The Ten Commandments (1923 & 1956) – Blu-ray DigiBook Review

The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1923)
Silent films—especially ones made in the early 20th-century—are difficult films to watch for modern audiences. The off-putting eye makeup, the grand gestures, and jittery frame rates are something to get used to. But silent films are something of an acquired taste. There are some great ones and some not so great ones. Cecil B. DeMille’s original Ten Commandments is not one of those great ones.

The 1923 version still has a similar grand and over-the-top production design as its 1956 counterpart. The 1923 version was grand for its time though since there are fewer extras and even lesser big-time sets. But much like the Charlton Heston version, the film pushes the boundaries of visual effects. For a silent film made in the 20s, the film does have some spectacular effects.

Unlike the Charlton Heston version, the silent version is more based on the Book of Exodus than the remake. It pulls excerpts from the Bible and uses it as dialogue for the intertitles. It doesn’t make sense at the time but soon enough you’ll find out why.

If you’ve seen the Charlton Heston version before, you might notice that the story of Moses is being told rather quickly. That’s because halfway through the film, the film is set in modern times. Yes, present-day 1923. What begins with the story of Moses turns into a lesson of why the commandments are important to modern-day society.

Much like the 1956 version, it sets up clear lines of good and evil. It is told in a very preachy way. Those who don’t follow the commandments are evil and those that do are good. Unlike silent films like Metropolis or Nosferatu, The Ten Commandments is an uninteresting adaptation. This two-hour-plus film feels like four.

Overall, the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments is a film that’s best suited for Sunday School than a theatrical film. The film chooses to preach the word of God rather than entertain and inform.

Movie Rating: 2/5 atoms

The Ten Commandments (1956)
No matter what your religious affiliation is, you can’t deny that The Ten Commandments is one of the great epic classics from the golden age of Hollywood. Everything from the film just screams excess and majesty.

For a film made in the mid-50s, the cinematography and production design is awe-inspiring even by today’s standards. Sure, some of the visual effects are dated. But the sense of wonder and grandeur far outweigh some of the effects. This grand spectacle became the blueprint for not just biblical epics but epics in general. Films such as Spartacus, Cleopatra, or Ben-Hur.

But the biblical story of Moses has always been one of greatest stories ever told. Not only for its epic moments (see: the plagues) but for its message of freedom for all. Even now, the film’s message of freedom and love over those who think themselves better everyone is something that still needs to be told over and over again. This isn’t just a biblical story, it’s a story of freeing people from enslavement. As DeMille said in the introduction of the film, “Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”

For modern-day audiences, the performances of actors during this period deliver lines as if they were in a stage play. In some ways, it’s very over-the-top. However, the performances in The Ten Commandments are theatrical but in a grounded way. Everyone in this iconic cast just commands the screen.

Beginning with the incomparable Yul Brynner and his iconic voice. Brynner’s gravitas brings such a commanding and villainous performance to Rameses. At the same time, the legendary Charlton Heston’s heroic presence and charm come through in his performance as Moses. The way the perform off each other is a master class in acting.

Overall, The Ten Commandments is a legendary film that deserves to be seen by all fans of cinema. Yes, the film is extremely long at 3 hours and 39 minutes. However, the film has so grand and so beautiful that you’ll be glued to the film throughout its duration.

Movie Rating: 5/5 atoms


The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments (1923)
The Ten Commandments hits Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG-AVC with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Like most films made in the early 20th-century, the contrast is very high. The same can be said about the brightness as well. It’s high enough to the point that some of the faces are a solid white with a little definition in the facial structure. However, black levels are fantastic. The grayscale you can see a lot of the shadow and light details without any crush. For the most part, the film looks clear but there are several scenes where it’s slightly blurry or out of focus. Finally, the film grain is uniform all-around. Overall, this is a decent looking picture despite being almost 100 years old.

Video Rating: 4/5 atoms

The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Ten Commandments hits Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG-AVC with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The picture has a good high contrast that gives depth to the picture. In turn, this gives the picture a nice looking brightness level with zero bloom. This is something you can see in the glistening sweat of the Hebrew slaves. At the same time, the black levels are a deep but lighter shade of black that has no crush whatsoever. As a whole, the colors are bold and jump off the screen. But it’s the restoration of the 6K master film that greatly improves the detail clarity of the picture—everything looks pristine. Unfortunately, this also highlights the blurriness and matte outline of the blue screen effects. You can also see the high sharpness in these scenes as well. Regardless, the restoration of this film is a rousing success.

Video Rating: 4.5/5 atoms


The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1923)
The Ten Commandments hits Blu-ray with a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. If your home theater receiver is set to convert stereo sources to whatever your output is, then it’s best to just set it to either stereo or a pure direct setting. There will be some crackling in the rear audio during the prologue of the film. Regardless, the music is still clean and you can hear each instrument clearly and distinctly. They never overpower each other. Overall, this is a decent audio mix.

Audio Rating: 3/5 atoms

The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Ten Commandments hits Blu-ray with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The audio mix sounds pristine for its age. However, it’s a very front-loaded mix. It doesn’t happen often but when the scene calls for it, the sound effects fill up the soundstage. Like the object placement, the atmospherics are limited as well. For the most part, the dialogue sounds clean. Yet there are a few instances where the dialogue does sound like its age. Overall, this is a good mix.

Audio Rating: 4/5 atoms

Special Features

The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments has the following special features on Disc 1:

  • Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments”

You can also find the following special features on Disc 2:

  • Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments”
  • Newsreel: The Ten Commandments – Premiere in New York
  • Trailers
    • 1956 “Making Of” Trailer
    • 1966 Trailer
    • 1989 Trailer

Finally, you can also find the following special features on Disc 3:

  • 1923
    • Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments”
    • Hand-Tinted Footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea Sequence
    • Two-Color Technicolor Segment
    • Photo Gallery
  • 1956
    • The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles
    • Photo Gallery

All of the audio commentaries by Katherine Orrison are very fascinating listens. She goes through both films pointing out so much about the film—as a historian should do. It’s such an interesting listen because it provides not just Hollywood history but production insights as well. Even if you’re the slightest fan of both films then this is a must-listen. The “Newsreel” is a simple look into the Hollywood premieres of the past. The same goes for the trailers themselves. However, the “Making Of” trailer is something that most have not seen in a very long time. It’s a making-of mini featurette where Cecil B. DeMille gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the film.

With the “hand-tinted footage”, it’s a simple and crude looking colorization of this sequence. But as Katherine Orrison said in her audio commentary, watching silent films is like having a time machine. It couldn’t be more accurate than watching the Handschiegl technique in the “Hand-Tinted” footage. On the other hand, the Technicolor segment is like watching an old home movie because everything is colored so perfectly and accurately. “Making Miracles” is such an intriguing and fascinating making-of documentary. The featurette contains so many archival footage and amazing stories that it feels as if you’re right there during that time.

Special Features Rating: 4.5/5 atoms


The Ten Commandments DigiBook

The DigiBook features a lot of the same information that you’ll find in the “Making Miracles” featurette. However, the DigiBook does contain some fantastic photos of both films. All three discs can be found on the covers of the DigiBook with two on the left and one on the right. Unfortunately, we don’t get the iconic artwork of Charlton Heston as Moses raising the Ten Commandments in the air (see above) as the cover art. Instead, we get a close-up shot of Charlton Heston with the exodus of the Hebrews on the lower left. In the back, there’s nothing but open desert and sky.

The Ten Commandments DigiBook

Special Features Rating: 4/5 atoms

Overall, The Ten Commandments is an epic masterpiece that has so much imagination and wonders. Unfortunately, the 1923 version doesn’t quite live up to the same level as the 1956 version. The restoration done on these films is quite impressive. Everything looks and sounds amazing. Spanning three discs, there’s a lot of special features to go through. Trust me when I say that it’s all worth it.

Overall Rating: 4/5 atoms

This Blu-ray was reviewed using a retail/advance copy/unit provided by Paramount Home Entertainment.

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