‘Ten Commandments’ is still a wonderful classic 50 years later

Charlton Heston is Moses in 'The Ten Commandments'
Charlton Heston is Moses in ‘The Ten Commandments’

I’m not a religious person, but there is something grand about so many of the sweeping religious epics from the 1950s. The Ten Commandments is a film I’ve probably seen dozens of times, often during the holidays, yet I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it all the way through in one sitting. That made it all the more epic to watch it unfold in this new, 50th Anniversary edition DVD.

Although he’s been somewhat dismissed in the last few years, Charlton Heston was a powerful actor who so often played larger-than-life characters. And he seemed to love it. He was practically born to play Moses, a role he devoured, even beneath the overdone beard and wig. Modern audiences may have difficulty relating to the style of the film, with its bombastic acting and casual pace, yet it’s a perfect example of the grand filmmaking style of its time.

I would think that most people would know what this film is about, but to keep it simple, The Ten Commandments tells the story of Moses (Heston). Found in the river and raised as an Egyptian prince, he discovers that he is really a Hebrew and defies the oppressive rule of his “brother” to lead the Jews to the promised land. But that is not the only film found in this collection, something I didn’t quite realize before getting it in the mail few days ago. This 50th Anniversary three-disc DVD set also includes the very interesting original silent film Ten Commandments from 1923. Both films were produced by Cecile B. DeMille, and while the 1956 version was considered something of a “remake”, the stories are quite different.

While the 1956 version focuses entirely on Moses’ life, the original 1923 silent film spans only Moses’ efforts to free his people before fast forwarding to present day, circa 1920s. Once there, it’s an allegorical tale about two brothers that applies the Ten Commandments to modern day life. I was blown away by this, because while I knew of the original 1923 film, I had no idea it had the “present day” storyline. It gets a tad heavy handed, but its quite interesting. The performances are strong, not so melodramatic, which is often the case with silent movies. And the way the first half is reflected and commented upon in the second is quite brilliant.

Both films are presented with stunning quality. The colors are sharp and vibrant in the 1956 version, and the 1923 film features amazing contrast and clarity. Each are grand in their scope in ways that would never — and perhaps could never — be accomplished today. When you see hundreds of people marching through the desert sands, they are not computer generated fakes. Those are real people being herded about, and there’s a realism to it that is simply lost with today’s special effects.

The three-disc DVD set is not overloaded with extras, and that’s just fine. What it does have is perfect, featuring a simple audio commentary (one for each film), a six-part documentary on the making of the 1956 film, as well as trailers and a news reel from the 1956 Commandments’ premiere in New York City. The commentaries are done by Katherine Orrison, who has written several books on Cecile B. DeMille. Her insights are terrific, even though she speaks very quickly, as if not wanting a single moment to pass without comment.

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