In a sense, The Ten Commandments has not withstood well the test of time. The effects in Cecil B. DeMille's biblical extravaganza are no longer special, with painted backdrops painfully obvious and animation suggesting 1950s Disney cartoons. When God appears to Moses as a pillar of fire on Mount Sinai, one half expects little cartoon bluebirds to land in the rocks nearby and spontaneously burst into song.
Pick up the recently released 50th anniversary three-disc special edition of The Ten Commandments, and you'll find that the acting, too, is a relic of a bygone era. DeMille remained attached to the overblown style of his silent film days.
But, lest one be tempted to completely devalue DeMille's 1956 Technicolor pageant, ABC helpfully reminds us that things can be worse. In a two-part television miniseries of the same name aired this month, the network presented a superfluous retelling of Moses' life, substituting DeMille's reverent awe of the source material with corny pop psychology. Everyone from Moses to Pharaoh whines incessantly, and if DeMille's liberties with text bothered you, well . . .
The older Ten Commandments works best when relying on DeMille's enormous and still impressive sets and cast. The special edition looks and sounds great, although the extra features aren't impressive. An included six-part documentary would have worked better as a more cohesive whole. The commentary track, by DeMille scholar Katherine Orrison, is illuminating-but who has time to sit through the film's entire 220 minutes for a second viewing?
Most fascinating of all is the inclusion of DeMille's first crack at this story, his 1923 silent film with the same title. The silent film dispenses with the story of Moses in about 45 minutes and proceeds to illustrate the continuing, "modern" relevance of God's law in a 1923-set morality tale.
The real usefulness of biblical epics such as these is worth debating. The sheer grand Hollywood-style artificiality of the pageantry may serve to further distance viewers from the biblical source, not draw them into it. (Try explaining the creeping lime-green colored mist that kills the Egyptians' first born to your kids.) But one thing is clear-they don't make 'em like they used to.