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The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments(1956)

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Remind Me

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The 50th Anniversary Edition of The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille's epic remake of his own 1923 film, tells the story of Moses from the infancy to his receiving of the title documents. When the Pharaoh learns of a prophecy of a newly-born leader springing from the Israelite population, he orders the killing of all Hebrew infants. A Hebrew woman named Jacobeth has recently given birth to a son, and tries to save his life by setting him adrift on the Nile in a basket made of bulrushes and pitch. The basket was found by the Pharaoh's daughter, who named him Moses and took him in to raise him as her own.

When Moses becomes an adult he learns of his true origins, and decides to go among his own people, where he finds to his horror that they are treated like animals. Fighting back on a small scale would be futile, and Moses doesn't know what to do to remedy the situation -- but an encounter with a burning bush would change that. The voice of God speaks from the bush, and tells Moses that he was meant to liberate the Israelites from their bondage. Moses travels back to Egypt and to the new Pharaoh (Yul Brynner), his own former half brother, and tells him that if he doesn't release the Israelites, God will release a series of plagues on Egypt. Pharaoh of course refuses, and Egypt is beset by plagues. Pharaoh remains unmoved until the final plague, in which God kills off the first born of every family.

The Israelites are released in a mass exodus (that literally employs a cast of thousands) and set out into the desert, led by Moses. But it isn't long before Pharaoh hardens his heart again, and mobilizes his army of charioteers to go after them. The chase leads to the Red Sea, where the Israelites' faith starts to fail them, as they watch Pharaoh's men nearing them from the distance, and they are helplessly trapped by the sea. That is when Moses performs one of his greatest miracles with the legendary parting of the Red Sea. Once safely encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Moses climbs up into the mountain where he once again encounters the voice of God, and receives the stone tablets bearing the commandments.

The 1956 version of The Ten Commandments is a time-consuming spectacle that goes an awfully long way to the payoff at the Red Sea. Still, Charlton Heston, as Moses, delivers a powerhouse performance in what he considered "the role of the year," and Anne Baxter and Yvonne DeCarlo are wonderful as Nefretiri and Sephora. But the film is stolen by Edward G. Robinson in his smooth, canny turn as Dathan, and especially Yul Brynner as the new, unrelenting Pharaoh. The much-touted special effects are mainly serviceable by today's standards (particularly the writing of the tablets), with the exception of the parting of the Red Sea, which remains impressive today. At the time of its release it simply stunned audiences. But even in later years, in one of its general re-releases to theaters, some theaters in Chicago actually listed the time the parting would occur!

For any faults the film may have, it delivers something that is rarely seen today: true spectacle. Watching this film with its massive, giant images and hordes of people will prove to you that there really is a difference between an army made up of people, and a computer generated army, which despite improvements in technology still do not look real. On the heels of his success with The Greatest Show on Earth, De Mille set out to make the epic to end all epics, and he fulfilled his wish, going out with a bang.

The 50th Anniversary Edition is rife with extras, beginning with the inclusion of De Mille's original 1923 silent version of the story. This proves to be a faithful retelling of the story, though it doesn't cover as much ground as its successor. It is also quite a odd film in it's own right: it follows the Moses story until the parting of the Red Sea, then reverts to modern day where it attempts to act out the effects of breaking each of the commandments in a story of two brothers, each of whom take separate roads.

Both films include a commentary by Katherine Orrison, the author of Written in Stone: The Making of Cecil B. DeMille's Epic. There is interesting six-part documentary (totally about 35 minutes) about the making of the film with new interviews with Heston and some of the younger cast members. Also included are "The Ten Commandments in New York Premiere Newsreel," three trailers for various releases of the '56 film, and hand tinted footage of the exodus and parting of the Red Sea sequences from the silent version.

The transfer of the 1956 version is splendid, with deep, rich colors and deep, solid blacks. Flesh tones are consistent, and the film is beautifully contrasted throughout. The audio features rich, full-bodied tone quality, deep bass, and dialogue that is crystal clear.

For more information about The Ten Commandments, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The Ten Commandments, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter