Paramount | 1956 | 231 mins. | G

A network television staple during Easter and Passover, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is to that season what It’s A Wonderful Life is to Christmas time. A true epic, Paramount has released a beautiful high-definition transfer that will allow fans to watch this classic commercial free at anytime.

The Ten CommandmentsFor the few people who haven’t seen the film, here’s a synopsis: Things open in ancient Egypt as the soldiers of Pharaoh Ramses I slay the firstborn children of the Hebrew slaves. One baby manages to escape, thrown into the Nile in a basket and quickly discovered by the Pharaoh’s childless daughter. Moses (Charlton Heston) is raised by a member of the royal family and considered the favored son of Ramses’ successor, even more than Seti’s own son, Ramses II (Yul Brynner). As Ramses II struggles to supervise the building of Seti’s treasure city, Moses expands the reach of his uncle’s empire. Ramses is infatuated with the lovely Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) and yet she only has eyes for Moses. It’s all but certain, regardless of the break in bloodline that Moses will ascend to the throne. That certainty fades as Moses learns of his true heritage. Rather than turning away from being the son of a slave, Moses embraces it, toiling away in the same mudpits as the rest of his Hebrew brothers. It soon becomes clear that Moses may be the prophecized Deliverer, and being ousted from the kingdom sets into motion the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the exodus of the Israelites, and the delivery of the Ten Commandments.

DeMille himself introduces and narrates the film. The director filmed on location in the Middle East, and it is in these scenes that the visuals are most impressive. The beautiful panoramas of mountains and desert are simply stunning. In contrast, the studio shots seem dull, but that’s to be expected when viewing an epic of this scope. Studio shots aside, many scenes are memorable: The temple-building scenes, the Burning Bush, Moses receiving the stone tablets; and, in the days before CGI, the parting of the Red Sea still looking every bit as astonishing today as it did in 1956.

Charlton Heston seems born to play Moses. Moses is a fascinating figure and Heston – handsome, heroic, and humble – fills the myth and man of Moses well. The rest of the cast is equally superb. Yul Brynner exudes the ‘villainy’ of Rameses II with self-confidence; Edward G Robinson is good as the devious and depraved Dathan (though critics at the time found his portrayal somewhat hammy); Anne Baxter as lovely and deliberate as Nefertiri, and it is a great joy to watch Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Pharaoh Sethi I. Among the wash of other stars, standouts include Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, and Vincent Price as Baka the Master Builder.

DeMille would direct no more feature films following The Ten Commandments, though he had sought to remake his own The Buccaneer. His final film would become his most successful project of his career. Further, The Ten Commandments was the top grossing live-action movie of a religious nature until 2004’s The Passion of the Christ finally ended its reign.

In 2010, Paramount restored and remastered the film, transferring it to Blu-ray from a 6K master with a high-definition picture that looks pristine. The engineers used an MPEG-4 AVC encode. Because of the film’s length, Paramount chose to spread it over two BD50’s for the best possible reproduction at a high bit rate. It’s not much of an inconvenience to the viewer, however, because the break comes at intermission.

The colors are deep, rich, and vivid, yet always natural. The high definition detailing is excellent, providing utmost realism, and there isn’t a trace of edge enhancement or DNR filtering in evidence. For a film that’s more than fifty years old, this easily reference quality material.

The audio engineers also restored and remastered the sound in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Voices and music come off equally well. The midrange response is smooth and natural, and Elmer Bernstein’s musical score sounds excellent. There isn’t much surround activity, but the front-channel stereo spread is solid, and the rear speakers do reproduce a pleasant musical bloom.

We get the following special features:

Disc One

  • Audio Commentary: Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments, delivers an excellent commentary, one that’s knowledgeable, engaging, and well worth at least one listen. She discusses everything from small anecdotes surrounding the making of the film to the challenges of producing a Biblical film even in the 1950s. Orrison shares an amazing amount of knowledge about not only the primary cast but the background actors who appear throughout. She also discusses the grandeur of the sets, shooting locations, character traits, deleted and reworked scenes, the film’s score, combined shots whereby half of a frame was filmed in Egypt and the other on a stage in Hollywood, the reasons why the matte lines are not better hidden, the film’s Biblical accuracy, DeMille’s style of work, and plenty more.

Disc Two

  • Audio Commentary: Orrison continues to offer her insights through the remainder of the film.
  • Newsreel: The Ten Commandments — Premiere in New York (1080p, 2:24): A vintage look at the film’s NYC premiere.
  • Trailers (1080p, 12:40): 1956 “Making Of” Trailer, 1966 Trailer, and 1989 Trailer.