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Published: Thursday, 4/14/2011

DeMille’s masterpiece alive and well on Blu-ray

BY DAVE KEHR
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Cecil B. DeMille probably would have approved of the concept behind Paramount Home Entertainment’s 55th anniversary gift set edition of The Ten Commandments, an appropriately colossal undertaking that includes three Blu-ray discs and three standard DVDs, a commemorative book, reproductions of the original program, and assorted documents and costume sketches.

It’s all packaged inside a dictionary-size box with a lenticular 3-D image of the Red Sea on the front; when the sea is “parted” on a built-in hinge, a plastic reproduction of DeMille’s sacred tablets rises majestically into view.

The tablets themselves split open to reveal the six discs, which contain DeMille’s famous 1956 version of the story starring Charlton Heston and his 1923 silent feature with Richard Dix that was his first pass at the material. The discs are loaded with commentaries, newsreels, trailers, and a new 75-minute documentary, Making Miracles.

But it’s doubtful that DeMille, a fanatical stickler for detail, would have signed off on the set’s tacky execution. Plastic tablets? Nothing but real granite would do for him. (Although he did make a pair in fiberglass, light enough for Heston to carry down the mountainside without assistance from a crane.) And what’s worse, the tablets don’t work: The clasps holding the discs in place easily come loose, allowing the discs to slip and slide against each other.

And DeMille, no matter what his loftier ambitions, was always first and foremost concerned with what worked. He concentrated his skills on how to construct his films so that (at their best) they roared along with the speed and efficiency of an express train, provided rip-roaring interpersonal drama to go along with the larger narrative, and gave the audience their money’s worth by filling the frame with opulent decors, dazzling costumes, and armies of extras in meticulously composed tableaus.

The 1956 Ten Commandments, which proved to be DeMille’s final film, remains the best known of the 80 he directed, and by far his most financially successful. The Web site Box Office Mojo places it at No. 5 on its list of top-grossing movies adjusted for inflation; its $1,049,310,000 puts it after E.T. but before Titanic.

Still, this final testament probably isn’t the best place to begin with this gifted director, who has been too frequently overwhelmed by the image he created for himself. As Scott Eyman writes in Empire of Dreams (Simon & Schuster), a fascinating new biography of DeMille, he was a major form giver of the silent era who worked long enough to see his style eclipsed by later developments.

Despite the 44 days he and his company spent in the deserts of Egypt The Ten Commandments remains largely a studio-bound film at a time when Hollywood was moving toward location shooting as a way of achieving greater realism (and as a way of appeasing the gods of widescreen and color, which could make the studio sets, no matter how beautifully designed and lighted, look fake).

A new kind of performance style was afoot in the land as well. In the context of the work that Method acolytes such as James Dean and Marlon Brando were doing at the time, The Ten Commandments can look like a Museum of Jurassic Acting, with performers locked into wooden poses declaiming their lines to the last row of the balcony.

Instinctively DeMille was preserving the turn-of-the-century acting style in which he had literally been raised. (His father was a playwright who frequently worked with David Belasco, the leading theatrical impresario of his day.) Heston’s Moses might seem stiff and bombastic today, but to DeMille those qualities represented stature and authority, a man who was not like other men.

Except, of course, when he was. At its dramatic heart The Ten Commandments is less a story of religious belief or national awakening than a barn-burning melodrama, constructed along the same lines as DeMille’s secular films of the 1920s. It is the timeless story of two men in love with the same woman.

In the silent Ten Commandments, the biblical scenes serve as a 50-minute prologue to a modern story, in which two brothers, one righteous and pious (Richard Dix), the other venal and charming (Rod La Rocque) compete for the affections of a poor young woman (Leatrice Joy) whom their religious mother has rescued from the streets.

The 1956 film essentially incorporates this plot — with further complications — into the biblical tale. As much as DeMille and his screenwriters claimed authority for their extra-scriptural interpolations in the Midrash (rabbinical commentaries on Scripture) and the histories of Josephus and Eusebius, their inspiration undoubtedly lies in DeMille’s impeccable audience-pleasing instincts: The righteous brother becomes Heston’s Moses, the slippery one Rameses II (Yul Brynner) and the woman in dispute Nefretiri, the Throne Princess (Anne Baxter).

DeMille, for whom the complications of modern marriage were always Topic A, uses the sexually charged conflict of these scenes to link the movie’s major set pieces, which regain a measure of their original VistaVision grandeur in the new Blu-ray edition. The parting of the Red Sea is justly famous as the costliest, most complex special-effects sequence attempted up to its time; more impressive artistically, perhaps, is the 10th plague, in which the Angel of Death is imagined as a thick, green mist that creeps through the streets of the royal city, claiming the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons.

If DeMille’s direction of individual actors often seems quaint in The Ten Commandments, his epic choreography of his fabled thousands of extras remains dazzling. In the Exodus sequence each tiny figure seems to have been individually positioned, to maximize effects of color and contrast. And these are not static images, but whirlpools of movement, every square inch of the screen filled with a constant buzz of coordinated activity.

Digital processes have made it cheaper and easier to assemble such multitudes in films such as Gladiator and 300, but pixels are pixels, no matter how artfully deployed. Only DeMille and his army of assistants could have captured the spectacle of The Ten Commandments, a human spectacle, with weight, warmth, and life. (Paramount Home Entertainment, Blu-ray/DVD gift set $59.99, two-disc Blu-ray $24.99, two-disc DVD $14.99, G)



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