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Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Disc review by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits


The Ten Commandments: Limited Edition Gift Set (Blu-ray Disc/DVD)

The Ten Commandments: Limited Edition Gift Set
1956 (2011) - Paramount (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 29th, 2011
Also available on 2-disc Blu-ray and DVD only editions

DTS-HD MA

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 20
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A+


Paramount has always recognized that 1956's The Ten Commandments is one of the prestige items in its catalog. It gave us a very attractive three-disc letterboxed laserdisc version for the film's 35th anniversary and provided a nice-looking if somewhat sparse introductory DVD version a decade ago. Over the intervening period we've also seen a 2-disc Special Collector's Edition and then a 3-disc 50th Anniversary Edition that included the 1923 version of the film. Now it's 2011 and Paramount has outdone itself with a marvelous 55th anniversary Blu-ray release.

The Ten Commandments was the culmination of director Cecil B. DeMille's career in Hollywood, one that extended back to the early days of silent films. It was also typical of the sort of large-scale extravaganzas that became DeMille's trademark. One has only to look at this film to see the embodiment of the old Hollywood aphorism, the cast of thousands. The film was not new ground for DeMille as he had produced and directed a silent version in 1923, also for release through Paramount. This earlier version had been a two-part film, the first of which had told the story of Moses, and the second an application of the commandments to modern life in San Francisco in a story about two brothers who love the same woman. The application to a modern tale is effective, but the original biblical story is less compelling in its abbreviated format. Still it's interesting to watch DeMille's initial conception of the idea and then see how the approach altered with the intervening years and the application of sound. The 1956 version, filmed on location in Egypt, stuck strictly to the biblical tale and devoted 3 hours and 51 minutes to recounting it.

The 1956 film's cast is a sort of who's who of the 1950s with a truly impressive array of talent including Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Marsha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine. Most of them come off quite well, particularly Heston, Brynner, Scott, Derek, and Price. I continue to be less than persuaded by Edward G. Robinson, but in viewing the film this time, I am much more impressed with Anne Baxter's efforts despite their still operatic nature than I have been previously. But it's not really the actors that one is focusing on in this film, it's the spectacle - the mammoth sets, the detailed set decoration, the masses of people (all fresh and blood, no CGI here), and the special effects, especially the renowned and still very effective parting of the Red Sea. The broad outline of the story of Moses and exodus of the Israelites from Egypt of course is quite familiar to most, but the film fills in much of the background and if this causes the film's first half to drag somewhat, it's more than made up for in the exciting second half. Everyone should see The Ten Commandments at least once. If you do, you'll want to see it a second time; it's simply classic filmmaking of a type and scope you'll never see again.

Paramount has pulled out all the stops for the restoration that is the basis of its new Blu-ray presentation. That presentation is spread across two Blu-ray discs (with the break point at the 231-minute film's intermission) for optimum bit rate and the results bear out the wisdom of such an approach. The Paramount restoration department under the leadership of Ron Smith commissioned a 6K scan of the sideways-moving VistaVision negative from which an image of impeccable sharpness and detail has been generated. Both foreground and background objects fare equally well whether for intimate interiors or the expansive exterior sequences. Colour fidelity and vibrancy are simply breath-taking with the results certainly at the top of the list of classic restorations on Blu-ray. The evidence jumps out at one right at the start in the image of a richly detailed and colourful on-screen tapestry that provides a visual background to the overture music. The myriad colours of fabrics and their textures are all vividly conveyed while flesh tones appear spot on. The image sports a mild and pleasing level of grain and there is no evidence of digital smoothing or edge sharpening. The original negative was apparently in somewhat rough shape, but such are the digital restoration efforts that you'd never know it. Framing at 1.85:1 looks accurate throughout and the image's cleanliness is impeccable. The overall impact is breathtaking and it's no exaggeration to say that this is the best Blu-ray image I've so far seen on either a classic or current title.

As with the previous DVD release, the Blu-ray sports a 5.1 audio mix, but now it's a DTS-HD lossless one and the improvement is noticeable in the dynamic and smooth nature of the music score. It's still strongly rooted in the fronts, but there's a more effective though still generally subtle application of the surrounds. Dialogue is robust with some front directionality. There is no hint of hiss or distortion. Overture, entr'acte and exit music are intact. English and Portuguese stereo and French and Spanish mono tracks are included as is subtitling in those four languages.

We all know of gift sets or collector's editions that fall short of such a designation. Well, here's a triumphant exception. This is one gift set very much worth the price (available at time of review on-line at $55, list $90) and one that will give tremendous pride of ownership. The box (a limited edition of 100,000) measures some 11"x8" and is enclosed in a plastic sleeve that enhances and protects a lenticular cover on the box of the parting of the Red Sea. The box itself splits in the middle to reveal a compartment that contains a wealth of content, chief of which is a plastic case in the form of the two Ten Commandments stones. This case is held together by four interior magnets and opens somewhat like a clamshell. Opening the case reveals 3 Blu-ray discs and 3 DVDs. There are two Blu-ray discs in one half and the other four discs on two hinged holders in the other (care is needed to remove the latter four discs). The Blu-ray discs 1 and 2 contain the film, conveniently split at the intermission, a superbly informative and entertaining audio commentary by Katherine Orrison who wrote "Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments", a newsreel of the New York premiere (in HD), and three trailers, all in HD. Blu-ray disc 3 contains the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, a two-part film that starred Theodore Roberts as Moses in the Biblical part and Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, and Leatrice Joy as two brothers and the woman they both love in the modern day San Francisco part. The film's Blu-ray transfer looks quite good, but while a definite advance over the previous standard DVD release in terms of sharpness and detail, it lags Blu-ray efforts we've seen on some other silent titles such as The General. The English intertitles are comprehensive and also available in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. There's a very appealing organ score delivered in stereo. Also on the disc and related to the 1923 film are audio commentary by Katherine Orrison and, all in HD, hand-tinted (using the Handschiegl process) footage of the Exodus and parting of the Red Sea sequences, two-colour Technicolor footage of the Red Sea sequence, and a photo gallery. Blu-ray disc 3 concludes with two HD supplements for the 1956 film. One is an extensive photo gallery, but the best is a new feature-length Laurent Bouzereau-produced documentary on the making of the film, The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles. It's an engaging blend of film footage and interviews with DeMille and Heston family members plus film historians such as Scott Eyman as well as providing an examination of the efforts involved in the film's new restoration. It sports optional subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Standard DVD discs 1 and 2 replicate the content of the first two Blu-rays. Standard DVD disc 3 contains only the Making Miracles documentary and the photo gallery for the 1956 film.

Physical supplements in the box include a 48-page hardback book that documents in pictures the making of both 1923 and 1956 versions; a 32-page softback book that is a replication of the souvenir book (prepared by the noted religious artist and illustrator Arnold Friberg) issued at the time of the 1956 film's release; a folio of 8 costume sketches; and an envelop containing reproductions of a telegram of congratulations from Adolph Zukor to DeMille upon the success of the 1923 version, a press release announcing Friberg's involvement with the 1956 version, a note from Heston to DeMille, a comment card from an attendee at the 1956 film's preview, Heston's daily schedule for the Egypt portion of the filming, and the Paramount commissary menu at the time of shooting including costume sketches on its back.

Paramount's The Ten Commandments: Limited Edition Gift Set has my highest recommendation. For those who desire a stripped down version, the studio offers also a two-disc Blu-ray edition which replicates the content of the first two Blu-ray discs in the gift set

The Ten Commandments: Limited Edition Gift Set (Blu-ray Disc/DVD)

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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