BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

By • Jun 23rd, 2011 •

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For filmgoers of my generation, Cecil B. DeMille’s widescreen version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS has always been held in esteem for its unique blend of tack and transcendence. When the film was released in November of 1956, Time Magazine compared DeMille’s nearly four-hour workout to a fifty foot chorus girl. (Could this have been an inspiration for THE ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN a few years later?) Recently I picked up a two-disc BluRay of a newly restored element from the original

VistaVision of DeMille’s final and longest, if not greatest, achievement. Having seen the film when it premiered in a theatre that was set up to project VistaVision, I was very curious to see whether the BluRay captured any of the film’s original dazzle.

I passed on the box set, in which the six discs are held in a plastic reproduction of Moses’ stone tablets, a characteristic mix of the bombastic and reverent which I’m sure DeMille would have approved. The box also includes a feature-length documentary as well as a new transfer of the silent 1923 TEN COMMANDMENTS, a much different and better film, in which the Biblical story is only used as a prologue, while the rest is set in modern times.

In the 1956 film’s introduction, DeMille says, “The Holy Bible omits some thirty years of Moses’ life. To fill in those missing years, we turn to ancient historians such as Josepheus.” Well, I’ve read Josephus, but I don’t recall anything about Moses being involved in a tempestuous love triangle with Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) and his half-brother Prince Rameses (a glowering Yul Brynner, repeating his role of a noble savage from THE KING AND I, but with much less charm). “Your fragrance is like the wine of Babylon,” a love-drunk Moses tells Nefertiri, who waves her emerald-encrusted fan haphazardly in a manner that one assumes implies a grand passion. The marvelous Ms. Baxter, who embodied the scheming title character of Joseph Mankiewicz’ ALL ABOUT EVE (1951), snagging an Academy Award nomination in the process, here has no choice but to look petulant and repeat the same line, “Moses, Moses, Moses, what a stubborn, lovable fool you are!” throughout the picture. Poor Ms. Baxter.

Fortunately, the second half of the film deals with the historical Moses, rather than DeMille’s half-remembered fever dream of an Orientalist adventure tale. There is more than enough spectacle to set both DeMille and his designers all a-twitter, including day-glo colored plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s chariots submerged in a glittery blue screen processed tidal wave, and even a full-blooded sex orgy involving the Golden Calf on Mt. Sinai (unfortunately within the chaste boundaries of the censors, so that the mingling bodies resemble an especially cryptic modern dance recital). What I found particularly striking, however, was how Moses (as performed by a stalwart yet surprisingly subtle Charlton Heston) was made into an especially complex figure, who refused almost to the very end any kind of active role in liberating his people, though was animated by a force that was his own yet seemed to come from outside him.

Seeing the 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS at the tender age of five, for me the trick was VistaVision. In the theatre I went to, DeMille’s introduction was projected in standard size. Then the curtains closed, the lights went up briefly, and when the curtains parted again, I was confronted by this huge space that seemed to extend infinitely as far as my eye could see. Spread across the now gigantic screen was the Paramount logo re-imagined as Mt. Sinai, a frightening vision, awesomely magisterial and quasi-three-dimensional, combining the hand of God with that of the box office. How could I help but watch such an extravagant display?

It was Indian Summer, with the air uncharacteristically balmy for early November. I wanted to romp about in piles of autumn leaves, spreading a riot of crimson and gold across neighboring lawns, not to be dragged by my mother to a three hour and thirty-nine minute movie “with intermission,” as DeMille stated in his introduction. I didn’t even know what an intermission was. In fact, I was so impressed when the word “Intermission” appeared, edged in guilt, naturally, against a scarlet background, that I dreamt about it that night.

In my dream, I was walking about the craggy set used in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS for the burning bush sequence when a one-eyed monster appeared. I ran into a cave, and suddenly everything changed, for I was in a dark alley recently washed by rain, with fog-enshrouded streetlamps. At the end of the alley was a phone booth next to a raging river. The monster was coming closer, and I realized there was no escape. Then the phone started to ring, so I picked up the receiver. A voice said, “You are having a dream. Pinch yourself three times and you’ll wake up.” So I pinched myself three times, and still dreaming, woke up in the theatre where I had seen THE TEN COMMANDMENTS with the word “Intermission” on the screen. Sitting next to me were my friends from the first grade. “I didn’t think the phone booth was very plausible,” one of them commented.

It was seventy degrees and sunny on that Sunday afternoon when I went to see THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. After watching a stony faced Charlton Heston (in an increasingly fake-looking beard) transform staffs into snakes and water into blood for three hours and thirty-nine minutes, I had a real shock, for not only was it night, but the trees were covered with freshly fallen snow. For me, too young to have become familiar with the mercurial nature of the weather in upstate New York, I considered this a sign from above that everything I had seen in the movie was true.

In fact, I mentioned this to my classmates as we sat under the cafeteria tables during an air raid, which the school staged in case of nuclear war every other Monday. “The snow was a sign from God,” I said. At first my classmates just looked at me. Then finally one of them said, “How often does it snow in Syracuse in November?” Of course, it happened all the time, though for my friend Mel, who coincidentally saw THE TEN COMMANDMENTS back in 1956 in North Carolina on the same Sunday as I, exiting his small town theatre into that freak snowstorm that blanketed the entire East Coat must have seemed even more miraculous.

In any case, more than fifty years have passed. I’m quite a different person (or so I’d like to think) from the one who sat in that theatre in Syracuse, New York. As I watched the BluRay, in spite of the ridiculous length, a narrative that made little sense, Edward G. Robinson’s habitually vanishing toupee, Vincent Price’s sublimely bored expression, John Derek’s inability to recite the simplest line of dialogue, the beauty of the Egyptian locations (which I was looking forward to) rendered utterly phony by more traveling mattes of tempestuous skies than you could possibly count, the languorous pacing that would make a Phillip Glass opera seem action-packed; in spite of all this, there was an intangible something that approximated what it was like seeing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS for the first time in 1956, and I was enthralled.

The answer as to the how and why is a bit complex, combining as it does the technological with the evocations of emotions I haven’t felt since I was a child. Like many children, I completely believed in the spirit world. In fact, there was a tree on the way to the theatre that I knew was populated by ghosts, and I said hello to them as my mother and I passed. (What my mother thought of this, or if in fact she even noticed, I have no idea.)

What I remember most from seeing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS as a child was this feeling of faith that seemed to seep from the very grain of the film. For whatever reason, this intense religiosity of DeMille’s came across to me specifically as an awareness of being Jewish, ultimately leading to my moving to New York City and entering a yeshiva, a really strange place on Riverside Drive and 140th street that was a former nunnery, with Gothic turrets that overlooked the Hudson River. Suffice it to say that I quickly became disillusioned, and one gloomy afternoon began walking down Broadway deep in thought until I found myself in front of the New Yorker theatre, which was playing a double bill of NORTH BY NORTHWEST and SHANE. In the convivial darkness of the New Yorker’s art deco interior, I discovered what NYU professor William K. Everson later referred to as the religion of cinema. In a dozen years, I had come full circle.

Since DeMille mentions in the film’s introduction that he based his script on the Medrash, a Hebrew commentary to the Torah and one of the books I studied in yeshiva, I thought I would comment briefly. First of all, according to the Medrash, Yoheved, Moses’ mother, was a midwife, and one of the people most responsible for saving many first born Jewish males from Pharaoh’s decree. What a wonderful plot twist that would have made! Unfortunately, this information is nowhere to be found in DeMille’s film. In Hebrew, Yoheved’s name is formed of the same letters, yod hey vov hey, that make up the divine name of God. Think about that a moment and see how it expands one’s conception of the character. Then again, seeing as the majority of DeMille’s prospective audience didn’t know Hebrew, I can understand why this was not explored.

Although THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in conception as well as execution is inept in the extreme, nonetheless there is this aspect of simple faith unadorned, that transcends all the flaws inherent in the film. As Andrew Sarris points out in his essay on DeMille in The American Cinema, DeMille was possibly the last director who believed in telling a story for its own sake. It is DeMille’s investment in this story, no matter how implausible, combined with the audacity of his images, that weaves a spell to which most viewers, whatever their personal beliefs, succumb. It’s also a movie that is utterly stunning to look at, as well as jaw-dropping in its scale and ambition, which is finally brought to a close approximation of its original state by the amazing presentation on this Blu-ray.

DeMille, of course, was one of the great directors of silent cinema, whose work in the teens and twenties has never been equaled, and in both his innovative use of lighting and editing as well as his almost intuitive sense of imagery, in which a three-dimensional sense of character transcended the often melodramatic subject matter, influenced later directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang. If it hadn’t been for my love of the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS, I might never have discovered DeMille’s silents at such an early age. The RKO theatre in downtown Syracuse showed silent films on Saturday morning when I was growing up, and I went to see the 1923 TEN COMMANDMENTS, expecting another version of the story of Moses, instead discovering a unique universe, not to mention a completely different consciousness, expressed by DeMille and his fellow directors, which was lost to us for almost three quarters of a century, and is now only beginning to be unearthed on DVD.

Starring such charismatic talents as Rod La Roque and Nita Naldi, the 1923 silent version tells a story of two brothers that is moralistic in the extreme; yet, because of the naturalistic performances and DeMille’s use of lighting and framing, is extraordinarily subtle. DeMille creates a series of memorable images that somehow invoke the Biblical story of the prologue while avoiding the campy two-dimensionality of the 1956 version.

This is not to imply that DeMille’s sound films are not worth seeing, though they are on a much lower level of accomplishment, both in terms of subject matter as well as a strident campiness that comes in around the time of SIGN OF THE CROSS, a sexually suggestive Biblical spectacle that was so successful DeMille kept repeating the formula for the rest of his career. Still, there are exquisite moments, such as the barge scene in CLEOPATRA, and even whole movies, such as THE BUCCANEER and REAP THE WILD WIND.

Whereas, on an aesthetic level, the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS is far from DeMille’s best work, the use of VistaVision is extremely impressive, and, as seen on this BluRay, is an artistic achievement in its own right. Vista Vision was originally shot and projected horizontally as opposed to vertically, which expanded the frame by shooting an image twice as large (eight perforations as opposed to the normal four, for those of you out there who need to know). This larger image created, at least in the hands of a sophisticated visual artist like DeMille, an overwhelming emotional response in the viewer through the use of depth and color, which was greatly enhanced by the additional detail and crystalline smoothness, as well as by being printed on finer grain film (which was then just coming into use).

There’s a quality about DeMille’s images that not only seems to pre-date the sound era, but the 20th Century altogether. The compositions, balanced in their framing, appear classical, but also depend on extreme contrasts in lighting and in the relationship between foreground and background, often placing darkly lit figures with glowing highlights (such as hair) against a shallow, undefined space that suddenly opens up, either through camera movement or editing, taking a viewer by surprise. This causes what one is seeing to appear simultaneously iconic and yet of the moment, getting under one’s skin.

A good example of this is in the beginning of the Red Sea sequence, where the Pharaoh, in a darkened alcove of red stone and dressed in dark blue except for a glowing breastplate, raises his spear, and is surrounded by speeding chariots with white horses that have come from behind, the wheels and ornaments a bright gold, and the soldiers in red cloaks. The camera then pans against their movement so that everything seems blurred. In the larger format and sharper clarity of VistaVision, these colors take on almost abstract patterns, like a moving painting, layer after layer flowing before one’s eyes. Add to this an uncompressed stereo mix with blaring trumpets coming from the surround speakers in the same rhythm as the chariots moving on screen, and you have an image that is fairly hypnotic.

Ultimately, DeMille’s film attempts to be all things for all people, from a parable about freedom appealing to the then burgeoning Civil Rights movement (“Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, to all the inhabitants thereof,” Moses says on the way to heaven), to a sermon about spiritual piety with fundamentalist overtones (“Who is on the Lord’s side, let him come to me!” Moses says before smashing the tablets of the Law and destroying the Golden Calf), to the heart-rending melodrama of a princess who loves not wisely but too well, to a lush, eye-popping boy’s adventure with lots of charging armies in chariots. Because of this, the film is a series of contradictions, veering between sober-sided pomposity and the sublimely silly (in a way mirroring the contradictions of the Holy Bible itself), finally accruing meaning by focusing both visually and narratively upon the gaze and transformation of a specific human consciousness, that of the prophet Moses.

What allows THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to still speak to us today is not only DeMille’s faithfulness to the human complexity of the man called Moses, but also by DeMille remaining faithful to himself. The filmmaking expresses the artist DeMille had been from the very beginning of his development, who first cried “action” on a vacant lot in an undeveloped Hollywood in 1913, and remained the same through the coming of the studios, the revolutions of sound, color and widescreen, as well as the transformation of the country during the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and the Second World War. Due to DeMille’s steadfastness, the film’s story of a human being’s vision merges with that of its maker, and his surprisingly visionary cinematic style.

This Blu-ray from Paramount is the first home video I have seen that is close to the original VistaVision presentation of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in both its visual virtuosity as well as a sense of the grandiose (and I mean that in a good way). While the aspect ratio is roughly 1:78:1, I myself remember the frame being closer to 2:00:1 when I saw THE TEN COMMANDMENTS back in 1956. Of course, it was a long time ago, and it’s possible that being used as I was to standard aspect ratios in neighborhood theaters of 1:35:1, the additional space and clarity simply bowled me over. If you’re a fan of this film, I would simply junk whatever other transfers you own. In terms of velvety color and remarkable, almost three-dimensional clarity, not to mention the uncompressed brilliance of Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent score, finally presented in true stereophonic sound, nothing else holds a candle to this remarkable BluRay, which is highly recommended.

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One Response »

  1. Let my people SNOW! Very funny Mark.

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