I am very much tempted to skip the review and tell you to purchase BEN-HUR ($25) because this is a must have DVD. With its 11 Academy Awards, is there anything I could say for or against this movie to convince anyone into believing anything other than the simple truth that BEN-HUR is one of the greatest epic motion pictures of all time? I doubt it. However, I will talk about BEN-HUR simply because I love this movie. Back in the ancient days of Laserdisc, I was one of those insane collectors that continuously wrote letters to MGM/UA Home Video badgering them to release a wide screen version of the film on disc. BEN-HUR actually turned out to be one of the first films to be released on Laserdisc in the Letterbox format by MGM and the movie served as a successful test case that ushered in the wide screen Laserdisc revolution.
For those who have never seen the 1959 version of BEN-HUR, this film is an epic in every sense of the word. At 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. 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 2.76:1 aspect ratio, original 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 has become one of the most recognizable 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 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Then we come to the icing on the cake, as it were, namely Miklós Rózsa's majestic Academy Award winning score, which is certainly one of the best in his long and distinguished career.
The plot of BEN-HUR takes place during the lifetime of Christ and concerns the trials of Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), a Judean Prince, who ends up a galley slave, due to a bitter falling out with his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd)- the new commander of the Roman garrison in Judea. After three years of service on Roman ships, Judah catches the eye of Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a high-ranking Roman officer who saves the galley slave from certain death during a sea battle. Judah returns the favor and saves 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, his desire for vengeance against Messala remains in his heart and he is compelled to return home to Judea to deal with his former friend, and to find out what fate befell his mother and sister at the hands of the Romans. The religious implications of the story gain momentum in the second half of the film, however unlike some religious epics, BEN-HUR maintains a reserved dignified distance from divinity. 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.
Warner Home Video has done an absolutely fantastic job of transcribing BEN-HUR to DVD. Most importantly, the transfer presents BEN-HUR very, very close to its proper 2.76:1 aspect ratio and the DVD does feature the anamorphic enhancement for playback on 16:9 displays. BEN-HUR looks marvelous on DVD, with this being the absolute finest presentation ever offered in the home venue. For a film that is over forty years old, BEN-HUR boasts a very impressive image, with both the outdoor and well-lit interior sequences looking gorgeous. A few of the darker scenes are somewhat muddy in appearance, but this is due to the fact that the older film stocks used to photograph BEN-HUR did not have the sensitivity to resolve fine detail in low light setting, especially when combined with anamorphic lenses. Still, ninety nine percent of the time the image is quite sharp and well detailed. Colors are generally vibrant and come close to the look of the Technicolor hues of yore. Flesh tones have the healthy pallor of a studio makeup department and are generally very appealing. The Technicolor reds of the Roman uniforms are impressive, as are the purples and oranges found in the costumes and set dressings. None of the intense hues are reproduced with any signs of chromatic distortion or bleeding. Blacks are accurately rendered and the picture reproduces with excellent contrast and good shadow detail, except for the instances I mentioned above. The film element used for the transfer is in great shape, only displaying minor blemishes and an occasional tinge of grain. Because of its length, BEN-HUR is spread across two sides of a DVD-18. Therefore, there are no problems with digital compression artifacts on either side of that and the break wisely comes at the intermission.
BEN-HUR features a Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack that reworks the original 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 the change in the directionality of the dialogue, there remains good channel separation across the front in regards to sound effects. In addition, Miklós Rózsa's musical score has a very good sense of stereo imaging. Speaking of the score, the original musical recordings have held up quite well and reproduce with very good frequency range and sonic detail. As for the surround channels, they are aggressively deployed throughout the film to produce ambience, sound effects and musical fill. Many of the sound effects that fall to the rear channels are monaural, however I did perceive a number of split surround moments that are pretty effective. 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. Overall, I am enjoyed watching BEN-HUR with this modernized sound mix, however I would have liked the opportunity to listen to the film in its original 1950’s style multi-track stereo mix. A French Dolby Surround soundtrack is also present on the DVD, as are English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
Music underscores the DVD's basic interactive menus, which provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a nice complement of extras. Charlton Heston provides a running audio commentary that covers much of the film's 212 minute running time, and the track makes use of the subtitle feature to indicate when the viewer should skip ahead to the point where the actor begins speaking again. Heston has tremendous recall, with his comments being interesting and highly informative on the production and the personalities involved on both sides of the camera. Also included on the DVD is an hour-long documentary Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic, which was produced in 1993. Hosted by Christopher Plummer, Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic 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. Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic features recent and old interviews with members of the production team, as well as behind-the-scenes photos and screen tests for actors not used in the film. Additionally, clips of the 1925 version of BEN-HUR are included in the documentary, which makes me wonder when Warner will bring the incredible silent epic to DVD- where it absolutely belongs. Theatrical trailers, screen tests, stills and an award list fill out the supplements.
BEN-HUR remains an incredible motion picture experience that truly demonstrates why the film earned 11 Academy Awards. Warner has done a tremendous job with the DVD, providing an outstanding video and audio presentation. As I said up above, this is a must own DVD, so do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of BEN-HUR. Absolutely recommended.
reviews are Copyright © 2001 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied
or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.