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The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection

They really don't make them like they used to. Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 magnum opus The Ten Commandments has long held a place in cinema history, first and foremost for its unparalleled success. Once adjusted for inflation, it's one of the five most successful films of all time and is annually shown at Easter on the broadcast networks (an impressive feat these days, joining Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life in the perennial "holiday favorite" way). That said — and it really must be said — The Ten Commandments works because it can be enjoyed as a history lesson, a Biblical study, and a camp classic. It's true, the movie's kind of silly. Attempting to portray the life and times of Moses, it follows his story as the Pharaoh decrees that Hebrew babies are to be slaughtered in fear of a prophesy that one of these kids might overthrow the country. To save him from the slaughter, Moses's mom sends him down the river Nile, where he's adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch). Growing up into a strapping young lad (Charlton Heston), Moses competes with Rhamses (Yul Brynner) to be made the next Pharaoh, and both want it since whomever is made leader gets the hand of the beautiful Nefritiri (Anne Baxter, whose character's name was changed from Nefrititi in fear of boob jokes). But just as Moses is about to be named the next Pharaoh, Bithiah's handmaiden Memnet (Dame Judith Anderson) reveals Moses's dirty secret of his lineage, which allows Rhamses to banish him. Shunned, Moses is forced to wander the desert and finally meets his destiny when God appears to him as a burning bush. Going back to Egypt, Moses tries to show Rhamses that his Hebrew people must be freed or God's wrath will be put upon him. From here the film plays like Moses's Greatest Hits, with the parting of the Red Sea, the forging of the Ten Commandments, and the episode of God's punishment for those worshipping at the altar of a golden calf, all done with 1956's most state-of-the-art special effects.

Though the Biblical epic became a popular Hollywood genre in this era — with this title begetting such others as Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told — none of these movies could figure out how Biblical characters talked, which leads to some doozy dialogue that plays up the camp (at one point Yul Brynner purrs "Oh Moses Moses Moses.") And though it heightens one's amusement, this camp is magnified by the presence of numerous genre actors playing Biblical characters (Edward G. Robinson — best known for his years as a Warner Brothers gangster — plays Rhamses' henchman Dathan, while Vincent Price plays effete villain Baka). That noted, Heston and Brynner excel in their roles. Though he may be best known as the King of Siam, Brynner is a commanding leader, and his Rhamses may be his best on-screen appearance, while Heston manages to have the proper gravitas to anchor the story, and he also manages to keep himself from appearing ludicrous even when he's being lusted over. The Ten Commandments is a lush spectacle for which no expense was spared in its making; there are literally thousands of extras, and when they're building cities, one gets the sense that they actually could have done so, while Loyal Griggs' cinematography makes it all feel like an animated feature with its vivid use of color.

*          *          *

For the film's third DVD release, Paramount presents The Ten Commandments in a "50th Anniversary Collection" with the nearly four-hour feature spread across two discs in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Supplements include an audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments, a six-part, 37-min. documentary on the making of the film, newsreel footage from the premiere (3 min.), two trailers, and a ten-minute pre-release promo piece hosted by DeMille (who also narrates the film). New to DVD is the material on the third disc: DeMille's 1923 version of the film. It's one-third the story of Moses and two-thirds the then-contemporary story of two Cain-and-Abel-like brothers, John (Richard Dix) and Dan McTavish (Rod LaRocque), who fight over the same girl. John's the good one, and he's an architect, while Dan becomes a contractor and builds a church with such shoddy materials it ends up killing their mother. It's amusingly hoary, and it comes with a commentary by Orrison, as well as hand-tinted footage of the Exodus and parting of the Red Sea sequences. Three-DVD digipak with semi-transparent fold-out cover.
—DSH



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