Its been a few years now that The Ten Commandments has been available on DVD, in a very basic issue with nothing more than the movie and a trio of trailers. Finally it is being reissued with more substance.
C. B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments
For sheer pageantry and spectacle, few motion pictures can claim to equal the splendor of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 remake of his epic The Ten Commandments. Filmed in Egypt and the Sinai with one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture, this version tells the story of the life of Moses, once favored in the Pharaoh's household, who turned his back on a privileged life to lead his people to freedom. With a rare on-screen introduction by Cecil B. DeMille himself.
There is no point in me composing a commentary on what is arguably the most watched movie in cinema history, except to encourage you to revisit it and add it to your collection if it is not already there.
It really is unfortunate that this movie is rerun on network television every year, with the sides of the picture cropped, the content edited, and commercial breaks every 10 minutes. Even though it consistently gets the highest viewer rating (with more people tuning in to the second half of the picture believe it or not), I think it has caused us over the decades to take it less seriously than we ought to.
You don't have to be religious to appreciate this film. With it, C.B. DeMille defined the term "Epic" when talking about a motion picture.
There is an Audio Commentary by Katherine Orrison, Author of "Written in Stone - Making Cecil B. Demille's Epic The Ten Commandments". Although sitting through a near 4-hour commentary sounds insane, it is actually the one reason you might re-buy this movie if you already have the previous DVD. I am not aware of any decent documentary on the movie, and this commentary track constitutes the most relevant and focused information on it I've ever had access to. Katherine covers everything from continuity bloopers, to details about casting, special effects, costumes, and so on. If you are at all interested, it's worth watching. Did you know Moses was married to the Ethiopian princess?
On disc two is a "Six Part" making-of documentary which honestly feels like it was thrown together at the last minute for this disc. The only people interviewed are Charlton Heston, C.B.DeMille's granddaughter, and two minor, and I mean minor, actresses (one of Jethro's daughters and one of the extras from the Exodus scene).
There are three trailers (which also appeared on the previous DVD), including an original 1956 "Making of" Trailer featuring C.B.DeMille talking about the picture.
There is a very short Newsreel piece of the New York premier.
On the whole, with the exception of the commentary track, this is a disappointing "collectors edition" of such an important piece of film. MGM's Ben-Hur, made within a year or two of The Ten Commandments, has a very comprehensive documentary on its DVD. Does MGM have better archive policies? Maybe someday when HD-DVD is mainstream, they will spend some money and dig a little deeper into the archives and private collections (not to mention revisit the transfer which we'll talk about in a second).
The Ten Commandments was shot in VistaVision, a filming process which uses 35mm stock run sideways, yielding a very large frame area. The purpose of doing this is so that the actual standard 35mm release prints, made by reduction, are of extremely high quality, or "High Fidelity Motion Pictures" as the ad line used to go. It is also very good for doing optical effects like matte work, and was still used for special effects work (Star Wars for example) until the computer took over.
It's a shame then that the best available for us to enjoy this most important of motion pictures is a mediocre, at best, DVD transfer. This is particularly disappointing as the film itself was fully restored in 1989 for theatrical re-released in 70mm so we have to believe there is a decent interpositive or negative somewhere.
While some film defects are in evidence, such as slight shifts in color or the odd scratch or blemish, that is to be expected and does not really distract. The problem here is the telecine transfer to DVD. It is typical of catalogue releases: very poor detail (probably a lot of vertical and/or horizontal filtering), and edge enhancement is in abundance.
The dynamic range of the picture is OK, with blacks and grays which do the image justice, and the characteristic vivid colors of 1950's movies is all there, but the lack of detail makes the whole thing feel almost out of focus.
We believe this new DVD edition to be the exact same transfer as on the previous edition, as evidenced by doing some frame for frame comparisons between the two.
In 1956, The Ten Commandments had a simple mono soundtrack. When reissued in 1989, the 70mm prints included a remixed Dolby 70mm six-track soundtrack (which has the same layout as our current 5.1 standard). What we are hearing today is probably that same remix effort.
On the whole, it is a good effort to multi-channel a half-century old movie. The music is consistently distributed to the left and right channels with the bulk of the dialogue in the center. This "works" as the movie is very dialogue-driven, backed by the score. There are few opportunities for surround effects so on the whole, but their lack of use is not noticed. Of course when the Red Sea parts, and other such select points, we get rumbles and crashes all around the room.
In terms of fidelity, it holds up. All the dialogue is perfectly intelligible and there is no evidence of preamp clipping. It does feel quite restricted in terms of dynamic range, but that is to be expected.
The Bottom Line
The Ten Commandments is a great movie, in fact, one of the best movies ever made. Although this new DVD is not any better than the first one in terms of video quality or sound, the addition of more features makes it worth the purchase.
- Brian Florian -