***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G Robinson
screenplay by Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank, in accordance with the ancient texts of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, the Midrash, and the Holy Scriptures
directed by Cecil B. De Mille
by Bill Chambers A harbinger of the pageantry to come, Cecil B. De Mille's 1956 The Ten Commandments begins with a pair of ornate drapes. De Mille himself emerges from behind them and steps up to a microphone. Back then, this would've had an uncanny effect on filmgoers, who were used to seeing curtains shield the silver screen from view until the lights went down. (To my recollection, curtains went the way of the dodo in the late-'80s, when they were deemed impractical by the new cookie-cutter multiplexes that would drive the traditional movie palace to extinction.) De Mille, then a name synonymous with "director" to the American public, proceeds to all but invent William Castle as he introduces The Gimmick: What you are about to see will fill in all the gaps in the biblical account of Moses, thanks to an investigative technique seldom used in Hollywood known as research. Well, not all of the gaps: kid Moses and teen Moses, who was surely elected Prom King in De Mille's imagination, still get the short-shrift.
The Ten Commandments is about Moses's journey from Hebrew foundling to prince of Egypt to desert exile to deliverer of Israel, during which he comes to embrace his transformation from beefcake agitator into silver-fox lawgiver; meet the dapper prophet who's got Yahweh's number! The 220-minute film, a remake and expansion of De Mille's 1923 silent version, behaves like a surrogate Jesus epic, a way to bypass blasphemy while telling a story that could compete with the lurid sudsers sweeping the nation, one-up the glut of religious epics that tended to be long on scenery but short on sorcery, and appease the Christian audience for these things. A story, in other words, about a Jesus Who Fucks. (Part of the genius of De Mille professing to have done his homework in the opening minutes is that in so doing he extracts our consent to tell an improbably commercial rendition of the Moses legend.) The Ten Commandments '23 features a bifurcated narrative that depicts the Book of Exodus as prelude to the tale of two brothers, one who slavishly adheres to the Ten Commandments and one who vows to break every one of them in turn. The Ten Commandments '56 drops this complementary allegory but traffics in the same duality, with Moses's piety mostly contrasted with the sinful world he inhabits. This begets the occasional double-entendre, like when Moses (Charlton Heston) and Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo) finally confront their mutual attraction before the simmering fires of Mount Sinai--a scene capping a sequence that feels like a play on a dirty joke, one older than Mt. Sinai itself, in which Moses is taken in by a sheep farmer named Jethro (Eduard Franz) and his bevy of giggly, flirtatious daughters. "Which of my sisters did you choose?" asks Sephora. I suspect a lot of the film's enduring appeal is that we love watching a handsome stud charm the ladies, almost as much as we love watching him settle down. The first half of The Ten Commandments is a particularly histrionic season of "The Bachelor".
The camp earnestness makes The Ten Commandments vulnerable to snark, which isn't something I want to sit here and do. Yet the movie is also sometimes what can only be described as cheeky. Consider the omission of Moses's only defiance of God's will, leading to one of the all-time WTF endings for secular viewers when Moses says he can't continue on to the Promised Land because he disobeyed the Lord at "the waters of strife." (Whose image was De Mille protecting: Moses's, or a movie star's?) Consider the fact that Nina Foch, the actress playing Moses's adoptive mother, Bithiah, is younger than Heston. There is the picture's emphasis on buff, glistening torsos shaped by toil (see: John Derek's Joshua, who at one point unconvincingly says to foxy Debra Paget, "Water before love, my girl!"--John Derek never put anything before women) or vanity (Yul Brynner's Rameses), on the heaving bosom of Anne Baxter's Nefretiri, who throws her insolent nursemaid, Memnet (Judith Anderson), off the balcony like a nighttime-soap diva and says things like, "Oh, Moses! Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!" (Margo Channing, eat your heart out.) Then there are the losses in translation that come with adapting the Bible for the screen, such as the scene where the finger of God chisels the ten commandments onto stone tablets while Moses vamps impatiently like he's waiting for a dot-matrix printout. On this latest go, when Moses returned to the Burning Bush for a second interface with the Man Upstairs, I found myself wondering if presenting scripture this literalmindedly had led to The Ten Commandments violating the ten commandments by presenting a graven image of God. (To say nothing of having Heston allegedly voice the Bush.) And when Moses parted the Red Sea, I wondered whether "his people" would bother drawing a distinction between Moses and God. It seems to me if you needed something, it would make a lot more sense to go directly to Moses--a demonstrably powerful wizard--than to pray, so that whole "no other gods before me" thing becomes a bit of a booby trap. Walk into any corporate environment and ask who the boss is and it's far more likely you will hear the office manager's name than the CEO's.
Still, I love that The Ten Commandments, De Mille's final film, has the courage of its convictions; remember when Troy was too cool for all the fantastic elements of Homer? De Mille's name, which once carried a totemic weight akin to Disney's or Hitchcock's, is one you rarely hear outside the context of The Ten Commandments anymore. A box-office juggernaut (various sources list either it or Disney's own Lady and the Tramp as the highest-grossing film of the 1950s), The Ten Commandments gained immortality through its annual Easter broadcast on the ABC network, where it recently aired for the 47th time. De Mille's other work, often commensurately popular at the time, is comparatively difficult to see, and less and less of it has survived the transition to HiDef video formats, at least in his home country of the United States. (Only three of De Mille's estimated 69 credited features are available on Blu-ray in region one, not counting the two incarnations of The Ten Commandments.) It's somewhat inevitable, then, that De Mille's legacy has been more or less distilled to The Ten Commandments and the dinosaur values that would manifest such an elephant, his eternal squareness borne out for cinephiles by the famous Howard Hawks quote, "I learned what not to do by watching Cecil De Mille." But in his review of John Kobal's The Lost World of De Mille, Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that this doesn't "factor in any of his earlier hyperbolic melodramas and sophisticated comedies and the diverse overlapping identities that came with these, which Americans preferred to forget about." Calling him, however aptly, anti-communist or neofascist, Rosenbaum notes, doesn't account for a host of contradictions in his life and films, including a grasp of class tensions that is "unusually frank" for American cinema.
It isn't vital that one has any special knowledge of De Mille before watching The Ten Commandments, but it's worth noting that De Mille was an iconic figure at the time of the film's release, and the moviegoing public would've been generally familiar with his views from his days as a highly-rated radio personality. His fans may even have seen the purchase of a ticket as driving another nail in the coffin of communism, given that De Mille, like Leo McCarey, felt religion was the surest antidote to the Red Menace. How did they square this with the picture's villainizing of capitalistic excess and Moses's push for labour reform? How did De Mille? The Ten Commandments goes beyond the usual paradox of expensive films that condemn greed in that De Mille, as he says in his intro, had to search beyond his primary source material (the Old Testament) to flesh out these early scenes of Moses as a disillusioned Prince of Egypt, first saving his birth mother, Yochabel (Martha Scott), from becoming literal grease for the wheels of enterprise, then calling for a strike when the Hebrew slaves are expected to continue to erect buildings without the straw they use to make bricks, then humbling himself to slavery after learning of his Hebrew ancestry. Despite introducing adult Moses as the betrothed of an Ethiopian princess played by African-American actress Esther Brown, The Ten Commandments embarrassingly sees white actors oppressing other white actors in brownface as if the needle hadn't moved at all since D.W. Griffith. And yet and yet--the picture is appallingly relevant in this shameful era of Amazon drivers relieving themselves in plastic cups, and far more progressive than any of the current cinema calling itself "faith-based," which is more interested in scaring people straight than in modelling a righteous path.
They say directors have a God complex. (As Eli Cross put it in The Stunt Man: "If God could do the tricks that we can do, he'd be a happy man!") That makes me think of Alfred Hitchcock, who exerted a precise formal control over films that frequently featured micromanagers of a sort trying to dominate their environment, and it makes me think of Cecil B. De Mille, who wasn't afraid to make God a protagonist, as though he could relate. My gut feeling is that Moses was made over from the stuttering drifter of the Bible into Arthur Fonzarelli in part because he's a proxy for De Mille, who similarly saw himself as a messenger of God ("My ministry was making religious movies and getting more people to read the Bible than anyone else ever has," he famously said) capable of feats of magic. Indeed, on some level you cash in your chips to turn Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments into special-effects spectaculars because you want a taste of what it's like to wield fire and brimstone against a city, though his enigmatic dissonances are arguably what's most God-like about De Mille, whose "Great Directors" page at SENSES OF CINEMA catalogues a host of biographical incongruities. He was an anti-unionist, for instance, who joined a union and picketed with them; an independent filmmaker loyal to Paramount; a tyrant who spread the wealth; a devoted husband who kept mistresses with his wife's approval; an Episcopalian with a Jewish mother; and a "profoundly religious but a non-church-going Christian." Those kinds of disparities in an individual are maddening, and the epitome of divine governance. The struggle to reconcile them is perhaps the essence of faith.
I avoided The Ten Commandments in childhood for fear it would be starchy and stodgy, since every time I flipped past it on TV it looked so proscenium-bound. In context, however, the movie's tableaux vivants are incredibly seductive, consummate ersatz religious artworks captured in piercingly clear VistaVision. And De Mille places each actor and drapes each Edith Head gown with such fastidious pride it's as if the hands of history, if not God himself, were responsible. Nothing ever seems out of place in the frame, either visually or thematically--even when the camera pulls back to reveal Edward G. Robinson, grimly miscast in a fuck-you to HUAC as Moses's scheming adversary, Dathan. I realize it might look like any affection I have for The Ten Commandments is ironic in nature, but I'm genuinely awed by De Mille's swagger. He kicks things off with the goring of an infant in its cradle and wraps things up with Moses parting the Red Sea, a feat of production engineering tantamount to, well, parting the Red Sea. (Along the way, De Mille and special photographic effects supervisor John P. Fulton casually invent an f/x technique later defined as morphing.) As Martin Scorsese--who, in a perfect encapsulation of its polarities, saw The Ten Commandments "maybe forty or fifty times" before briefly joining a seminary, then paid homage to it in his bawdy The Wolf of Wall Street--said, "Forget the story--you've got to--and concentrate on the special effects, and the texture, and the colour." So let it be written, so let it be done.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Paramount restored The Ten Commandments from a 6K scan of the original VistaVision negative in 2010, and these efforts were rewarded with a knockout Blu-ray release the following year. This restoration was subsequently subjected to another 150 hours of colour and clean-up work before making its debut on 4K UHD disc in a 1.78:1, 2160p transfer complete with Dolby Vision and HDR10 high dynamic range. First off, let me say that this presentation is, at bare minimum, stunning. VistaVision runs 35mm film through the camera horizontally, yielding crystalline images comparable to 70mm that home displays can finally begin to approximate with the advent of consumer 4K. Secondly, I don't have Dolby Vision, only HDR10, so please be aware that any criticisms I have about the colours apply to one but not necessarily the other. That being said, the first thing I noticed after the image's abundant detail is that the minty "green" smoke Scorsese likens to the figure of God lacks the saturation it has on the accompanying Blu-ray, registering as grey or light blue. The Nile marsh where Baby Moses docks in his basket likewise lacks the verdancy it has in SDR, although those greens in 1080p admittedly seem a tad overcooked. Initially, I also found the lushest reds, typified by the crests on the horses, to be almost copper in appearance, more like dried blood than like the coating of a candy apple. As a last resort, I bumped up my TV's saturation, and although this took some of the earthiness out of the reds, it didn't solve the issue with the greens. On the literal bright side, the gold trinkets and headpieces shine like never before, underscoring the wealth gap between the movie's haves and have-nots. Non-specular highlights are amplified as well, lending an orange intensity to flaming torches and conveying the warmth of dawn's early light as Egypt greets day one of the Exodus. Film grain is pin-prick precise (per the VistaVision guarantee), albeit slightly buzzy during the main titles. Contrast is profoundly deep and dimensional, while the sight of a safety pin on Baby Moses's diaper attests to the transfer's hyperclarity. As others have written, 4K definitely casts an unforgiving light on the copious use of bluescreen, but a few of the special effects, such as the cobra transforming back into Moses's staff, are all the more dazzling for holding up under this digital microscope.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track sounds identical to the mix on Blu-ray, which behaved much like the DD 5.1 track on the 1999 DVD. I presume this is the same 6-track remix that accompanied a 70mm reissue of the film in 1989. Regardless, it's a largely innocuous attempt to drag the movie into modern times that gives Elmer Bernstein's score a wider berth and gooses the bass to sometimes aesthetically-inharmonious effect. I wish that preserving the original audio were a bigger priority in these waning days of physical media--future generations will have no way of really knowing what The Ten Commandments sounded like in 1956. (Nor will they care, I suppose.) On another track of the UHD platter, find a feature-length commentary from Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments. Orrison, who says she spent seven years grilling associate producer Henry Wilcoxon and his wife, Joan Woodbury, waits for De Mille's introduction to conclude before launching into a breathless appreciation that is equal parts objective and subjective, with her expertise running the gamut from understanding the personal resonances of the piece for De Mille, who was an adoptive father himself, to knowing which costumes were recycled from the Fox flop The Egyptian. She is clearly in love with the film but is not above pointing out, say, how unlikely it is that Moses spots the burning bush from his vantage on the ground below. We learn that William Boyd turned down the part of Moses to avoid confusing kids who knew him as Hopalong Cassidy and that Robinson replaced Jack Palance, whose agent feared that Palance was jeopardizing his career with too many villainous roles. Because she has four hours to talk, Orrison even touches on the fact that Robinson and co-star Vincent Price ran an art gallery together in the 1950s. For what it's worth, this yakker is optionally subtitled for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
The remaining supplements are housed on a second, spillover Blu-ray. "The Ten Commandments - Premiere in New York" (2 mins., HD) is a Paramount newsreel narrated by Gregory Abbot covering the star-studded evening of the film's world premiere. The identification of Charlton Heston's wife as "Mrs. Heston" will momentarily grate, but Yvonne De Carlo's husband receives the same anonymous treatment, as do Martha Scott's husband and son. (The glamourous Scott, incidentally, is unrecognizable from her role as the ancient Yochabel. Real Beulah Bondi vibes here.) De Mille shows up with his daughter in tow and is said to be donating his profits from the picture to various religious, charitable, and educational causes; I don't want to know how many megachurches The Ten Commandments ultimately funded. Interestingly, John Wayne and William Holden, once considered for Moses and Rameses, respectively, are two of the last celebrities to be ejected from limousines onto the red carpet. Lastly, a block of trailers for The Ten Commandments (12 mins.) includes De Mille's windy 10-minute infomercial--imagine Disney's vanity promos with a blackboard or Hitchcock's without the laffs--plus previews for the 1966 and 1989 re-releases. Double-dipping collectors may be disappointed to discover that the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments is AWOL, forcing them to cling to or track down the gift set from 2011. The only other extra is a voucher for a digital copy of this '56 remake.
220 minutes; G; UHD: 1.78:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10, BD: 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 2.0 (Mono), German DD 2.0 (Mono), BD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono), Portuguese DD 2.0 (Mono); UHD: English, English SDH, French, German subtitles, BD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles; BD-100 + 2 BD-50s; Region-free; Paramount