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Ben-Hur (Diamond Luxe Edition)
Films like William Wyler's Ben-Hur transcend generations and create shared memories for casual and frequent moviegoers alike. This risky, expensive and elaborate Biblical epic is widely considered a classic, and the extravagant production design and strong performances remain impressive. The film sits atop Charlton Heston's resume, and his evolving, engrossing work as disgraced Jerusalem prince Judah Ben-Hur has priority seating in the annals of film history. Financially unstable MGM gambled a then-record $15 million on this production, packing the sets and stages with thousands of elaborately costumed extras. The extended chariot race stands out as an incredible action sequence, but the thoughtful drama and epic scale are Ben-Hur's greatest assets.
The benevolent prince is beloved in the streets until a freak accident and traitorous friend get him condemned to slavery in a bid to oppress the Jewish populace. Trained on a warship by Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Ben-Hur earns the official's respect before swearing vengeance on the deceptive Messala (Stephen Boyd). At stake are Ben-Hur's freedom and the lives of his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell). After a valorous performance in battle, Ben-Hur is adopted by Arrius and becomes a skilled charioteer, earning wealth and favor among Roman officials. He encounters Messala again in a race, and learns that his family has been expelled from society due to leprosy. Their salvation, and that of his love, Esther (Haya Harareet), draws great sacrifice from Ben-Hur, who ultimately seeks the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ for his family.
There is little to be said about Ben-Hur that is not available a thousand times over in other critiques, and DVD Talk's own Michael Zupan and Ian Jane provide excellent reviews. This is filmmaking of the grandest scale; an all-practical production of Lew Wallace's novel shot with great skill and attention to detail. It is not just the elaborate chariot races that excite. Robert L. Surtees' cinematography is masterful; Karl Tunberg's adapted screenplay is fantastically paced; and Wyler's direction is impeccable. This is less a film than an experience, and it is one that thrills, mesmerizes and earns genuine, emotional reactions.
Heston is superb, even when his performance borders on over-acting, and each supporting cast member is finely tuned to the grand opus. The female cast is especially good as the film's emotional anchor. I'd wager that Ben-Hur is the most entertaining film ever to run 212 minutes. No film earns that running time without seriously accomplished dramatic heft, and that is available in spades. This is so much more than a Biblical epic, though some may find that connection especially resonant. Ben-Hur erases outside influence for nearly four hours, transporting its audience to another world. Isn't that an achievement all films aspire to reach?
This is the exact same transfer previously available in high definition. The 2.76:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is simply stunning. MGM completed a stunning restoration of this film and its efforts paid off. Print damage and compression artifacts are non-existent; colors are bold and perfectly saturated; and skin tones are accurate despite the searing desert heat. Detail is insane in both close-ups and the tremendous wide shots thanks to the 70 mm offshoot source. Black levels are solid and shadow detail impressive. Despite being nearly 60 years old, Ben-Hur is absolutely stunning in HD.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also an incredible, theatrical presentation. MGM thankfully kept the source material secure over the years, so this is a presentation without the telltale signs of aging like pops, hiss and distortion. Quiet, dialogue-heavy scenes are pristine. Rousing action sequences are immersive. The surround speakers are very active and provide both ambience and rumbling spectacle. The LFE supports the rolling excitement, and the score is rousing and deep. French, Spanish, Italian, German Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian and Polish dubs are available. You also get a music-only track and subtitle options to match the dubs.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This three-disc set contains the exact same discs previously available in the 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition. Gone are the art book, Heston's diary and other swag, and Warner instead releases this in an attractive magno-case as part of its "Diamond Luxe" line. I love the artwork and presentation, with one caveat: The case only fits two discs, so the third is relegated to a cardboard sleeve. Perhaps WB should have waited until there was a three-disc magno-case before releasing Ben-Hur. No new extras appear, but the collection was already stacked:
- Commentary by Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton Heston.
- Music-Only Track for Miklos Rozsa's Award-Winning Score.
- Trailers (14:15/SD).
- Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (1:18:06/HD) - A fantastic piece with interviews from Heston's wife, daughter, son and other friends and family.
- Ben-Hur (1925 silent version) (2:23:06/SD).
- Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (57:46/SD) - A standard retrospective on the film.
- Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (58:15/SD) - Another decent making-of with interviews from cast, crew and historians.
- Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (5:09/HD) - A reel of stills and storyboards from the film.
- Screen Tests (29:19/SD) - Check out the celebrity "cameos" in these.
- Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Telecast (9:47/SD).
- Newsreels. (9:45/SD).
The film and Blu-ray presentation are masterful. Ben-Hur is a timeless epic anchored by Charlton Heston's wonderful performance. This is a repackaging of the 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition without the physical swag. All three discs are included (only two in the case proper) in this Diamond Luxe edition. If you own the previous Collector's Edition there is nothing to see here, otherwise this is certainly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.
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