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The Ten Commandments (1956): 2-Disc Set DVD Review

The Ten Commandments (1956) movie poster The Ten Commandments

Theatrical Release: October 5, 1956 / Running Time: 231 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Cecil B. DeMille / Writers: Aenas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank, Dorothy Clarke Wilson (book Prince of Egypt), Rev. J.H. Ingraham (book Pillar of Fire), Rev. A.E. Southon (book On Eagle's Wing)

Cast: Charlton Heston (Moses, voice of God), Yul Brynner (Rameses), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), Debra Paget (Lilia), John Derek (Joshua), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Sethi), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), Vincent Price (Baka), John Carradine (Aaron), Olive Deering (Miriam), Douglass Dumbrille (Jannes), Frank DeKova (Abiram), Henry Wilcoxon (Pentaur), Eduard Franz (Jethro), Donald Curtis (Mered), Lawrence Dobkin (Hur Ben Caleb), H.B. Warner (Amminadab), Julia Faye (Elisheba), Fraser Heston (The Infant Moses), Cecil B. DeMille (Himself, Narrator - uncredited)

Buy The Ten Commandments from Amazon.com: Limited Edition 6-Disc Blu-ray + DVD Gift Set 2-Disc Blu-ray New 2-Disc DVD (2011)
3-Disc 50th Anniversary Collection with 1923 version DVD (2006) 2-Disc Special Collector's Edition DVD (2004)

Movies were such a bigger deal back in the 1950s than they are today. It's not hard to understand why. Back then, there were just a few television stations and even they didn't supply 24 hours of programming daily. There were no video games, no home video, no Internet, no multi-functional phones. Now, many houses have hundreds of cable channels covering every niche at their fingertips. The Internet serves as the world's collective DVR, streaming almost anything you want to see freely, ad-supported, or for a small fee. Some movies today might be marketed as an event, but everyone can see right through such claims. A popular movie can be seen theatrically for maybe three months, an unpopular one for half that. Either way, in just a few months, both will be available to rent in a McDonald's or supermarket vending machine for $1.
Shortly after that, they could also very likely turn up at a Big Lots selling for, at most, the cost of two soon-expiring salty snack bags.

Back in the 1950s, movies could truly be events. There was no substitute for a theatrical outing. The best you could hope for was that a movie you missed might turn up on television in a few years, black and white, cropped, and with commercial interruptions. Movie attendance declined sharply with the advent of TV and yet, still the percentage of the American population that went to the cinema once a week on average was over three times recent rates.

Of 1950s event movies, one stood above all others by the numbers. That one was The Ten Commandments, produced and directed by spectacle showman Cecil B. DeMille. Costing $13 million to make, this 1956 Biblical epic grossed $65.5 M in domestic theaters or the equivalent of over $1 billion in today's money. Adjusted for inflation, only four movies have ever earned more than it (none of them directed by James Cameron) and only three in their initial release: Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, and Star Wars. While Avatar may be in the record books, it sold far fewer tickets in the US than Ten Commandments did (possibly less than half with its IMAX and 3D surcharges) and that is with a national population nearly double what it was in 1956.

Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) loves Moses (Charlton Heston) enough to kill, but not enough to discard the piece of cloth that establishes his Hebrew heritage. Getting banished to the desert with a single day's food and water supply seems like a death sentence for Moses (Charlton Heston).

The Ten Commandments tells the story of Moses, the prophet at the foundation of Judaism. A partial remake of DeMille's 1923 silent film of the same name, this nearly 4-hour epic relies upon the five books comprising the Torah plus the writings of ancient historians (Philo, Josephus) and contemporary novelists (like Dorothy Clarke Wilson and A.E. Southton) to fill in some blanks.
Over 1,000 years before Jesus Christ, Moses was born to an Israelite family at a time when the Hebrew people are anticipating the arrival of a prophesied deliverer. In response, Egypt's Pharaoh orders all newborn males killed. Moses, as you know, was spared such a fate, getting sent in a basket down the Nile River.

The foundling is discovered and adopted by Bithiah (Nina Foch), a young widow who is sister to future Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Moses (Charlton Heston) is raised as Egyptian royalty. It is uncertain whether he or Sethi's biological son Rameses II (Yul Brynner, fresh off his Oscar-bound turn in The King and I) will assume the throne. Throne Princess Nefretiri (All About Eve's Anne Baxter) expresses a clear preference for Moses, even taking drastic steps to hide his ancestry when it is confided to her. Moses learns the truth, however, and embraces his Hebrew heritage, voluntarily assigning himself to slave labor.

Always sympathetic to the enslaved, Moses becomes determined to earn his people freedom. Now Pharaoh, Rameses won't have it. Rameses chooses not to have Moses killed, instead prescribing him the greater punishment of suffering in the desert with a day's supply of food and water. Moses survives his sentence and finds friendly company in the town of Midian, including a wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Moses grows more religiously devout after witnessing the Burning Bush atop Mount Sinai and being addressed there by the God of his people.

The divine encounter drives Moses to plea with Rameses for the slaves' freedom. Moses is prepared to demonstrate the power of God, with a staff that turns into a snake, a magic trick that neither sways nor impresses the Pharaoh. Kicking it up a notch, Moses summons God's will to bring plagues upon Egypt, beginning with water being turned into blood. Unconvinced, Rameses orders all firstborn Hebrews killed. Instead, God sends the Angel of Death to kill all of Egypt's firstborn, even Rameses and Nefretiri's young son. This gets Rameses to let the Hebrew slaves leave.

With the Exodus, the film begins its final stretch, which includes the exiled Egyptian overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) sparking an idolatry craze while Moses is back up on Sinai receiving the titular commandments inscribed by fire on two stone tablets. Right before that comes the iconic sequence of Moses parting the Red Sea, enabling the Israelites to escape Egyptian doom.

Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) reveals a little-known fact about Moses to future Pharaoh Rameses II (Yul Brynner). Moses demonstrates the power of his God to Rameses with a staff turning water into blood, the first of ten plagues befalling Egypt.

The Ten Commandments was DeMille's final film as director, getting released a little over two years before his death at age 77. It is a fitting finale for a filmmaker who prided himself on grandeur. It seems as though DeMille had been building towards one culminating achievement. His second and third most famous credits immediately preceded, with 1949's Samson and Delilah acclimating him to opulent mid-century Biblical bonanza and 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth (also starring Heston) earning a Best Picture Oscar for its slice of circus life (now considered one of the Academy's weakest picks). Ten Commandments spares no expense, boasting then-stunning special effects (for which it won its only Oscar out of seven nominations), impossibly vast sets, and scenes loaded with hundreds of extras as far as the eye can see.

Anytime ambition runs so high, there is the danger of losing sight of the big picture and having your story suffer for it. Fortunately, that doesn't happen to this extravaganza, or at least it almost doesn't happen. Near the end of the film, when the dramatic power should be at its apex, Moses' story does take a backseat to some fireworks that inevitably impress less today than they did in 1956. Briefly, as God (not voiced by Heston, who did handle the Burning Bush part) utters the commandments and engraves them by divine flame, and the rest of the Hebrews are living it up around a golden calf, there is a bit of camp to the proceedings that definitely clashes with the groundwork being laid for the world's most popular religion.

Even coming at a critical point, that is but one small off-key note in a film full of notes. For most of its colossal runtime (which had discouraged me from seeing this until now), The Ten Commandments is engrossing, tasteful, and human. Remarkably, the film doesn't feel long-winded (it's possible I helped out by sufficiently preparing myself for a marathon viewing) and it doesn't pad itself out with unnecessary tangents or subplots. It wouldn't be hard to trim off a good 45 minutes without diluting the material greatly, but the movie doesn't stand to improve much from tighter editing. Like Gone with the Wind and Heston's subsequent Bible epic, 1959 Best Picture winner Ben-Hur, Ten Commandments has an epic feel to justify its epic length. Potential problems facing such a production -- wandering attention, a cast or story too large to keep track of -- are avoided and only the bits with Joshua (John Derek) and Lilia (Debra Paget) feel possibly inessential.

Like past ones, this DVD retains an overture and exit music, DeMille's on-camera introduction, a brief intermission, and entr'acte. To the film's close, it adds 2010 restoration credits in the format of the original title cards.

Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) leads the Hebrew people in celebration around a golden calf, at the same time that God is expressly condemning such an act. Moses (Charlton Heston) shares few specifics of his fiery God chat with Joshua (John Derek) and Lilia (Debra Paget).

The Ten Commandments is a network television holiday tradition, having aired on ABC on Palm Sunday, Easter, or Passover since 1973. In today's world, of course, that annual 5-hour broadcast doesn't mean there isn't a market to see the film closer to how it was originally exhibited, unedited and without commercial interruptions. Ten Commandments has long been a strong seller for Paramount, not only in the springtime but year-round. The film made its DVD debut in 1999, got a new Special Collector's Edition in 2004, and was revisited in 2006's 3-disc 50th Anniversary Collection (which included DeMille's silent 1923 Ten Commandments).

Today, it returns to DVD and debuts on Blu-ray. There are three new editions to choose from, none of which has a clear moniker on package. For diehard fans, the most exciting option is the Limited Edition Gift Set, a six-disc collection (3 DVDs, 3-Blu-rays) including tablet packaging, a commemorative 50-page book, and reproductions of the original souvenir program and other vintage documents. That multi-format combo carries a $90 list price and is currently selling for $55 on Amazon.

For those less enticed by all the bells and whistles, there are two more affordable choices: a 2-disc Blu-ray ($39.99 SRP) and a 2-disc DVD ($19.99 SRP). On both formats, the film loses a bonus disc included in the gift set, which means missing out on the 1923 version and other special features from the movie's two previous DVD releases. So much for progress. Here, we look at the least interesting new version, the 2-disc DVD, which like all past editions splits the lengthy film across two discs.

Ten Commandments 2011 DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, Portuguese),
Dolby Mono 2.0 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($39.99 SRP) and in Limited Edition 6-Disc Blu-ray + DVD Gift Set ($89.99 SRP); Previously released as 3-Disc 50th Anniversary Collection DVD and 2-Disc Special Collector's Edition DVD


The main attraction of this DVD edition is the brand new restoration it offers the film (something that would be of greater interest to those now buying Blu-ray). The Ten Commandments looks extraordinary in this 1.78:1 presentation. While I can't compare it to past DVD transfers, I can say that this kind of perfection is rare for an over 50-year-old film. The print remains pristine and vibrant throughout, with nary a detectable shortcoming. While such stunning work isn't unprecedented for a film of this stature, it is nonetheless greatly appreciated.

Recognizing the film's global appeal, subtitles and dubs in three foreign languages (French, Spanish, and Portuguese) complement the native English offerings. English speakers can choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Dolby Surround tracks. I went with the default former and found it satisfying. The movie obviously wasn't created in multi-channel sound and therefore is limited and slightly stretched. But it has a good amount of impact (especially in set pieces) and consistently does a nice job of distributing one of the great Elmer Bernstein's earliest scores.

Cast, crew, and some interested celebrities attend the film's New York City premiere briefly documented in this black and white Paramount newsreel. Producer/director/showman Cecil B. DeMille displays a photograph of Charlton Heston looking at Michelangelo's Moses statue in a 10-minute trailer for the movie. Moses' muddy slave day gets its turn in the DVD's main menu montage.


The main bonus feature here is an audio commentary by DeMille scholar Katherine Orrison, which accompanies the film across both discs. It is the same one that joined the film on its past two DVD editions (only with one short erroneous stretch muted out). Orrison spent ten years researching the film for her book Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic The Ten Commandments.
As such, once she starts talking, she has something to say about practically every shot (besides DeMille's intro, the intermission screens, and the end credits). That makes this track more informative, focused, active, critical, and enriching than most, covering everything from near-castings (Audrey Hepburn as Nefretiri, Jack Palance as Dathan, William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd as Moses) to visual effects that do or don't work for her to forgivable and misinterpreted historical inaccuracies. This is one of the best commentaries out there, and it's especially impressive that the long runtime is engagingly filled.

Additionally, two slight video extras appear on Disc 2. First up is a short black & white newsreel (2:23) on The Ten Commandments' New York City premiere, which depicts the arrival of the cast, director, and a few celebrity attendees (John Wayne, William Holden, and Hollywood power couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh). Yesteryear industry events always seem fancy and fun, but this clip barely shows anything remarkable.

Three theatrical previews are preserved. The most notable is a 10-minute Cecil B. DeMille-hosted 1956 making-of promo, which plays out somewhat like an extended version of DeMille's prologue to the film, leading to clips he speaks over. Joining this piece are two more traditional trailers, a brisk one from the 1972 reissue (0:55, still misidentified as 1966) and a nostalgic one from 1989 (1:43) that talks up technology and restoration.

And that's all that's here, on the fourth DVD release of Paramount's biggest film of all time (adjusted for inflation). Dropped from the prior DVD are DeMille's silent 1923 Ten Commandments (which is only half about Moses), its Orrison audio commentary, and hand-tinted footage of its Exodus and Red Sea parting sequences. More egregiously dismissed after two DVD appearances is a 6-part, 38-minute documentary (consisting of "Moses", "The Chosen People", "Land of the Pharaohs", "The Paramount Lot", "The Score", and "Mr. DeMille").
Watch a clip on the voice of God from a Gift Set-exclusive bonus feature:
Blu-ray enthusiasts should be pleased to know that all of these features are included, but only in the Limited Edition 6-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo (adorning the third disc on each format). The Gift Set also adds a couple of photo galleries and the 73-minute documentary "The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles", which sounds like it's worth seeing. The upside to Paramount not sending us the set was this review getting done so quickly.

Disc One opens with a promo for The Film Foundation's restorations, a spot inaccessible by menu.

Each disc's scored main menu plays a montage in the center of a rocky backdrop with tablet cursors and a glow resembling that of the Burning Bush.

Allowing his people to escape, Moses parts the Red Sea temporarily in the most iconic sequence of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments."


The Ten Commandments is about as well-known as any old movie, but it gets more credit for being popular and epic than for being a great film. On my long overdue first viewing, I found this to be kind of great. That a film of this length could be so enjoyed for so long, often on standard TV dimensions and ABC's schedule, illustrates that there is something resonant here.
Sure, that it covers the beginning of the Bible in an entertaining way helps. Still, that alone cannot explain the enduring appreciation; for that, DeMille and the reliable Heston deserve recognition for making this ancient tale engaging, palpable, and only rarely hokey.

No one can bemoan Paramount reissuing one of its most profitable jewels in time for Easter. What we can complain about is just how the studio has chosen to revisit the film, requiring a hefty two-format gift set purchase to get most of the bonus features made available on past DVDs. The individual Blu-ray must frustrate in that regard, but this new 2-disc DVD mostly confuses. I would guess that it offers better picture quality than past editions and therefore makes for a fine reasonably-priced, first-time purchase for the majority of the public that still appreciates DVD (and a great audio commentary). But upgrade value is negated by the loss of the past release's third disc and newcomers must now choose between better picture quality or more bonus features.

Unless tight on shelf space and diametrically opposed to Blu-ray, diehard fans probably have no good reason to miss out on the big 100,000-count gift set while it's available, but not getting that set for review, I can't say for sure.

Buy new editions of The Ten Commandments from Amazon.com:
Limited Edition Blu-ray + DVD Gift Set / Blu-ray / DVD

Buy from Amazon.com

Buy older DVD editions:
3-Disc 2006 50th Anniversary Collection / 2-Disc 2004 Special Collector's Edition DVD

Related Reviews:
New: The Miracle Maker (Blu-ray + DVD) Tangled (Blu-ray + DVD) Yogi Bear (Blu-ray + DVD) America America
1950s Movies: Paths of Glory (Criterion Collection) North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition) White Christmas (Anniversary Edition)
1950s Movies & Television: Old Yeller (2-Movie Collection) Sleeping Beauty (Platinum Edition) Zorro: The Complete First Season
1950s Movies: Alice in Wonderland (Blu-ray) Darby O'Gill and the Little People A Star is Born (Deluxe Edition) Funny Face
The Films of Rita Hayworth (featuring Salome) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time The 3 Wise Men
Charlton Heston: Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray) Tombstone (Blu-ray) | Edward G. Robinson: The Stranger Never a Dull Moment

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Reviewed March 30, 2011.

Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1956 Paramount Pictures and 2011 Paramount Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.