When you consider the term “epic” in relation to motion pictures, you may think of “Gone With the Wind,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Spartacus,” “El Cid,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” or “Gladiator.” But, certainly, nobody ever created a more-epic spectacle for the screen than MGM and William Wyler in the 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).
The movie’s release on DVD was something of a record setter, too, being one of the lengthiest and widest films ever transferred to the medium. Well, guess what: The new “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray set looks and sounds even better than before, restored and remastered, with the usual assortment of bonuses and several other collectible goodies we’ll get to in a minute. A grand film experience becomes a grand Blu-ray achievement all the way around.
Published as a novel in 1880 and subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” General Lew Wallace’s “Ben-Hur” first saw a successful stage adaptation and then a silent movie in 1925 (included in this 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), a Jew 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), who grew up with Judah, like brothers, though 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, 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. 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 far-too-coincidental set of circumstances enable Judah to rise once again in the world. By happenstance he saves the life of a Roman Consul, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who in gratitude makes Judah his adopted son and a free man. What are the odds? 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 an adventure, at its core it has a genuine heart. Judah Ben-Hur is no mere cardboard hero (despite Heston’s sometimes wooden manner). Ben-Hur 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 nonbelievers.
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, and it gives extended time for the chariot race.
Ah, yes, that chariot race. Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” may also be an 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. It’s the equivalent of the car chase in “Bullitt” years later for livening up a film. Legendary stunt man Yakima Canutt was second-unit director on “Ben-Hur,” and he was responsible for staging the action and training Heston to do much of his own chariot driving. What’s more, the film’s music by noted composer Miklos Rozsa (“The Thief of Bagdad,” 1940, “Jungle Book,” 1942, “Spellbound,” 1945, “El Cid,” 1961, and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” 1974) memorably makes its mark in the chariot-race segment as well.
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.”
In addition to William Wyler’s 1959 remake of “Ben-Hur,” the Blu-ray 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 143 minutes long, mostly in black-and-white, with a few tints and color sequences, accompanied by a stereophonic orchestral score 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 the studio claimed to number some 125,000 strong. The story remains generally the same, but at an hour’s less time, 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, a preface to the movie states 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 impact, 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 Technicolor would later become, but it energizes 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 high-definition Blu-ray disc for optimum quality, and spread over two dual-layer BD50’s no less. MGM originally filmed the movie in something called Camera 65, and they projected it onto the screen at a ratio of anywhere from 2.50:1 to 2.76:1, depending on the theater, the BD offering the full 2.76:1. The extreme 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 superb, as we might expect. Indeed, the high-def image is spectacularly good, beautifully restored and remastered from 65 mm elements, remarkably detailed, always sharp, always brilliantly in focus, and more clearly delineated than ever before. Colors look vividly deep, particularly reds and blacks, accompanied by pinpoint definition. The picture quality is so rich, it makes me regret I don’t have a 200-inch projector screen and a really big room.
The audio this time around comes to us via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Unlike the video quality, however, where the picture is as good as or better than anything we have today, the 1959 soundtrack isn’t quite in the same league. It’s often on the lean, hard, metallic side, most noticeable in the forward quality of the upper strings, with a slightly pinched sound at times to the dialogue. Still, there’s a commendably wide front-stereo stage involved, and for a change one can hear the characters’ voices move across the sound field rather than be anchored out in the middle.
Rear-channel reproduction is limited mainly to musical ambient bloom for the first three-quarters of the film, but then in the climactic crucifixion scene, the surrounds come to life in noises of wind and storm. In addition, the subwoofer gets a good outing, and the Roman drums bang out thrillingly. While, as I say, the sonics remain a tad on the hard side, I doubt that the Blu-ray’s audio characteristics will disappoint too many listeners.
Discs one and two contain the feature film. Along with the movie, we get an audio commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher, with scene-specific comments from Charlton Heston. The film’s 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 a typical director’s commentary. The filmmakers recorded Heston’s comments separately, and they appear, 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.
In addition, the discs include sixty-one scene selections (1-39 on disc one, 40-61 on disc two); English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Polish, and Hungarian spoken languages; French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Czech, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, and Romanian subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc three, also a Blu-ray, contains the rest of the special features, the most notable being the complete 1925 version of “Ben-Hur” described above. Then, there’s a newly made documentary, “Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey” in high def, seventy-eight minutes long with commentary from Heston’s family. After that is the 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 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 several theatrical trailers.
Because this is an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition,” the package further contains a 128-page replica of Charlton Heston’s journal and sketches (he avidly kept notes on each of his movies), and a 64-page hardbound book of text and rare photos.
The three discs come housed in a cardboard-and-plastic Digipak foldout case, further enclosed along with the book and journal in a handsomely embossed, hard-cardboard box. However, if the box is too big for your disc-library shelf, you can use the Digipak alone, and it will fit right in amongst the rest of your collection.
“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 latest packaging, with all of its “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray trappings, the movie is more appealing than ever.