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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Ben-Hur
Ben-Hur
Warner Bros. // G // September 13, 2005
List Price: $39.92 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted September 6, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Movies:

William Wyler's 1959 classic of epic Hollywood filmmaking, Ben-Hur already saw a fine DVD release a few years ago, but Warner Brothers have pulled out all the stops for the film this time awarding it a massive four disc special edition. And why not? It is, after all, one of the most recognized films of all time, taking home a whopping eleven Oscars at the 1960 Academy Awards. If any film deserves that kind of treatment, surely it's Ben-Hur, right?

For the one or two of you out there who haven't seen the movie before and want a bit of a breakdown story wise, the film follows the story of one Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston of Planet Of The Apes) who is born into a life of luxury as a fabulously wealthy Jewish prince. He lives in Jerusalem at the turn of the first century and runs a business that keeps him quite comfortable. In short, anything he wants, he's pretty much able to provide for himself and he does a fine job of living the good life.

Things change for Judah when the governor his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd of Henry Levin's Genghis Khan) arrive in town with scads of Roman soldiers. Initially, Judah is overjoyed to meet his old friend who he hasn't seen in years, but it doesn't take long for him to realize that the Messala he knew long ago is not the Messala who know stands in front of him. The more the two former friends talk, the more Judah realizes that Messala's personal politics and ambitions do not exactly have the public's best interests at heart and soon, they're unable to get along like they used to. During the parade that is set to honor their arrival, as the procession passes Judah's house a brick falls from above and narrowly misses the governor. Although this is obviously an accident, Messala sees this as an opportunity to get rid of a potential thorn in their collective sides and Judah is arrested and sent to the slave galley. Adding insult to injury, his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott of The Ten Commandments), and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell who was married to the director's brother – this would be her last film), are also arrested and sent to jail.

Circumstance is a strange thing, however, as while he's imprisoned Judah ends up saving the life of a Roman nobleman named Quintus (Jack Hawkins who starred opposite Vincent Price in Theatre Of Blood). In return for saving his life, Quintus not only frees Judah but takes him onboard as his adopted son, treating him as well as he would treat someone of his own flesh and blood. Judah use his newfound influence to head back to his homeland where he hopes to free his mother and sister from their prison and exact his revenge upon Messala but it isn't going to be easy and he's definitely got his work cut out for him.

Based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, Wyler's film is about as grand and magnificent as they come. Shot in an insanely wide aspect ratio on 65mm film to give the movie that 'epic' scope that was so popular in Hollywood at the time, the film had the distinction of being the most expensive Hollywood production ever made (this obviously didn't last all that long but by 1959 standards this thing was HUGE!). With as much money dumped into it as there was and with as much effort put into the lavish sets and props used to create the period feel of the film, there was a lot riding on Ben-Hur's success but the movie did not disappoint in the least at the box office or the Academy Awards. Audiences connected with its deft blend of action, romance, drama and intrigue and the film has just enough of all of the above ingredients to really appeal to the mass market – there's truly something for everyone.

Heston is fantastic in the lead role, scowling his way through the action and combat scenes but charming his way through other parts of the film. Sure he has a tendency to overact sometimes but this film stands as proof positive of his real skills in front of the camera and as a testament to his abilities as an actor. He commands the screen whenever he's in a scene and there are few actors out there who can really rival his screen presence. Say what you will about the man, but in Ben-Hur when Charlton Heston speaks, you listen. It doesn't hurt matters at all that he's surround by an excellent supporting cast. Stephen Boyd is great as one of those villains that you love to hate and when he stabs Judah in the back like he does, you really feel for the guy, making his revenge all the more understandable and appreciated.

William Wyler (who also served as an uncredited co-producer) keeps the action moving at a fantastic pace and even at almost four hours in length the movie is never dull thanks to the sure direction he provides. While the middle part of the film might not be as action packed as some might hope for there is plenty of solid character development and interesting plot twists throughout that should hold most viewers' attention without too much trouble. The comparisons to Christ's life add a whole different depth to the film that edge this one out of typically melodramatic period fare and give it a little something special resulting in a film that is a little more though provoking than it would have been otherwise. The cinematography from Robert Surtees (who also did The Last Picture Show) is absolutely breathtaking and it pulls you in from start to finish with its long, sweeping camera movements that capture every last tiny detail of the painfully reconstructed set. Has the film aged? Well, what film hasn't – of course it has, but in the case of Ben-Hur it's the same way a fine wine ages, as it holds up very well even today. The chariot race and the final crucifixion scene rival anything to ever come out of Hollywood in terms of scope, atmosphere and intensity and even if parts of it now seem cliché it's only because the movie was and is so popular that it's become part of our pop culture.

NOTE: It is the longer version of the film contained on this DVD, and as such, it runs an extra ten minutes longer than some previous releases of the film (this cut is 222 minutes - other cuts have been 212). Because of the length of the film, in order to keep the bit rate moving along at a decent pace and to optimize video quality, Warner Brothers has released Ben-Hur on two DVDs. These are two separate single sided double layered discs for the film, not one double sided flipper. The other two discs in this four disc set are for the extras, but more on that later…

The DVD

Video:

First things first – watch this movie on the biggest set you have available if at all possible, as the film is presented in an amazingly wide 2.75.1 anamophic widescreen presentation to preserve the compositions in the best way possible. If you watch this on a smaller set, you'll miss a lot of the fine detail and you won't get as much out of the film. Ben-Hur is definitely a case where bigger is most certainly better.

As far as print damage goes, there's really nothing to complain about. If you stare hard enough you'll notice a speck or a spot here and there but almost all the print damage has been cleaned up and eliminated from this restored picture. There is some noticeable film grain, but it's never too heavy or even the least bit distracting. Warner Brothers has done an exceptionally good job of cleaning this one up. The last DVD release looked very good, but this one looks even better.

This new transfer is nice and sharp and it offers plenty of foreground and background detail in the picture. Colors are strong and vibrant and everything in the image is very well defined and nice and crisp looking right down to the smallest background items in the film. There aren't any but the most minute instances of line shimmering and edge enhancement detectable on the transfer and you're really going to have to look hard to notice any flaws in this exceptionally strong image. There are no problems at all with mpeg compression artifacts, and the black levels are pretty much perfect from start to finish. Skin tones look life like and very natural, not too pink or orange, and the reds – which can sometimes look too harsh or bleed – come through perfectly and are nice and bright. Very little if any detail gets lost in the shadows of the darker scenes in the film, and contrast levels are set nicely.

Sound:

Again, this is a top notch presentation. The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track does a fine job of representing the original Stereo mix across a broader playing field without messing everything up. What we basically have here is a Stereo mix with some atmospheric effects and the score making skillful use of the rear channels. Pretty much all of the dialogue comes at you from the two channel front end setup, using the center for certain parts of the film to carry the dialogue from the left to the right accurately. The end result is, considering the age of the film, pretty impressive. The surround channels are used sparingly throughout most of the film but they really only flare up when the movie calls for it, such as the chariot race of the finale with the storm. It's here that you'll really notice the directional effects and the lower end subwoofer action.

Dialogue comes through clean and clear and you're not going to have any problems at all following the characters and their dialogue as the movie plays out. Sounds effects are also clear and the score sounds fantastic. Optional subtitles are available on this disc in English, French and Spanish. An alternate French language dub has also been included.

Extras:

Alright, inside the housing are four discs, each containing extra content. For the sake of coherence, I'm going to start with the first disc and evaluate the extras as they play out, then move on to the second, third and fourth discs in the set.

DISCS ONE AND TWO:

Seeing as the feature itself is spread over two discs, it makes sense that the extra features that pertain specifically to the movie itself would also be spread out with it, and that's how it is on this release - supplements on these two discs are limited to two alternate audio tracks, the first of which is a commentary, and the second of which is the isolated film score.

The commentary track is provided by T. Gene Hatcher, a film historian and author, with selected scene specific comments provided by the star of the film, Charlton Heston. The two participants were recorded separately from one another, with Heston's comments covering roughly a quarter to a third of the film and Hatcher's filling up the rest. This makes for a very interesting track that does a nice job of providing the anecdotal with the academic and between the two of them, they provide a wealth of information. Heston's memory was pretty sharp when this was recorded and he's got a lot to say about the time he spent on the set as he goes into a lot of detail about some of his co-stars and how their relationships were, as well as how he feels about how the movie turned out in contrast to his experiences while making it. He of course has a lot to say about the chariot race sequence and the final crucifixion scene and having the chance to listen to the film that he had such a huge part in making a classic is a joy. Hatcher does an excellent job of filling in the rest of the track, as he's got a ton of technical and factual information about the movie to offer as well. He details shot set ups, set design, casting decisions, and biographical information about the director and the stars. He talks about the novel by Lew Wallace that the film was based on and how it differs from the film and he gives us plenty of interesting historical trivia notes and background details that really add to the appreciation one has for the film. There is very little dead air or blank spaces in this track. It's edited together very well and Heston and Hatcher do a fine job of complementing the material that the other has to offer, resulting in an excellent commentary track that essentially provides us with a crash course in the history of this important film.

The alternate track including the film's score by Miklos Rozsa is a nice touch. The film really benefits from a few truly powerful musical pieces and having the chance to listen to them sans dialogue is a treat as they're just as emotive and strong without the action playing out over top as they are with the added dialogue and sound effects.

DISC THREE:

The solitary supplement on the third disc in the set comes in the form of the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. This black and white silent film runs for over a hundred and forty minutes and while it isn't as entertaining as the later version is, it's technically very impressive and Warner's decision to include it on this release should be commended as it makes for a very interesting comparison to the Heston version of the story. Interestingly enough, this version used forty eight cameras to film the sea battle sequence, a record for the time, and the results are pretty amazing and much more intense in this version of the scene than in the color version. Fred Niblo's direction is stylish and much more visually accomplished than many films of this era and he makes excellent use of the stark black and white canvas and through some clever cinematography makes his film a very unique looking picture. The chariot race sequence is also incredibly well done in this version, with some very cool camera angels such as the one where you see the carts race past you from the ground's view making for an interesting watch. Ramon Novarro makes for a likeable hero while Francis Bushman is a burly and intense Messala. Though the lead role lacks the charisma and attitude that Heston brought to his performance, this is still a fine film with fine performances and it's presence on DVD is very welcome.

DISC FOUR:

First up on this disc is the 1993 documentary, The Making Of Ben-Hur. Running a brisk fifty eight minutes in length, this featurette provides a detailed look behind the scenes at the making of a classic. Christopher Plummer's narration adds an air of class to the proceedings as we voyage back to fifties through plenty of behind the scenes photographs, behind the scenes footage and interview with those who were there. This documentary also does a very good job of detailing the origins of the story, how it made the transition from book to stage play to silent film and then finally to the 1959 spectacular we all know now. Pretty much everything you've ever wanted to know about the many incarnations of Ben-Hur is covered in this segment and it makes for a very interesting watch that complements the feature attraction very nicely.

A second documentary, also clocking in at roughly fifty eight minutes in length, is provided entitled Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema. This brand new featurette features comments and interview clips with director William Wyler, lead actor Charlton Heston, producer Arnon Milchen, fans and fellow directors like Ridley Scott and George Lucas (both of whom state Ben-Hur as a big influence on their own careers), as well as others involved in the production such as two cinematographers, costume designers, an editor and even Michael Douglas who pops in for a minute or so. The focus of this documentary isn't the making of the movie like it was in the first one but more how the film changed Hollywood and film making in general. Those interviewed discuss how the film changed or affected their careers or how it influenced them personally and this documentary does a nice job of exploring what made the 1959 version of Ben-Hur so good – the sets, the performances, the direction, the editing, the cinematography, the score and the costumes. A lot of this might come off as kissing up to the filmmakers but there's a sincerity behind it all that overrides a lot of that and it's interesting to see just how many people hold this film in such high regard and even more interesting to find out just why they do.

Up next is Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures which is essentially a glorified still gallery, albeit a very nice one. Clocking in at just over five minutes in length and presented in slideshow format, we're treated to publicity stills, behind the scenes pictures, conceptual artwork and some interesting promotional artwork as well, all set to music and audio clips from the film itself playing out over top of the images.

After that, there are a wealth of Screen Tests included. While we did see some of this material in the first documentary on this disc, this section presents the tests in their complete form. It's interesting to see the various actors included in here and to imagine what the film would have been like had one of the alternates been cast instead of the performers we're all so familiar with. Included in this section are: Cesare Denova playing the role of Ben-Hur, Leslie Nielson as Messala, Yale Wexler as Judah, George Baker as Ben-Hur, and William Russell as Messala.

Six Newsreel Clips run roughly nine minutes and they document the film's premiere in a few major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. The film's landslide victory at the Academy Awards is also covered, as is some footage of Charlton Heston greeting attendees at a couple of different screenings. None of these clips are all that revelatory, but they are a fun look back at the movie when it was a brand new phenomena, and not a renowned classic as it is now.

Rounding out the video supplements is a Highlight Reel From The 1960 Academy Awards where the film took home a wealth of gold statues that night. There are a few spots where the sound goes bad and those segments play out silently but the bulk of the almost ten minutes of footage contained in this segment plays out just fine with proper sound. While the newsreel clip shows some of this material, it doesn't show nearly as much as is contained herein and this is a nice look back at how the Oscars were over forty years ago.

A selection of five different trailers for the film rounds out the extra features on the disc. Inside the packaging is a fancy thirty six page full color booklet that contains a reproduction of the film's original program that was available during its original theatrical run that contains some nice promotional photographs as well as the complete cast and crew listing for the movie.

Final Thoughts:

This four disc special edition of Ben-Hur combines nearly flawless video quality with an excellent audio mix and scores of interesting and well put together extra features. The presentation is amazing and the overall package is a fantastic tribute to a truly epic film that has stood the test of time very well. This one gets high marks all the way around and has earned itself the DVD Talk Collector's Series seal of approval!

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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