratio was 1.85:1 but a slight crop to 1.78:1 was done for this transfer.  The color quality is simply stunning with rich saturation and natural tones throughout.  Film grain is at a pleasing level and there was not one speck of dirt evident at any time.  Contrast is excellent with bright highlights and deep blacks when appropriate.  Shadow detail was superb and the whole presentation has a depth and clarity that makes you forget this movie is 55 years old!  Nostalgia buffs will enjoy the primitive special effects where you can clearly see matte lines and optical printer artifacts.  I especially enjoyed the overlaid hand-drawn animation used for the pillar of fire and serpent effects.  This was state-of-the-art for 1956 and there is an Oscar win to prove it.  When the Secrets staff votes for a Media Award recipient, this Blu-ray will likely top the list for the Best Restoration category.

The audio was very good but not quite reference-level.  The detail and clarity were there but I would have enjoyed a larger sound stage, especially for the music.  The whole thing seemed a bit narrow and centered.  The original was in stereo, but it does not come through with great depth.  I am nit-picking here.  Dialog was crystal-clear at all times.  The music was awe-inspiring and a definite gem among Elmer Bernstein’s achievements.

Extras

There are two versions of this Blu-ray release.  One is a large boxed set with Blu-ray and DVD versions of both the 1956 and 1923 films.  This set also includes an hour-long documentary about the making of the film.  The version I watched only includes a Blu-ray of the 1956 movie, a newsreel about the film’s premiere and commentary by historian Katherine Orrison.  I rated the bonus features at two stars because to get the documentary, which I would have loved to watch, you have to pay nearly double the price.