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(Collector’s Edition)

Considering the grandeur, scope and spectacle of BEN-HUR, is it any wonder that this winner of eleven Academy Awards could be considered anything less than one of the greatest epic motion pictures (religious or otherwise) of all time? For those who have never seen the director William Wyler’s 1959 version of BEN-HUR, this film is an epic in every sense of the word. With a then staggering budget of 15 million dollars, BEN-HUR was the most expensive film of its day and every last dollar of its substantial budget is clearly up on the screen. And yes folks, this being a movie from 1959 they actually built everything one sees up on the screen; remember, even the most primitive digital effects are still more than two decades away.

Adding to the scope of this production was the fact that BEN-HUR was filmed in MGM Camera 65, which remains the biggest and widest of all wide screen processes that deployed a single strip of film. With its maximum aspect ratio of 2.76:1, original large format prints of BEN-HUR presented huge panoramic images that dwarfed other wide screen processes. The production made the most of Camera 65 process to create both its epic sea battle and the completely unforgettable chariot race, which remains one of the most recognizable and enthralling cinematic sequences of all time. BEN-HUR also starred a larger-than-life actor by the name of Charlton Heston, who had already achieved legendary status by portraying Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Of course, the icing on the cake has to be Miklós Rózsa's majestic Academy Award winning score, which is certainly one of the best and most epic in the composer’s long and distinguished career.

Based upon the novel by General Lew Wallace, BEN-HUR takes place during the lifetime of Christ and concerns the trials of a Judean Prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), who finds himself imprisoned and made a galley slave at the hands of his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd)- the new commander of the Roman garrison in Judea, after the two have bitter falling out. After three years of service on Roman ships, Judah catches the eye of high-ranking Roman officer Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who recognizes something special about this galley slave. During a sea battle, Arrius has Judah unchained from his rowing station, prior to the Roman ship being rammed. Judah returns the favor by saving Arrius from drowning- thus a bond is formed between the two men, which culminates with Judah becoming the adopted son of the Roman.

Although fortune smiles upon Judah in Rome, where he becomes a champion charioteer, Judah’s desire for vengeance against Messala remains in his heart and he is compelled to return to his homeland to deal with his former friend, and to discover what fate befell his mother and sister at the hands of the Romans. Unlike some religious epics, BEN-HUR maintains a reserved dignified distance from divinity for much of the film, with the spiritual implications of the story only gaining momentum in the final third of the story. In essence, BEN-HUR only inspires- it never preaches, which is why the film met with acclaim at the time of its release and does not seem dated or creaky even today. The wonderful cast of BEN-HUR also features Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie and Frank Thring.

This is Warner Home Video’s second release of BEN-HUR and the first presentation to be taken from restored 65mm elements; the first release was mastered from 35mm reduction materials. Warner offers BEN-HUR in a 16:9 enhanced transfer that is a more accurate representation of the film’s optimum 2.76:1 aspect ratio, with more picture information at all four boundaries of the image. Additionally, as good as the first DVD release of BEN-HUR looked, this one offers other decided improvements. One will find a more sharply defined image, with better detail in this transfer than what was found in the first DVD release. Colors are again very strongly rendered, but appear more vivid and lifelike this time around. Blacks are deep, whites are clean and the picture produces impressive contrast and good shadow detail for a forty five year old film. Blemishes are virtually absent thanks to the miracles of this digital age. Noticeable film grain is minimal. Spread across two dual layered DVDs, with the break coming at the intermission, digital compression artifacts are held very nicely in check.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack that is offered on this edition of BEN-HUR appears to be identical to the initial DVD release. As I stated in my previous review the soundtrack reworks the original multi-channel sound into a modernized "home theater friendly" mix. Stereo dialogue, which would have panned across the immense forward soundstage of a theater in 1959, has been reigned in and is pretty much locked into the center channel. Despite losing the directional of the dialogue, channel separation remains pretty good across the front. Additionally, Miklós Rózsa's musical score has held up quite well and reproduces a good frequency range and a nice amount of sonic detail. As for the surround channels, they are reasonably well deployed throughout the film to produce ambience, some well-timed sound effects and musical fill. The bass channel is quite potent for a film of this vintage; this lends credibility to the hoof beats during the chariot race, as well creating an earthshaking rumble during the film's climatic crucifixion sequence. Again I enjoyed watching BEN-HUR with this modernized sound mix, but would still have liked the opportunity to listen to the film in its original 1950’s style multi-track stereo mix. A French 5.1 soundtrack is also present on the DVD, as are English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Full motion video, animation and sound serve to enhance the DVD's interactive menus. Through the menus, one has access to standard scene selection and set up features, as well as the excellent supplemental materials, which have been spread across all four discs of this set. Discs one and two features a detailed and informative running audio commentary with film historian T. Gene Hatcher and the film’s star Charlton Heston, as well as an isolated musical track for Miklós Rózsa's score. Disc three contains my favorite supplemental feature of the set, the 1925 silent version of BEN-HUR. In many ways superior to the 1959 version, 1925’s BEN-HUR is one of the greatest silent films ever made. More compact, but equally thrilling, with its own spectacular chariot race, this BEN-HUR stars Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala.

Moving on to disc four, one will find the remainder of the supplemental programming. Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema is a brand new fifty-seven minute program that features interviews with movie historians and modern filmmakers who discuss the impact of BEN-HUR on the cinema of today. Next up is Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic, a fifty-eight minute documentary hosted by Christopher Plummer that covers the film's production in great detail, as well as giving context to the movie by tracing its history from the novel by General Lew Wallace to stage productions and then onto the silver screen. Disc four also contains a section of Screen Tests for actors considered for the roles of Judah and Messala. Featured in the screen tests are actors such as Leslie Nielsen and Cesare Danova, Nielsen again with Yale Wexler, George Baker and William Russell. Hair and makeup tests for Haya Harareet are also included in this section. Closing out disc four are Highlights From The 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony, Vintage Newsreels Gallery that feature footage from the film’s various premieres and a Theatrical Trailer Gallery containing five trailers of different vintages.

Unquestionably, BEN-HUR is one of the greatest epic motion pictures of all time. Warner’s new DVD edition offers improved image quality with a more accurate representation of the film’s theatrical aspect ratio, as well as outstanding supplemental materials. If you are a movie buff, BEN-HUR is a must have and this four disc Collector’s Edition is this is the best way to own this epic motion picture. Absolutely recommended.



Ben-Hur (Four-Disc Collector's Edition)



DVD reviews are Copyright © 2005 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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