The Ten Commandments means that it’s almost Easter again. Why does this film get to be one of those weird Holiday movie staples? After all, its release was a bit of a vanity project back in the 1950s for both Paramount and Cecil B. DeMille. A victory lap of sorts meant to celebrate an aging director and the cinema’s advancement over Television. Now, it’s one of the few classic movies that gets any airtime on modern TV channels.
I don’t know what it is about animals uncharacteristically laying eggs or feats of resurrection that captures the imagination. However, people can’t deny that the story has everything. Abandoned babies, slaves, dead first born and Yul Brynner before he went to Davos. While I don’t believe the film needed to be this long, I appreciate the gusto.
However, bravado can only entertain people for so long. Do something that I recommend of all older classic movie lovers. Watch the film for a first time with a casual viewer. I promise you that their complaint is going to be the same across the board. The Ten Commandments is two movies in one.
Most viewers’ first encounters with The Ten Commandments comes from television broadcasts. I know that we have some old heads reading the site, but your original theatrical screenings are the exception to the rule. Still, any age of fan has to be curious why the film wasn’t split into two tales. It’s not like any audience is claiming to post up for a solid four hours at a time. But, I guess that’s a story for another time.
Paramount usually does right by their classic releases. In fact, they have a stunning Collector’s Edition line about to start in a few weeks. Sure, a lot of it is retreads of things that already have 2 or 3 Blu-ray releases. But, we’re getting a proper release for King Creole. The Ten Commandments Blu-ray release has a fair share of ported over special features. The booklet is brand-new and pretty cool.
What time has lessened for modern audiences about The Ten Commandments is that it was a spectacle movie. Out of the film’s Oscar nominations, it’s only win came for Special Effects. No matter how great the transfer, those process shots in The Ten Commandments are always going to look rough. But, American classics get a free pass among the academics.
Sure, it got a Best Picture and Best Director nomination…but let’s look at the film. Considered to be the most expensive film made at that point in World History, it was a curiously timed release designed to capitalize on a few things. First off, it was a nearly 4 hour movie designed for Holiday timed releases throughout the United States. Second, it was going to be DeMille’s last major release. Finally, it had literally ever star that Paramount could throw at the screen.
Director Cecil B. DeMille is more than an acquired taste. He made Biblical epics, War movies and even had battles with giant squids at times. Still, he was an elderly man throwing himself out on the front lines. The filming took several years and was set back by Cecil B. DeMille having the first of several heart attacks on location in Egypt.
When one studies DeMille, you can’t help but notice something. He’s an idea man with a one-track mind. Frequently cribbing from his past work, he was always revisiting and restaging in a time where newer was better. There weren’t a ton of silent era directors still hammering away in Hollywood. But, DeMille was an auteur with the money to force his way in at every step. Especially because he was Paramount’s most profitable director for decades.
Pairing this release with the 1923 Silent Film version was a stroke of genius. We’re in an age where all of our efforts should be made to restore and make American silent film accessible to everyone. I get that it’s not as profitable due to copyrights expiring. But, this is our nation’s art and it saves our cultural souls to keep it alive.
That being said, silent era biblical pictures always looked like 20 or so people died to make them. The Ten Commandments (1923) followed the same format as its more famous remake. However, the sets seemed more handmade and the actors were pushed way harder into certain set pieces. It’s not The Ten Commandments that you know, but it’s worth visiting as a far shorter entry.
Whatever you religious beliefs might be, let’s make one thing clear. The adventures of the Judeo Christian God and his boy Jesus H. Christ make for some fascinating stories. The Ten Commandments features so many familiar scenes. From the still classic parting of The Red Sea to Moses talking to the Burning Bush. The first half of The Ten Commandments is still memorable, but more in the costuming sense.
As I wrap up my thoughts on the film, I’m left with one nagging notion. What is it about The Ten Commandments that remains so watchable despite not being a great movie. Some people watch it for camp value and others are religiously devoted. What about the people in-between? What do they get from this movie?
Moreso, these movies contributed a great deal to our shared cinematic visual history. A lot of that has to do with how culturally entombed it became in our shared cultural touchstone. Young people know what it means to part the seas or in the act of finding orphans set adrift to better lives. Even if they don’t spring immediate name recognition, these are visual storytelling mined down to the psychological level.
The Blu-ray comes with special features ported over from the various Blu and DVD releases. The big new additions are the Ten Commandments silent film version and the booklet. I’m not a big fan of the case, because it puts a lot of stress on the disc hubs. If for some reason, you don’t own a copy of this film currently, pick it up. Your parents will think you’re not going to Hell if you do it.