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'The Ten Commandments' Looks to 1956 Classic

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille turned a Biblical tale into The Ten Commandments, an enduring Hollywood classic. ABC has kept the title of the DeMille movie for a four-hour miniseries beginning tonight, but the drama is far from a faithful remake. Here is Hollywood Reporter writer Andrew Wallenstein.

Mr. ANDREW WALLENSTEIN (Hollywood Reporter): I was never a big fan of DeMille's Ten Commandments. Classic film fans will have to forgive me for this blasphemy, but is the movie anything more than a campy costume drama? This new ABC miniseries improves on the original in many respects, and yet I wouldn't call it a complete triumph either.

You'll notice the difference right off with Moses. In the new version, the role is played by the Scottish actor Dougray Scott. Here he is in the classic scene, delivering the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

(Soundbite of ABC's The Ten Commandments)

Mr. DOUGRAY SCOTT (Actor): (As Moses) You will have no other God than the one true God, and you will not make an image of God. You will not take his name in vain. You will keep every seventh day holy, for him.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: I think a lot of viewers are going to have trouble with Scott's portrayal. After all, he's not Charlton Heston, who so readily identified with Moses, one of his most famous roles. But stick with Scott, who steps into Heston's iconic sandals and takes the character into more complex, interesting territory.

In the new Commandments, Moses is far from the one-dimensional hero Heston depicted. He's tortured, insecure and quite possibly insane. How else would you describe someone who swears he alone hears the voice of an unseen God? It's a touch melodramatic, and yet in Scott's hands it works. There's some other good performances worth noting as well in this new Ten Commandments, including the veteran actor Omar Sharif, who plays Jethro, Moses' father-in-law. In this scene, he offers Moses some advice on leadership.

(Soundbite of ABC's The Ten Commandments)

Mr. OMAR SHARIF (Actor): (As Jethro) I taught you to be a shepherd. I taught you to survive out here. Listen to me. When you run in front of the pack, what do they see? Your back. Makes for a broad and tempting target.

Mr. WALLENSTEIN: But there's some creative choices the new Commandments make that don't work. One is the transformation of Moses' half-brother, Ramses II, from villain to ally. In the original, Ramses was played with memorable gusto by Yul Brynner, but in the new version, Ramses is a different character, Menerith, played by Naveen Andrews. He's one of the stars of the ABC hit Lost. It's a nice bit of casting, but without the villainous half-brother, the story loses attention. And what would The Ten Commandments be without special effects, the splitting of the sea, the ten plagues and so on?

In the original, the special effects are understandably under-whelming to modern eyes. Unfortunately, Commandments '06 isn't impressive either. The splitting of the Red Sea reeks of computer-generated image trickery, and the plagues are a yawn. Still, the rest of the production is quite a sight, with beautiful recreations of Egyptian palaces. It isn't easy taking on an icon, but the new Ten Commandments is nothing if not ambitious.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is co-host of the new TV Guide channel talk show about TV called Square-Off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.