The Ten Commandments (1956) 4k Blu-ray Review

The Ten Commandments 4k Blu-ray
Title: The Ten Commandments (1956)
Format: 4k Blu-ray, Blu-ray (x2), Digital
Release Date: Mar. 30, 2021
List: $25.99 | Price: $19.96 Buy on Amazon

Paramount Pictures’ 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) releases on Mar. 30, 2021 to celebrate the film’s 65th anniversary. The 3-disc edition includes a 4k Blu-ray, 2 Blu-rays (Part 1 & Part 2), and a code to redeem a Digital Copy. Here is a review of the 2160p (4k) presentation featuring Dolby Vision HDR.

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The Movie

The Ten Commandments (1956) is actually the second film of the same name from DeMille, the first being an epic silent movie from 1923 that focuses more on contemporary applications of the Bible’s Ten Commandments following Moses’ parting of the Red Sea and acceptance of the tablets on Mount Sinai. The majority of the 136-minute film takes place in a modern setting (being the early 20s) while the 220-minute 50s version is set completely during the Biblical period.

In his second delve into the biblical character, DeMille describes the origin of Moses and his successful leadership as a general under the Pharoah Rameses. But after siding with the slaves of Egypt, Moses is accused by Rameses II of planning an insurrection and cast into the desert. The second half of the movie takes you through Moses’ second “rise to power” among the impoverished and eventual personal connection to God.

The Ten Commandments was nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects (John P. Fulton, A.S.C.). Charlton Heston was nominated for a Golden Globe for his leading performance in the film. And, Yul Brynner won Best Actor (National Board of Review) and was nominated for Best Actor (New York Film Critics Circle Awards).

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Video

The Ten Commandments on UHD BD is presented in 4k/24fps with the Dolby Vision HDR specification to increase color range, contrast, and luminance. The HVEC (H.265) video streamed from the 4k Blu-ray disc at an average of 50Mbps. 

Compared to previous Blu-ray and streaming versions, the new 4k HDR video is just that — richer in color and deeper in contrast. And, it should be. The team at Paramount spent over 150 hours doing new color work and clean-up on the 6k scan that was done in 2010. There were several 1080p Blu-rays released after the restoration, but no 4k Blu-ray discs until now. 

The movie was shot in VistaVision format (with color by Technicolor) that paved the way for larger film formats such as IMAX. With VistaVision (only used for several years) the image is turned on its side on a roll of 35mm film (the same way a still image is shot) rather than stacked like other moving picture formats. This created a very large image area with finer grain for projection (and perfect for rescanning and remastering) but used a lot more film and therefore way more expensive than other standards at the time. 

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Don’t be frightened about the poor video quality of The Ten Commandments upon its start. The first image of slaves pulling the Great Sphinx of Giza [00:09:16] is not representative of the rest of the film and doesn’t last long. The following shots of Moses as a baby, The Pharoah, and the women of the palace all look impressive. Similar shots that were filmed in Hollywood studio lots look equally as good throughout the rest of the film, with rich color, sharp focus, and expanded range of contrast compared to previous Blu-rays. 

A scene that has incredible color, depth, and detail is when Rameses II leads his army to chase down Moses as he leads the Israelites to the mountain of God. [3:15:00] The mass of horse-lead chariots, triumphant music, and shouts of the Egyptian warriors is one of the more memorable scenes. 

But while most of the film was shot in controlled lighting, there are scenes in The Ten Commandments that were actually filmed on location in Egypt then “married” to studio shots. Some of the landscapes render nicely with HDR, for example the desert shot where Moses is bannished. However, some wide shots, notably the construction of the pyramids, are not nearly as sharp as other scenes. 

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Special Effects 

Just before the intermission or “Entr’acte” occurs at 02:15:50, Moses sees the burning bush as a sign from God, the special effects of which actually look really nice to this day. The same can’t be said for effects like the parting of the Red Sea and burning of the Ten Commandments into the tablets at Mount Sinai that look extremely dated by today’s standards. However, one must consider the effects were cutting edge for the time (even Oscar-winning) and furthered the advancement of visual effects in both film and television. 

The parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (which DeMille had rendered for the 1923 film in a much cruder fashion) was a visual effect of epic proportion. Paramount engineered a mini “sea” that flooded a channel where Moses would lead the Israelites. The footage of the flooding was reversed to create the illusion of Moses parting the sea, and multiple angles used to mask-in a wall of water seemingly held in suspension.  

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Audio

The soundtrack to The Ten Commandments is offered in lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 – inherited from previous Blu-ray releases. The 5-channel track played at an average of 3.5Mbps. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound Recording (Paramount Studio Sound Department and sound director Loren L. Ryder).  

Audio is extremely well-mixed for a film that’s over 60 years old. What is of particular note is the control of dialogue levels for individuals and within groups. A specific moment can be found at 02:23:00 when a crown almost turns on Moses, with some calling to stone him. As members of the crowd all speak up the audio levels increase and you actually feel as if within the mob itself.

Another moment that has really crisp dialogue and effects is when Moses speaks to God through the burning bush. [1:40:00] “I am that I am” God says though the bush. You might want to crank up this key moment in the film. The contrast of the reverb from God’s voice and the intimate closeness of Moses is striking, backed by a soft orchestral movement that moves nicely into the following scene with Joshua and Zipporah when they recognize Moses has been enlightened.

There isn’t much to be said for the use of 5.1 channel surround sound, however, there are spatial audio effects in several occasions. When Moses is cast in the desert the sound of wind can be heard traveling through speakers. And, when hail falls on Egypt (which was actually popcorn in the studio) you can hear the sounds dispersed into multiple speakers as if surrounded by the plague. The musical composition by Elmer Bernstein is very crisp, especially during the 8-minute intro credits, and is one of the highlights of this film. 

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Extras

It would have been great to have the 1923 film packaged as an extra with this edition as a recent Blu-ray release did, but nevertheless the silent classic is readily available to stream in the public domain. The bonus material has been previously released. On the 4k Blu-ray you get audio commentary from Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments” The same audio commentary is provided on both Blu-rays. And, on the second Blu-ray there is newsreel footage of the film’s New York premiere and theatrical trailers, including a 10-minute “making of” trailer.

Playback Issues 

Interestingly enough, the disc specs for the source media (available to display through the Sony X800M2 player) showed Dolby Vision the first time viewing but HDR the second time and third time viewed. The disc carries the Dolby Vision specification so this remains a mystery. 

Another issue with watching The Ten Commandments on the Sony M2 is pausing or stopping the film was never able to resume. Instead, each time the playback was stopped or timed out the disc had to return to the Home menu of the M2 and manually searched for the scene again. We’re not sure if this is a function of the player or media, as pause/resume works with other discs.

Summary

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) is a historical piece of cinema that is recognized by AFI in their list of Top 10 epic films of all time, along with masterpieces such as Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and Gone With The Wind. The new 4k Blu-ray edition (derived from a 6k scan in 2010) is the best the movie has even been presented in terms of sharpness and color. The illustration on the front sleeve of the 3-disc editon almost illustrates how rich the colors can get with Dolby Vision enabled. For cinephiles and home theater enthusiasts alike, The Ten Commandments is one disc that is a must have in your collection.    

Scores

Movie
4/5

Video
4/5

Audio
3/5

Extras
2/5

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