The Ten Commandments
Hollywood has always loved the spectacle, the huge film that can capture the imagination of the audience. Few movie makes did this as well as than Cecil B. DeMille. Without a doubt his master opus remains The Ten Commandments. Even now, almost half a century after its release this film stands far above most such films. For a plot that encompasses passion, drama and action few source materials can top the Bible. Although the title refers to the famous stone tablets given by God to Moses, this event takes only a brief time in this epic film. The movie concentrates on the early life of Moses (Charlton Heston), a Levite adopted by Pharaoh’s sister (Nina Foch) and raised with the rank and privilege of the Egyptian court. There is a stark contrast between Moses and his adopted cousin, Rameses (Yul Brynner), where Moses is kind and fair; Rameses is brutal in his bid for the heir to the throne. Moses is beloved of the members of the court, the citizens of Egypt and even the Hebrew slaves. Rameses is feared, wiling to do anything to get the crown. The competition between these two men extends beyond the race for power, they also vide for the affections of the Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), and the man who wins her is destined to be the next Pharaoh. When Seti (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) chooses Moses to finish a ceremonial city, one that Rameses failed to finish, Rameses looks for any means to take down his cousin. He finds such a device when he discovers that Moses is actually a Levite, a child of slaves. With deep regret Seti banishes Moses, stripping him of all rank, removing all traces of his name from Egypt. Moses wanders the wilderness until he happens upon the camp of Jethro, a rich herder. Moses marries one of Jethro’s daughters Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo) and life is once again good for Moses until he sees a strange light on the top of a mountain. He investigates to find that God has something in mind for the remainder of Moses’ life. Moses takes on the task of delivering the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery. This film is one of the best examples of the grand epics of the fifties; a stirring saga that could not be reproduced today, no matter how much CGI is used. We see the arc of a man’s life, raised in an atmosphere of power, fallen to the lowest point imaginable and raised back by God Himself. The film takes on issues such as human dignity, the abuse of power and vindication while always remaining entertaining.
Despite all its flaws, the old studio system of contract actors did provide incredible casts for such films. Charlton Heston commands the screen with a power that few actors could muster. Technically, the casting here is wrong, the Bible describes Moses as ‘the meekest of all men’, a description that would never fit Mr. Heston. (For a more realistic Moses checks out Ben Kingsley in the Turner production, Moses.) Every movement of Heston exudes power, every line of dialogue delivered booms out over the audience. With such an actor in the role of Moses the man chosen to play Rameses had to be able to go toe to toe with such greatness, Yul Brynner was one of the few that were up to the challenge. Brynner commands the screen like a true king, a man not only used to power and attention but one that truly believes it is his right. There is also an incredible contrast between the two lead female roles. Baxter and De Carlo both play women that want Moses. Where De Carlo plays Sephora as a simple woman, one that deeply loves her husband, Baxter plays her part of this triangle as a woman used to plots and ploys; she wants Moses more out of ambition than love.
Few directors ever are up to the standards set by De Mille. His goal was to deliver to the audience something that they will remember for the rest of their lives. The Ten Commandments was a remake for De Mille, he had directed a silent version in 1923. With the advent of sound he sought to redo the film with even more special effects than ever thought possible at the time. Today the film would be mostly computer effects, the huge number of extras, the sets all in the memory of a computer. Thankfully this was not available for De Mille; he relied on people to make this film work. With a cast of literally thousands of extras and sets the size of small cities he crafted a world long since gone and brought it back to life. In 1958 television was seen as the great enemy of the motion picture. Why should people leave their glowing box at home to go to the movies? De Mille gave them a reason, a wide screen epic, sound booming over them, brilliant colors and grandeur no television show could rival. This film delivers as well today as it did on the first day of its release.
This is one film that I seem to constantly repurchase. The DVD is near perfect. The video is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of the 2.20:1 found in the 1989 re-release. The color palette is amazing, rich tones that pop out at you. There are three audio tracks provided, a Dolby two channel surround as well as English ad French 5.1 re-mixes. The 5.1 track is very well done although the sub woofer is silent except in the special effects sequences. The musical score is amazing, rich and full yet it never over powers the dialogue. The two disc set is packed with extras that actually add to the experience. There is a running audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of the definitive book on the making of this film. She relates a lot of background and behind the scene details that held my attention over the entire course of the film. On disc two there is a six part making of documentary that shows how much effort went into the production of this film. Forget such computer generated film that are popular today, get a film made entirely by humans that will remain a classic for as long as movies endure.
Now the ultimate version has been released or at least ultimate until a new technology catches on. The High definition edition recently released reveals such a greater amount of detail but in the video and audio that you might think you are seeing it for the very first time.
Commentary by Katherine Orrison, Author of Written In Stone: Making Cecil
B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments