"Gone With the Wind," "The Ten Commandments," "Spartacus," "El Cid," and even the recent "Gladiator" come to mind as definitions of the "epic" motion picture. But, certainly, no more epic spectacle was ever created for the screen than William Wyler's 1959 production of "Ben-Hur." At the time it was the most expensive movie ever made, and its rewards were not only to become a box-office smash but to earn a record-breaking eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), and Best Actor (Charlton Heston). Its release on DVD is something of a record setter, too, being one of the lengthiest and widest films ever transferred to the medium. As of this writing, only "Gone With the Wind" and "The Ten Commandments" were a few minutes longer and only "The Great Escape" was transferred at a slightly wider screen size. What's more, Warner Bros. have provided the 70mm, Technicolor "Ben-Hur" an audiovisual presence that bears comparison to the best ever put to disc. It's a grand achievement all the way around, and a grand film experience.
Published as a novel in 1880 by General Lew Wallace, subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," the work was successfully adapted to the stage and then made into a silent movie in 1925 before becoming the blockbuster we have here. The story begins at the time of the birth of Christ in Judea, a land that had been under Roman rule for nearly a century. Simultaneous with Christ's birth, another child is born, Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), who would grow up to be one of the richest men in the country.
The story then jumps ahead twenty-six years and the introduction of a new Judean governor and his new head of the local Roman garrison, the Tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd). Messala and Judah grew up together, like brothers, the Roman and the Jew, but haven't seen each for years. Now, Messala wants to rise in the Roman world and asks Judah to help him by revealing the names of Jewish dissidents. Judah refuses, choosing to remain loyal to his people and thereby incurring the wrath of his once-staunch friend. An accident involving a loose roofing tile from Judah's house injuring the new governor affords Messala a chance to get even with Judah for not supporting him. To show the Jews how strict he is, he orders his old friend sent to the galleys as a slave and Judah's mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell) imprisoned.
Then, a strange and perhaps too-coincidental set of circumstances enable Judah to rise again in the world. By happenstance he manages to save the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who in gratitude makes Judah his adopted son and a free man. From this point on, Judah's only desire is to return to Judea, free his mother and sister, and seek revenge upon the man who caused him and his family so much pain. The film ends in two climactic scenes: the famous chariot race pitting Judah against Messala and the crucifixion of Christ.
Unlike so many other super-spectaculars, this one is not only a rousing adventure, at its core it has a genuine heart. Judah Ben-Hur is no mere cardboard hero (despite Heston's sometimes wooden appearance). He is a man who undergos a series of personality developments, from contentment to bitterness to hatred and finally to peace and love.
It's true that this 1959 version of the story tends to downplay the standing of Christ in Judah's life much more so than the original novel, leaving it to the viewer to infer that Judah comes eventually to accept the Savior's word; enough of the Christian message of salvation through kindness and charity comes through to merit attention yet not to cause discomfort for the nonbeliever. Nor is Messala a cardboard villain. We can readily see he is a man possessed by ambition and hardened by the desire for power. As Judah points out on several occasions, Roman rule has corrupted everyone. Also in the cast are Haya Harareet as Esther, the slave girl with whom Judah falls in love; Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, an Arab who befriends and sponsors Judah in his big chariot race; and Sam Jaffe as Simonides, Judah's faithful old steward.
The film's major drawback, its extreme length (over three-and-a-half hours), may also be for many viewers one of its chief strengths. I found much of the middle portion of the film flagging, but the length enables a good deal of character growth, plus gives extended time for the chariot race. Ah, yes, that chariot race. Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" may also be a rousing adventure yarn, but it has nothing to equal the all-out thrills of the chariots in "Ben-Hur." The race sequence itself takes up a good quarter of an hour and is hair-raising in its excitement. Legendary stunt man Yakima Canutt was second-unit director on the film, and it was he who was responsible for much of the action.
What's more, this chariot segment and the rest of the movie are nobly and inspirationally accompanied by the music of composer Miklos Rozsa, who also did the soundtracks for movies like "The Thief of Bagdad" (1940), "Jungle Book" (1942), "Spellbound" (1945), "El Cid" (1961), and "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974). The combination of Wyler's energetic direction, Heston's elevated hero, Canutt's stirring stunt work, and Rozsa's uplifting score make for grand entertainment, indeed. And I haven't even mentioned the overwhelmingly huge sets, the multitudinous armies, the stunning costumes, and the magnificent scenery the film affords. As I said at the outset, "Ben-Hur" fairly defines the word "epic."
The film is epic in scope, too. Originally filmed by MGM in something called Camera 65, the screen ratio was projected at a ratio of 2.76:1, which is what we get here. The width is requisite to convey the breadth and grandeur of the settings. MGM darn near reconstructed all of ancient Rome for this spectacle, and when you see the legions marching from one end of the screen to the other, you know it's wide. To complement these vast dimensions, the color and definition are first-rate as well. The image is clearly delineated and always brightly colored. It is, in fact, as good a transfer as one could hope for at this time. You can practically reach out and feel the velvet tunics and white silk robes of the players.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 processing of the film's multichannel sonics comes up well. There is a commendably wide front-stereo stage, and for a change the characters' voices can be heard moving across the sound field. There is a very small amount of background noise, but it's of little importance. Rear-channel reproduction is limited mainly to musical ambiance for the first three-quarters of the film, but then in the climactic crucifixion scene, the rears come to life in noises of wind and storm. In addition, the subwoofer gets a terrific outing. While things remain a tad on the hard side, I doubt that anyone will be disappointed with the disc's audio qualities.
As for bonuses on this edition, one can find several good items. For me, the chief item was a relatively new, one-hour documentary, "Ben-Hur, the Making of an Epic." It contains a good deal of behind-the-scenes information, but I especially liked the history it paints of the story from novel to stage to screen. Then, there's an audio commentary with star Charlton Heston; a seven-minute series of screen tests (Leslie Nielsen was tested for the part of Messala, back in his pre-comedic, leading-man days); a photo gallery; cast and crew information; and an astounding one hundred scene selections, probably another record of its kind. Finally, there's a widescreen theatrical trailer and a widescreen teaser. English and French are offered for spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese for subtitles.
The film is so long it requires both sides of a dual-layered disc to accommodate it, and a turnover is necessary at the intermission (two hours and twenty-one minutes in). However, Warners might have labeled the two sides more legibly. The letters A and B are printed so small and so nearly hidden at the bottom of the center label area that one could easily get the sides mixed up. At any rate, these are small prices to pay for near perfection.
"Ben-Hur" may not be as intellectually satisfying as "Spartacus," but it's still a must-buy for any film lover, videophile, or home-theater buff.