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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Ten Commandments

March 26th, 2011

The Ten Commandments - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The final film by legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, whose name in practically synonymous with the term "Epic". And The Ten Commandments is arguably his greatest movie ever earning seven Oscar nominations, including one win for Best Special Effects. (The Greatest Show on Earth did earn the Best Picture Oscar, but now it's widely considered one of the least deserving Best Picture winners and its reviews are middling, at best.) Now some 55 years after its theatrical debut, and some five years after its special edition DVD release, it's coming out on Blu-ray. ... However, I only received a copy of the film on DVD. It's a bit anti-climactic.

The Movie

The film starts with an overture and then Cecil B. DeMille coming out and talking about, among other things, how long the movie is. And he's not kidding. The DVD is a two disc set, but it's not one disc for the movie and another for the special features. The movie is nearly 4-hours long, and that won't fit on one disc.

As for the plot of the movie, I feel kind of silly talking about it. Not only is the movie based on one of the most famous books of the Bible, it is also one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Those that don't know the story of Moses, probably have no interest in this movie.

The film starts with a prophecy made by the astrologers of the court of Egypt. They claim an evil star points to a threat to the Egyptian empire, a threat from within. The first born son of one of the Hebrew slaves will rise up and lead his people in revolt. Because of this, the Pharaoh orders the first born sons of all Hebrews to be killed. Meanwhile, in an attempt to save her son from this decree, Moses's mother sets him adrift on the Nile where he found by Bithiah, the daughter of the Pharaoh. Bithiah recognizes he is Hebrew by his clothing, but vows to protect, and makes her servant swear to keep this secret and to serve him like he was Egyptian.

When next we see Moses, he's the adopted son of the Pharaoh and possible heir to the throne of Egypt. This does not sit well with the Pharaoh's natural born son, Rameses, who feels the throne should be his, but his father says it should be whoever can lead the nation the best. Whoever he chooses will have the throne, and Nefretiri. Rameses spends most of the first part of the film trying to prove Moses is unfit to lead, with the help of a duplicitous Hebrew named Dathan. While Moses spends that time trying to bring about a more compassionate regime, especially where the Hebrew slaves are concerned. (He also works hard at proving Charlton Heston is 90% composed of ham.)

Serious question: Has Charlton Heston ever not overacted in a movie?

When it is revealed that Moses is in fact a Hebrew, he is reduced to the level of a slave, and eventually exiled from Egypt. But later, three hours later, he returns and confronts Rameses, who is now Pharaoh and demands that Rameses set his people free. When Rameses refuses, Moses warns him about the plagues that will befall his kingdom. (We see the water of the Nile turn to blood, but merely hear about most of the rest.) Eventually, the Pharaoh lets Moses and his people go free, only to change his mind and try to kill them. But even after the Hebrews escape, their troubles are not over, and quickly turn against God in the desert. It is clear God will need to set forth rules for his people to follow. A lo, Moses did say, "The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen..." (CRASH!) "Oy! Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey!"

Right now The Ten Commandments holds a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. (Ignore what it says, as the three negative reviews are for different films of the same name. (Two of them are for the CG Ten Commandments from a few years ago.) And while I agree it is a good movie, it is not that good of a movie.

The movie is an epic in every sense of the word. It tells a huge story, one of the most important Biblical stories, and is filled with an incredible cast. The number of amazing actors in the movie is stunning, even if some feel a little miscast. (For instance, Vincent Price plays a lecherous taskmaster in the film. Even Edward G. Robinson as Dathan feels a little out of place, given how much he is associated with gangster movies.) It is also epic in length, which is a bit of a problem at times. There are a few too many shots lingering over a large, but obviously fake sets, in front of an impressive matte painting. One of the problems in making a special effects movie is that they become really dated, really fast. The Ten Commandments won an Oscar for the special effects, but just ten years later, Star Trek would surpass them on a TV budget. The chroma key effects of the day has limitations that are so bad they are distracting at times.

And have I mentioned how much Charlton Heston overacts?

Overall it is still a great movie and worth checking out, but is it worth upgrading from the previous release?

The Extras

Here's where things become complicated. The two-disc DVD only has an audio commentary track and a two-minute newsreel of the premiere. So if you have the previous DVD and buying the Blu-ray is not an option, don't bother upgrading.

The Blu-ray has this, plus the third disc includes Cecil B. DeMille's silent version from 1923 and a feature-length making of documentary, and a couple other extras. It also costs 64% more on, so take that into account. Since I don't have the Blu-ray to review, I can't compare the video or audio quality.

There is also a Limited Edition Giftset, which includes both the DVD and the Blu-ray versions of the movie, as well as some fancy packaging and a booklet. However, it costs more than the DVD and Blu-ray versions combined, so keep that in mind.

The Verdict

The Ten Commandments is an excellent movie, but not all aspects have aged particularly well. The DVD is not worth the upgrade from the previous edition, while I don't have the Blu-ray, so I can't give a really informed opinion on the matter. (It does seem to be acceptable, given the price.) Finally, the Limited Edition Giftset is overpriced in my opinion.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Ten Commandments