Wednesday, March 30, 2011

‘Ten Commandments’ Review:’ Cecil B. DeMille’s Masterpiece Arrives on Blu-ray Today

By John Nolte
March 29, 2011

If you want to understand why, 55 years on, Cecil B. DeMille’s epic retelling of the story of Moses, from his birth to ascendancy into Heaven, is still as beloved today as it was when released during the first term of the Eisenhower administration, all you need do is watch the director explain the theme of his masterpiece in the short segment that opens the film. It’s an odd moment. After all, how many movies open with the director stepping out from behind a curtain to lay the groundwork for what’s to follow? This unconventional decision more than works, though, as it sets a thoughtful and reverential tone that will carry you through the upcoming 220 minutes.

Mr. DeMille tells us outright…

“The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men property of the State, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

Yes, today, and not just where “The Ten Commandments” is set — throughout the Middle East in countries such as Egypt — but also here in America as we watch an ever-growing federal government burden us with debt and chip away at our liberties. I’m not comparing Egypt’s current struggle with our own in any way other than how DeMille’s use of this universal theme speaks in some way to everyone and will for as long as there’s a civilization. As his epic unfolds, this is the theme DeMille holds on to, straight through to the story’s final line of dialogue — Moses’ (Charlton Heston) parting words to Joshua (John Derek) before he joins the God who has put him through so much:

“Go. Proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants there of.”

Last week I watched the entire film straight through twice, once on the big-screen at a special event commemorating the film’s Blu-ray release, and again just a few days later on the actual Blu-ray. The finest compliment I can pay one of Hollywood’s all-time great epics is that I could watch it again tonight and enjoy it just as much. DeMille’s world is so vivid, so detailed and all consuming, that after spending nearly four hours visiting, you just want to return to lose yourself into it again and again. The story stays with you for days and you truly do miss spending time with those wonderfully drawn characters.

What’s most remarkable about the new Blu-ray is that it is easily the most beautiful film I’ve ever screened on television. Though the print I saw in the theatre Thursday night was a full, frame by frame restoration and jaw-dropping all on its own, the Blu-ray is, impossibly, even more beautiful. The VistaVision widescreen Technicolor pops right off the screen in ways I didn’t think possible. The richness of the colors, the stability of the blacks, and the details of everything, including fabrics and architecture, pull you deeper and deeper into the world of the film. The work DeMille put into the look of each frame is detailed in a terrific 75-minute “making of” documentary included only with the Blu-ray gift set, and my guess is that even the director himself never saw his work displayed as beautifully as this Blu-ray.

After watching “The Ten Commandments” at home Sunday afternoon, I made the mistake of screening Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood.” Suddenly, what was once my favorite-looking film on DVD now looks positively wan in comparison. I’m not happy about that at all.

Also included in the pricey but well-worth-it Blu-ray gift set is DeMille’s original 1923 silent version of “The Ten Commandments,” which I’d never seen before and is well worth a look. Only the first hour covers the actual story of Moses and except for the visual splendor of all those magnificent sets and the parting of the Red Sea, it’s the least interesting part of the film. The problem is that it unfolds like a moving pop-up book hitting on the beats of Moses’ journey but without all the palace intrigue, character development and complicated relationships that make the 1956 version so addictive. The remaining 90 minutes, however, are set in 1920s America and tell the compelling story of two brothers who love the same woman. One is good and a believer in God. The other rejects God and is so rigid in his non-belief he destroys himself while in the process of proving life can be good if you dedicate yourself to violating the Commandments.

Not being a silent film fan, I popped in the 1923 version only out of a reviewer’s obligation and even then busied myself with something else while it played in the background. About two hours in, I realized I was missing something special, started the whole picture over again and sat there spellbound until two in the morning. That doesn’t happen very often.

The gift set is gorgeous, a real treasure-trove, and not only includes the “making of” documentary and the 1923 film version (on Blu-ray), but also a wonderful hardcover photo book and a replica of the 1956 souvenir program. There’s also a set of cards with costume sketches of all the main players and some truly fascinating archival reproductions that include a wonderful hand-written letter Charlton Heston sent to “Mr. DeMille,” a man he obviously held an enormous amount of personal affection and respect for. Using footage from 2002, Heston also appears in the “making of” documentary, and again, it’s always “MISTER DeMille.” To command that kind of respect from a man like Charlton Heston is quite the compliment.

I know that there are those who accuse the film of being campy, but I see it more as something that’s larger-than-life. Anne Baxter’s frequent use of “Moses, Moses…” catches most of the flack but let me tell you, when she turns evil in the third act it is very effective. Another performance poked fun at is Edward G. Robinson’s Dathan, but I find him hilarious in the way I think I’m supposed to. He’s so unashamed of being a scumbag that when he’s dancing like a Goldwyn Girl in front of the golden calf, I practically fall out of my chair. I think it’s a marvelous performance by a genius actor who added something no one else could.

At the center of it all, though, stand two giants. If it’s impossible to see anyone but Heston playing Moses (and it is), it is even more impossible to see anyone but Yul Brynner as Ramses II. Not only is he a convincing and formidable antagonist to a man able to summon the very power of God, but DeMille’s direction of this character is absolutely brilliant. Repeatedly, Ramses is slighted by the woman he wants and even his own father, and yet never once does DeMille cut away to a reaction shot of Brynner looking wounded. And yet, thanks to Brynner’s extraordinary screen presence, Ramses is never one-dimensional. But because DeMille never asked us to sympathize with him, when he’s finally beaten, when he finally says, “His God is God,” it is an unforgettable defeat that might prove the power of God even more than the parting of all that water.

Though God is obviously DeMille’s star, Heston is the sun around which everything else revolves. His ability to speak some very difficult lines with complete sincerity is probably the greatest testament to his abilities as an actor. For any actor, that kind of straightforward dialogue, much of it spoken as grand proclamations, is a tightrope without a net. The risk of looking foolish is enormous and yet Heston never comes close. It’s a legendary and iconic performance no amount of words can do justice.

The rest of the cast is just as perfect. Yvonne DeCarlo is simply breathtaking as Moses’ shepherd wife Sephora; Nina Foch is utterly believable as Bithiah, Pharaoh’s sister and Moses’ adopted mother; Cedric Hardwicke as Pharaoh gives humor and humanity to a real monster; Vincent Price as Baka the builder is deliciously sleazy; and Martha Scott as Moses’ birth mother Yochabel is the perfect contrast to Bithiah. Finally, there’s John Carradine as Moses’ brother Aaron — a presence and voice all his own; John Derek and Debra Paget as star-crossed lovers; and Lisa Mitchell as one of Jethro’s beautifully innocent daughters — a lovely woman I met at the screening who along with Heston’s son Fraser (who plays the Baby Moses), carries the torch of the film’s legacy wherever she goes. Her stories, insight and anecdotes are a real highlight of the “making of” documentary.

And don’t get me started on Elmer Bernstein’s PERFECT score, which has been stuck in my head for nearly a week.

Soon, I’ll watch the film again in order to enjoy the full feature-length commentary by Kathryn Orrison (who I also met at the screening), author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments.” Unfortunately, I just didn’t have time for a third screening, but the commentary I did hear during my five favorite scenes/sequences…

1.Moses meets his birth mother for the first time
2.The Burning Bush
3.The final plague/Passover
4.The Exodus from Egypt and parting of the Red Sea
5.The juxtaposition between God’s writing of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and the G-rated orgy around the golden calf.

…was some of the best I’ve ever heard. She knows everything and obviously has enormous respect for the film and all of those who made it possible.

It was 1980 and I was 14 years-old. On Easter weekend, my brother, who was only a baby at the time, broke his leg in a freak accident and was hospitalized for almost a week. Obviously, we all held vigil around the clock and I’ll never forget sitting in a waiting room all by myself on Easter Sunday as ABC broadcast “The Ten Commandments” in its entirety over five hours. It was such an awful situation for our family and yet here was this deceptively small story playing out against an epic backdrop to keep me company. Fourteen is an impressionable age and how lucky was I to have experienced such a powerful lesson in faith, courage and freedom?

What I’m most grateful for is that repeated viewings never diminish the power of MISTER DeMille’s final film to inspire, entertain, and teach. What I’m not especially happy about, though, is that this Blu-ray transfer is so drop dead gorgeous, that I’m now likely to become dissatisfied with an embarrassingly large DVD collection I’ve spent two decades and a ton of money building.

“The Ten Commandments” Blu-ray was released today. You can choose between the gift set – which I reviewed here, the two-disc special edition Blu-ray, or the two-disc DVD.

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