Way back in 1982, during a Deseret News interview with Charlton Heston on a variety of subjects, he told me he didn't much care for television as a medium for big-screen movies and offered this prediction:
"The technical quality of the picture is not good, nor is the sound. That'll change. They'll get it. They'll also improve the color."
In recent years, of course, Heston's confidence in the industry has been validated as the quality of home-video systems has reached a zenith, never more vividly demonstrated than in the recent reissue of one of his own movies — the Blu-ray of "The Ten Commandments," which is absolutely stunning.
In fact, the upgraded color, sound and picture, restored in the original VistaVision widescreen format, are as expressive and dynamic as the first prints shown in theaters in 1956. (Hey, I was there!)
One can complain about certain aspects of the film that seem dated in the 21st century. Young'uns raised on digital special effects and modern acting styles may feel the film is cartoony and hammy. And in places, that's true.
But it's also exciting, highly entertaining and filled with the kind of mind-boggling spectacle that we just don't get anymore. See all those thousands of people portraying the Israelites wandering through the wilderness? Real people. Nothing cartoony (or digital) about them.
The parting of the Red Sea, God's fiery carving of the commandments on a granite mountainside and the miracles performed by Moses to persuade Pharaoh to let his people go were amazing, groundbreaking special effects at the time.
And if the limitations of filmmaking during this period are taken into consideration, these sequences still deliver the goods. Let's also remember that James Cameron would never have been able to create "Avatar" without pioneering efforts such as these paving the way.
And I'll confess that I still enjoy Heston's stoic take on the character of Moses, and all the supporting roles filled by familiar faces of the period. Yes, even Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.
"The Ten Commandments" is old-fashioned Hollywood grandiosity in the manner only Cecil B. DeMille could deliver. This was his final film and the most expensive movie made up to that time. DeMille's attention to detail was unparalleled and so costly that today it would be unthinkable.
But it certainly paid off. Audiences went to the movie in droves during its initial release. It was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1956, earning twice as much as the film that came in second. And it continued to make money in subsequent theatrical rereleases.
On the adjusted-for-inflation list of all-time movie moneymakers, "The Ten Commandments" ranks No. 5, after "Gone With the Wind," "Star Wars," "The Sound of Music" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." And BEFORE "Titanic"!
This latest reissue comes in three versions — a two-disc DVD ($14.99), a two-disc Blu-ray ($24.99) and a more expensive six-disc "Limited Edition Gift Set" ($59.99).
I received the DVD from Paramount for review but indulged myself by purchasing the box set so I could look at the bonus features, chiefly to check out a new feature-length documentary about the making of the movie, "The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles," which is not available in the other sets.
Included in the documentary is a wealth of material from the DeMille collection housed in the movie archives of Brigham Young University, and BYU archivist James V. D'Arc is among those interviewed, along with Heston's son, DeMille's granddaughter, Paramount studio archivists, film historians and a couple of actors who appeared in supporting roles. Oh, and Heston himself in a 2002 interview. (And he reveals that the voice of God in the sequence where the Lord carves the commandments was provided by Utah actor Delos Jewkes.)
In addition to the documentary, other items exclusive to the box set are a Blu-ray transfer of DeMille's 1923 silent version of "The Ten Commandments," which is fascinating in its own right (despite even more primitive special effects and filmmaking techniques); a gorgeous photo-filled 50-page hardback art book, which also features storyboard drawings, including some by Utah artist Arnold Friberg; eight illustrated cards of "costume drawings" (also featuring Friberg's art).
And best of all, a 32-page replica of the movie's original program book, with photos and drawings that are highlighted by a number of jaw-dropping paintings by Friberg depicting scenes from the film. (Friberg was nominated for an Oscar as part of the team of costume designers led by Edith Head.)
This may be carping, but there is a downside. The shell is a large clumsy box with a picture of the Red Sea on the cover, so naturally it parts in the middle to open. Very unwieldy. And inside is a cheesy plastic replica of the granite tablets with the discs stuck on wheels, making them so difficult to remove that I feared I would crack a disc. (Note to Paramount: Given the choice, go for practical over cutesy every time.)
Still, the contents make for a wonderful package that will delight any fan of the movie, DeMille, Friberg or vintage cinema in general.
Heston, who died three years ago this month, lived to see Blu-ray technology but not long enough to see his most famous movies benefit from it. (His Oscar-winner, "Ben-Hur," will be issued on Blu-ray this fall.)2 comments on this story
"The Ten Commandments" will have its annual Easter-weekend showing on ABC in eight days (Saturday, April 23, 5 p.m., Ch. 4), a tradition the network has kept alive since 1973. And it will be a high-def showing.
But if you really want to be blown away, instead of watching the broadcast, get your hands on this new Blu-ray — and if you don't have a Blu-ray player, knock on a neighbor's door.
You won't be disappointed in the presentation. Plus, no commercials, which is always a plus.