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DVD Review: The Ten Commandments (Two Disc Special Edition)

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Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) is undoubtedly one of the all-time epics in film history. Everything about it was big – the story, the cast, the special effects, the budget, and the length. At just shy of four hours, it is one of the longest commercial films ever released. For decades now it has been an annual television Easter tradition. While the movie has been in the public eye for 55 years and counting, it is unlikely that it has ever looked quite as spectacular as it does now since its premiere.

For the 55th anniversary, Paramount have remastered this classic frame by frame for simultaneous DVD/Blu Ray release. The result is a stunning display of Technicolor and special effects that manage to retain their magic all these years later. It would be disingenuous to discuss Demille’s greatest achievement without noting that it is a literal film adaptation of the story of Moses as told in The Bible.

Having said that however, The Ten Commandments is such a work of art that it can (and has been) appreciated by people of all faiths. The drama at the heart of the story is truly compelling. When the Egyptian Pharoah Ramses I decrees that all first-born Hebrew males, the infant Moses’ mother floats him in a basket on the Nile in hopes that he will find a home. Princess Bithia finds him and adopts him into the palace as her son. The irony is rich, the child who was to be killed is now being raised in the very household that had sanctioned his death.

When Moses grows up, and is one of the most powerful men of Egypt, his secret is exposed. From here his life’s mission becomes to set his people free. After being exiled to the desert for 40 years, where he eventually is spoken to by God, Moses returns to Egypt to fulfill his lifed mission.

Demille’s attention to detail throughout the film is stunning. The Ten Commandments is filled with supremely moving scenes, and all of it is presented in a way that never feels cursory. It is my opinion that there has never really been a film done so thoroughly, and so entertainingly as well. Four hours is a very long time after all, yet I never get restless when watching this one – and I must have watched it at least 25 times or more over the years.

Besides the beautiful remastering of the film, the DVD boasts a few bonus features. There is a commentary track by Katherine Orrison, which provides much insight. There is also a black and white newsreel filmed at the 1956 New York premiere.

The most interesting extra though is the original “Making Of” trailer. This is much more than a simple trailer. The full-color piece runs for ten minutes, and is hosted by none other than the 75 year old Cecile B. Demille himself. The director is surrounded by artifacts from the film, as well as very old and quite beautiful texts (including an ancient Bible) that he uses in his explanation of how the story was put together from various sources. This is quite a fascinating bit of film ephemera to be included, one that I had no idea existed, and is a very welcome addition to the set.

There are two more rather pedestrian trailers included as well, one for the ten year anniversary in 1966 the other done in 1989. Extras and commentaries aside though, nothing can top the beauty of Cecile B. Demille’s final film. Do yourself a favor and see it again. And again. It is an absolute classic.

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About Greg Barbrick