To celebrate its 65th Anniversary, Paramount Home Entertainment releases “The Ten Commandments” on 4K UHD for the first time.

For every time, there is a season. As March gives way to April, entertainments give way from the secular to the non-secular as Passover and Easter come into focus. For many, this means a specific tradition is about to grace their broadcast sets: the annual airing of director Cecil B. DeMille’s opus The Ten Commandments. Released in 1956, the film is celebrating its 65th anniversary in 2021 and Paramount Home Entertainment is marking the occasion with a first-time 4K UHD release. The 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack includes all the previously released features and three ways to watch them: as one on the 4K UHD disc, separated into two discs on Blu-ray, or streaming via digital copy.

At this point, if you don’t know the story of Moses, then you likely didn’t go to some form of religious school. The premise is simple: Rameses I (Ian Keith), Pharaoh of Egypt, fearful of the rumor that a male child of Hebrew slaves would lead an uprising, declared the slaughter of all male-born Hebrew children. In a desperate bid to save her newborn son, Yochabel (Martha Scott) packs the unnamed child into a basket and sends him down river where he is found by Rameses’s daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch) who claims him as her own. Some years later, the child, now named Moses (Charlton Heston), is in competition with Rameses II (Yul Brynner) for the throne, discovers his true heritage, and abdicates his rights to rule to take up the cause of his people. Acting in the name of the Lord of the Hebrews, Moses does what he must to free the Hebrews from Egyptian enslavement and lead them to the Promised Land.

Still from THE TEN COMMMANDMENTS. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Before re-watching The Ten Commandments, EoM editor Crystal Davidson and I discussed the prevalence of the film in our young lives. DeMille’s film ran ever year at this time and, as Crystal remembers it, her parents eagerly anticipating each showing. My memory is always associated with the season as the screening almost always ran in concert with Easter but never Passover (the holiday from which this film is significantly borrows). I do, however, recall a strange hallowedness about The Ten Commandments, with my relatives being particular pleased with the film whereas I never quite understood it. Being Jewish, there are few moments in popular culture that contain any of my perspective and this film, which is a story entirely built upon my heritage, is profoundly Christian in its portrayal. The cast is not remotely ethnically accurate outside of, perhaps, the cast representing Ethiopia (though (1) I doubt it for the era and (2) I don’t remember this sequence at all) and the performances have a grandness about them that feels far more performative than natural. In a strange way, the presentation feels more akin to something out of the Book of Revelations versus the Torah. Rewatching it now, that feeling of my childhood makes sense when you piece together that audiences were watching the film in the run-up to Easter whose connection to this film is solely related to the Passover Seder, which is known as the Last Supper in the New Testament. Art is, as always, created within the period of conception and the way films were conceived and created was vastly different than now. (Perhaps not different enough, but that’s a separate conversation.) The point being that there is a place to appreciate the intent and, certainly, the scope of DeMille’s film while also being critical of it.

It’s in this vein of thinking that we approach the 4K UHD edition. According to the press notes accompanying the release, the 4K UHD restoration was done in pieces with part of the restoration completed in 2010 with the film scanned in 6K. This scan serves as the basis for the Dolby Vision version included in this set. Evidently the original VistaVision format was preserved by using special cameras to feed the 35mm film horizontally in order to maintain the wider image frame, offering twice the resolution. Over the course of 150 hours of image editing, they adjusted the visual elements to enhance colors and smooth out special effects to make them as vibrant and pristine as possible.

For the most part, this work is visible on-screen. The sequence where Ramses I meets the Ethiopian King and his people, the colors are vivid and the details clear. Same thing with the sequence at the end of the film where Moses confronts the recently freed Hebrews who have taken to praying to a golden calf in his prolonged absence. The calf is gleaming, the barren mountain side a deep reddish mud color, and the flash of special effects is still impressive despite the era. Even the sequence which sees Moses’s staff turn to a snake is widely impressive in the transitions between inanimate staff to actual cobra. Sequences like this benefit from the 4K UHD restoration a great deal. One aspect that’s somehow more startling with the 4K UHD treatment is the spectral smoke representative of Death’s hand unfurling across the moon as it reaches its tendril fingers to find the first-born sons of Egypt. It’s a visual effect that is only made more creepy.

The downside comes from the fact that increased detail also allows for the tricks of the cinematic trade from the 1950s to be far more visible. This means that it’s more noticeable how many of the scenes are shot on a soundstage with projections or set dressing making up the background. When Bithiah sees the basket floating, it’s so clear that the distant basket is a recording and that Foch is merely reacting to it before a bit of a cowboy switch allows her to interact with the basket properly. This may seem like punching down, blaming a film from 1956 for not looking better after a touch-up via updated technology. The thing is it’s important to understand what you’re getting with any new edition of a film. Just because a film is released in 4K UHD doesn’t mean you should rush out to get it, as though just being a new format automatically equates to a better or improved release. To use an analogy, sometimes watching something that was shot for VHS on VHS is the best way to go. That said, one thing that the 4K UHD edition offers that others don’t is the ability to watch the entire film without switching out tapes or discs. The same can be said for the digital edition (that’s a given), but those who prefer physical formats will enjoy not having to get up and swap out discs just to finish the 231-minute epic.

As a physical media enthusiast, I’m always in favor of new editions of films. Doesn’t matter what my connection to a film is, having access to it means that audience can discover or rediscover it again and again. A “good” or “bad” designation for a film is absolutely subjective, while preservation is something which allows all to experience them, explore them, and learn something about their past. Like it or not, The Ten Commandments is history captured on Kodak. It teaches us about technique and perspective and offers a glimpse into what was valued in that era, not to mention it’s one of the best Yul Brynner performances in a career filled with “best” performances. So as one season has turned to the next and we’re approaching the annual The Ten Commandments broadcast, you can opt for the traditional over-the-airwaves edition, whichever version you already have, or try something new.

The Ten Commandments Previously Available Special Features

4K Ultra HD Disc

  • 1956 feature film in 4K Ultra HD
  • Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments

Blu-ray Disc™ #1

  • 1956 feature film in high definition (Part 1)
  • Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments

Blu-ray Disc™ #2

  • 1956 feature film in high definition (Part 2)
  • Commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments
  • Newsreel footage of the film’s New York premiere
  • Theatrical trailers, including at 10-minute “making of” trailer

Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack March 30th, 2021.

For more information, head to the official Paramount Movies The Ten Commandments website.

Categories: Home Release, Recommendation

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