The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believes in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

Samsara (2011)

On the official website of the film Samsara, you can read: “SAMSARA is a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever turning wheel of life’ and is the point of departure for the filmmakers as they search for the elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives.”

If you are like me, you will want to enjoy this visual masterpiece without too many preconceived notions. You will want to stop reading here and skip directly to the download link. But of course, you are welcome to read on. I will not reveal too much about the contents.

African warriors in Samsara (2011)

For all intents and purposes, Samsara is a silent film. Sure, it does have a soundtrack, but that soundtrack does nothing more and nothing less than a good soundtrack for a silent film from the 1920s. There is no spoken dialogue or narration, nor any background sounds that I can remember. The soundtrack rests entirely on the music, partly original music composed for the film. Some of the tracks have lyrics, but those lyrics are not directly related to the images, as far as I can tell. For example, there is a Swedish lullaby early on, but none of the images it accompanies seem to be in any way connected with the theme or the words. And yet, the music works extremely well, producing an almost hypnotic sensation.

But the most memorable and powerful aspect of the film is the visual images, filled with vibrant colours. The photography is exquisite, and so is the cutting. The tempo is slow, yet many sudden twists mean that we have time to see images from many different countries and many aspects of both nature and human life. This is a film filled with contrasts. Peacefulness and hostility. Untouched nature and huge cities. Ancient history and modern technology. East and west. Life and death. Religion and … well, I am not sure there is a contrast to religion, but the religious motif is definitely there, and it is very inclusive in the sense that several different religions are represented, and none is shown to be more important than the others.

Samsara is, indeed, a turning wheel of life. If it has a weakness, then it is that it tries to say too much. There is not one message in this film, but many, and perhaps that means it is spread just a little bit too thin, sending its energy into many directions at once. But that is a minor quibble, because who said that good art always has to be propagandistic?

This film is best enjoyed as cinematic poetry. It can be analyzed and interpreted endlessly, but will it enhance the enjoyment of viewing? I doubt it, though meditating about the many wonderful pictures may give you some insight into the world we live in, or even into your own self.

Dancers in Samsara (2011)

Samsara
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Year: 2011
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Directors: Ron Fricke
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×304)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)

Sometimes you wonder just why you do a certain thing. As I write this, for example, I have just spent most of last week in a make-shift dojo, training ju-jutsu at the annual Swedish summer camp. I was very much out of practice before the week started, and come Friday I felt like I was going to die, or at least fall apart.

Ju-jutsu (which can also be spelled “jujitsu,” “jiu jitsu”, or a great many other variants; but never “jujutsi” or “jui-jitsu”) is a martial art that had its peak way before the martial arts became popular on film in the 1970s. Consequently, there are only a handful of movies where ju-jutsu is an important element. Mostly it is only mentioned in passing in dialogue.

Such mentionings can be very interesting, however. They tell us something about how ju-jutsu is and has been perceived in popular media. It turns out that the most common movie usage of the word “ju-jutsu” (regardless of spelling) is to explain someone’s expert fighting skills, but it is almost as common that another martial art is mistakenly identified as ju-jutsu (implicitly suggesting the other art’s superiority). The oldest example I have found of this latter use is in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, in this piece of dialogue after having rescued a man from being beaten up:

“I’m deeply grateful. It was wonderful!”
“Being very simple. Judo, often miscalled by foreigners ‘jiujitsu’.”

Peter Lorre and Robert Coote in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto was originally a character in a series of novels. In the 1930s, the character became a series of films, although quite different from the books. Peter Lorre, an excellent actor who was often given roles much below his ability, here plays a Japanese agent of the International Police – an early James Bond of sorts. Caucasians who play Asians are very rarely convincing, but Lorre does a good act.

The film begins as Mr. Moto arrives at Port Said, Egypt. He soon becomes involved in trying to reveal a plot to start a world war between England and France(!). The story is full of logical holes (in particular in the light of later historical events), but thanks to good dialogue, some charming supporting characters and Lorre’s splendid acting it nevertheless turns into a pleasant little mystery, well worth watching if you enjoy 30s mystery films. (But of course you do!)

The martial arts in the Mr. Moto series should not be compared with those seen in the later martial arts boom, or in more recent high-budget ventures such as The Matrix (1999). It consists chiefly of spectacular but poorly executed judo throws such as seoi nage, tomoe nage, or the odd kata guruma (see the image below).

So what about other uses of the word “ju-jutsu” in films? Turns out there are very few. I have seen a couple of cases where it is used to emptily boast that someone is a good fighter, and once as a deliberately bad pun (Not Another Teen Movie (2001)). On film, ju-jutsu is essentially only available to the good guys. The only exception to that rule that I am aware of is in the strange and unique propaganda movie Stage Door Canteen (1943), wherein we find the following wonderful line:

“They can talk all they want about the Jap jujitsu, but a marine will tell you it doesn’t work against a roundhouse right to the jaw.”

Concerning Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, this film is best enjoyed if you have an hour and a quarter to kill and need some light entertainment.

Peter Lorre's stunt double executes a kata guruma in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Norman Foster
Stars: Peter Lorre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (505 M)