BEN-HUR - DVD review

Ben-Hur fairly defines the word epic.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Ben-Hur" (1959):
When one considers the term "epic" in relation to motion pictures, one may think of "Gone With the Wind," "The Ten Commandments," "Spartacus," "El Cid," "Lawrence of Arabia," or even the more-recent "Gladiator." 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 first release on DVD was something of a record setter, too, being one of the lengthiest and widest films ever transferred to the new medium. Well, guess what: The new "Four-Disc Collector's Edition" is even wider and better transferred than before, and it comes with far more bonuses. A grand film experience becomes a grand DVD achievement all the way around.

Published as a novel in 1880 and subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," General Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur" was at first successfully adapted to the stage and then made into a silent movie in 1925 (included in this new set) before becoming the blockbuster most of us know.

The story begins at the time of Christ's birth 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 to 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 they 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 eternal 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, Messala 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 too-coincidental set of circumstances enable Judah to rise once again in the world. By happenstance he manages to save the life of a 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 in life 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; but enough of the Christian message of salvation through kindness and charity comes through to merit attention yet not create 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, may also be for many viewers among 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 it 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 staging the action and training Heston to do much of his own chariot driving. What's more, the 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 musical 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 that the film affords. As I said at the outset, "Ben-Hur" fairly defines the word "epic."

"Ben-Hur" (1925):
In addition to William Wyler's 1959 remake of "Ben-Hur," the four-disc set includes the original 1925 silent version as well, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. The movie is mostly in black-and-white, with a few tints and color sequences, and it's accompanied by a stereophonic orchestral score composed by Carl Davis.

Surprisingly, perhaps, because a lot of people today tend to look upon the era of silent film as some kind of Stone Age, the earlier version is actually just as large scale as the newer one, maybe even larger, with a cast that was claimed to number some 125,000. The story remains generally the same, but at an hour's less time (yet still a healthy 143 minutes or so), it benefits from greater compactness. Yes, you'll also find the chariot race in here, and you may even find it as exciting or more exciting than the one Heston enacted. It surely looks every bit as colossal and feels every bit as dramatic.

In the title role, Novarro is movie-star handsome yet far more boyish in appearance than the more rugged-looking Heston. Nevertheless, Novarro holds his own in the heroics department. As usual in a silent film, the acting appears more stilted and exaggerated than we countenance today, a convention partly carried over from the stage and partly used to communicate effectively in a silent medium. Let's say that one gets used to it.

Most important, though, is the spectacle. Wonderfully detailed matte shots, immense sets, and the aforementioned cast of thousands lend to the monumental size of the production, in every way an epic in its own right, and most often a pleasure to dazzle the eye.

What's more, the movie is prefaced by the statement that this video version has the "original tints and Technicolor sequences restored." The restoration is so good, the film belies its eighty-odd years. The alternately black-and-white, sepia, lavender, and color segments lend variety to its visual aspect, while the definition is reasonably sharp, and age marks, scratches, and similar blemishes are scarce. The early Process-2 Technicolor is obviously not as bright or vivid as it would later develop, but it is well utilized in a few key scenes, like the birth of Christ, the arrival in Rome, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion.

As in the remake, the old movie's chariot race is still the highlight of the show, but the sea battle is rousing as well. So there's a little of everything in this 1925 classic to please most anybody interested in motion pictures. The early "Ben-Hur" makes a delightful appendage to the 1959 epic.

The 1959 film is epic in scope, too, and it's nice to see it transferred to disc for optimum quality. 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, and when you see the Roman legions marching from one end of the screen to the other, you know it's wide.

To complement the screen's vast dimensions, the color and definition are better than ever as well. Although the bit rate in the new transfer measures about the same as it did in the first edition and the film is again spread over two sides (the first edition used the front and back of a single disc; this one uses two discs), the image appears to be slightly more brilliant and more clearly delineated than before. The disc case says the film has been newly transferred from restored 65mm elements, which perhaps accounts for its being so good. As before, you can practically reach out and feel the velvet tunics and white silk robes of the players. All in all, a good picture gets better--wider, brighter, sharper, and clearer.

The audio engineers have retained pretty much the same sound as in the first DVD edition, a Dolby Digital 5.1 processing of the film's multichannel sonics that comes up well. There's 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 the sonics remain a tad on the hard side, I doubt that anyone will be disappointed with the disc's audio qualities.

To do justice to an epic picture, WB have provided it with an epic presentation on four DVDs. Discs one and two contain the movie itself, with English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and a remarkable sixty-one scene selections. In addition, the film is accompanied by an audio commentary with film historian T. Gene Hatcher, author of a book on the making of "Ben-Hur," and scene-specific comments by the film's star, Charlton Heston. The lengthy Overture gives Hatcher a chance to provide us some plot overview and a history of the story and its creation. I rather enjoy these academic approaches to film commentary because they are usually more informative than typical directors' commentaries. Heston's comments were apparently recorded separately, and they are, understandably, more intimately involved with the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking. Then, for good measure, the first two discs also include a music-only track showcasing Miklos Rozsa's celebrated music.

Disc three contains the 1925 silent version of "Ben-Hur," along with thirty-nine scene selections.

Disc four contains a newly made, 2005 documentary, "Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema." Fifty-seven minutes long and divided into ten chapters, it includes interviews with a host of current filmmakers as well as people who actually worked on the project. Ridley Scott, George Lucas, and others commend the film, and director Wyler speaks of the film from vintage clips. The documentary is typical of the kind of thing the Warner studios do so well. Additionally, there is a 1993 documentary, "Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic." Fifty-eight minutes long, divided into twenty chapters, and hosted by Christopher Plummer, it contains a good deal of behind-the-scenes information, too, but I especially liked the history it paints of the story from novel to stage to screen. Then, there's a five-minute montage of stills and movie clips called "Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures," that recounts the story's plot, characters, themes, music. It's followed by a series of screen tests of Leslie Nielsen (he was tested for the part of Messala, back in his serious leading-man days) and Cesare Danova; Leslie Nielsen and Yale Wexler; George Baker and William Russell; and Haya Harareet in hair and makeup tests; about ten minutes of highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony; six vintage newsreel clips about the film; and five separate widescreen theatrical trailers
for the film originally issued between 1959 and 1969.

The DVDs are housed in a foldout, plastic-and-cardboard Digipak case, along with the printed contents for all four discs and an illustrated, thirty-six page informational booklet. The whole affair is further enclosed in an attractively decorated and handsomely embossed slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
"Ben-Hur" may not be as intellectually satisfying as "Spartacus" or "Lawrence of Arabia," but it's an equally intimate portrait of an equally heroic man. In its new, special-edition trappings, the movie is more than ever a must-buy for any film lover, videophile, or home-theater buff.


Film Value