Blu-ray Review Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Ken_McAlinden, Sep 27, 2011.

  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    Capsule/Summary *****


    William Wyler's enduring epic adaptation of Ben-Hur is considered by many to be the definitive Biblical epic of the talking picture era and features a lead performance from Charlton Heston that is arguably definitive in its own right. The film is presented on this 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray with significantly upgraded image quality, all of the on-disc special features previously available on DVD, and a new feature length documentary offering a uniquely personal view of the productin of the film from the perspective of Charlton Heston and his family. The set also receives non-trivial physical extras, the most interesting of which is a replica of Heston's personal journal entries from the time of the film's production and release.


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    Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition



    Directed By: William Wyler



    Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, HughGriffith, Cathy O'Donnell, Martha Scott, Marina Berti, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie







    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 1959

    Rated: NR

    Film Length: 212 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 2.75:1



    Subtitles: English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian, Spanish (Castillan), Dutch, Spanish (Latin), Portuguese




    Release Date: September 27, 2011





    The Film *****


    William Wyler's 1959 remake of Ben-Hur adapts the popular novel from Lew Wallace to tell the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) a Jewish noble living under Roman occupation in the first century AD. While not by nature a political man, Judah eventually finds himself at odds with his childhood friend, Messala (Boyd), who is now a soldier in the employ of the Roman Governor of Judea. When an accident results in Judah being falsely convicted of sedition, his family is placed under arrest and he is sentenced to serve as a galley slave on board a Roman ship commanded by Quintus Arrias (Hawkins). When improbable circumstances offer an opportunity to regain his freedom, Judah finds his way back to Judea. When he learns the fate of his family, Judah becomes consumed with revenge against both Messala and Rome.



    While deserving of its status, seemingly cemented instantly upon its release, as the quintessential Hollywood Biblical epic of the "talkie" era, Ben-Hur is also an interesting example of a financially troubled studio going "all-in" in hopes of reversing their fortunes. While this template would be followed with mixed results by both MGM and other studios over the course of the next decade, in this instance, MGM seemed to stumble across the perfect storm of critical and box-office success. By blending old-fashioned spectacle with just enough modernity, courtesy largely of Director William Wyler's sensibilities, they appealed to the broad, divergent, and television-owning audiences of the late 1950s and early 1960s and reaped record breaking levels of recognition at the Academy Awards.



    While Wyler may not have seemed the obvious choice to helm a Cecil B. DeMille-style biblical spectacle, he proved more than up to the task. Characterizations are a bit more sophisticated than in the 1925 original. Time spent early in the film establishing Judah and Messala's friendship pays off ultimately by elevating the dramatic and tragic elements of the relationship that drive the film through to its conclusion. The various points where the film's narrative intersects with the life of Jesus are also deftly handled, with less spectacle and screen time devoted to them early in the film than in the 1925 original, but with a gradually building impact that pays off in the dramatic and moving crucifixion sequence.



    The cast seems uniquely suited to the task of playing on the massive scale of the film, with Heston rising to the occasion in the role that cemented his leading man status and would serve as perhaps his most iconic role in a career filled with larger than life character highlights. Stephen Boyd delivers his best cinematic performance full stop, and several supporting performances from the likes of Jack Hawkins and Frank Thring suggest a degree of character complexity without getting in the way of the film's scale or narrative drive.



    At three and a half hours, the viewer does on occasion feel the film's length a bit too keenly, and in this way, the more briskly paced 1925 original has a leg up. On the other hand, complaining about such a willfully mammoth production running too long seems akin to complaining about a production of "Little Women" being "too girly". In any case, as an example of classic Hollywood swinging for the fences, Wyler's "super-sized" remake carved its own unique place in film history.


    The Video ****½


    This 1080p AVC-encoded rendering of the film letterboxed to its ultra-wide theatrical aspect ratio of 2.76 (or so) is not just a high definition upgrade of the previously released DVD, but also reflects the results of a significant film restoration effort on the part of Warner Bros. Despite being sourced from elements that were reported to be very problematic, inclusive of a faded and apparently unprintable negative, the efforts of Warner Home Video in both the film and digital domains have resulted in a blu-ray disc that approaches the quality of some of their best catalog releases. In addition to improvements to the overall quality of the image from scene to scene, the color timing also is improved to my eyes, although things still seem slightly tilted towards brown. There are mild inconsistencies from shot to shot such as when a costume appears to shift slightly in color after a cut to a different camera angle, for instance. I was taken aback late in the film by what looked like high contrast edge ringing on a couple of shots, but my suspicion is that this was an artifact of a piece of dupe footage that had to be used because the presentation is otherwise absent of any such problems. It is to the credit of the digital wizards behind the scenes at Warner that other than these brief shots, only the most attentive (and critical) of viewers will be able to discern the difference when the film source changes to lower generation dupe sections and back again.

    The Audio ****


    The film's sound mix is provided courtesy of a DTS-HD MA lossless multi-channel encoding which provides the expected step-up in fidelity over the lossy Dolby Digital rendering from the previous DVD. I am not familiar enough with the original theatrical mix to comment on how this mix relates to it, so I will stick to non-relative objective observations. Dialog is well-recorded and normally narrowly presented in the center of the mix. Miklos Rozsa's music is also well served and is the prime beneficiary of the lossless encoding. Sound effects are aggressively dimensional, but not always recorded at the same level of quality as the music and dialog, which becomes most apparent during times when the mix gets aggressive and "busy" such as during the chariot race.

    The Extras *****


    For this 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray, Warner has assembled every one of the on-disc extras from the 2005 Four Disc Collector's Editon DVD. These extras were described and assessed quite eloquently in Herb Kane's DVD Review from 2005. Herb's comments on these features are presented with minor edits for clarity below in block-quotes. All extras are presented in AVC-encoded 480i standard definition video with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio unless otherwise indicated below:


    Disc One


    In addition to the first act of the film (including the introductory Overture), disc one includes the following extras:

    Disc Two



    Disc two continues the Commentary and Isolated MusicTrack through the Entr'acte and second act of the film, but has no additional special features.


    Disc Three



    Under the heading of Behind the Scenes are the following features:



    Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (1:18:06 -1080p video) is a newly produced documentary from Director Laurent Bouzereau in cooperation with the Heston Family. As its title suggests, it offers a unique view of the production of the film from the perspective of the people who knew Charlton Heston best – his family, friends, and colleagues. In addition to the standard talking head interview segments, behind the scenes photos, and scans of production documents, this documentary also includes color home movie footage from the Heston family, scans of sketches drawn by Charlton Heston, and excerpts from Charlton Heston's personal journals from the time of Ben-Hur's production read by his son, Filmmaker Fraser C. Heston.



    The documentary begins by offering biographical details of Heston's childhood and life as a young adult (excepting his military service which is addressed later in the documentary). It then moves on to the circumstances leading to his being cast in Ben-Hur followed by extensive coverage of the nine month production of the film. These topics include the Cinecitta Studio in Rome, the Heston Family's living arrangements, William Wyler's directorial methods, costumes, and the chariot race stunts. The latter part of the documentary covers The Heston family coming home, the construction of their home in the Hollywood Hills, the reaction to the film, and the film's Academy Award success. On-camera comments are provided by Fraser C. Heston, Actor Tom Selleck, Daughter Holly Heston Rochell, Wife Lydia Clarke Heston, Actress Stephanie Zimbalist, Daughter of William Wyler Melanie Wyler, Author/Film Historian Jon Solomon, Actress Hildegard Neil, Grandson Jack Heston, Filmmaker and Daughter of William Wyler Catherine Wyler, Actor Julian Glover, Stuntman Joe Canutt, Filmmaker Mike Newell, Producer Peter Snell, and, courtesy of an archival 2001 interview: Charlton Heston himself.


    Under the Heading of Ben-Hur 1925 Version is the entire (2:23:07) original silent version of the film directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Navarro. It is presented in black and white with tinting and select scenes in two-strip Technicolor.




    Under the Heading of Additional Footage are the following special features:

    Packaging


    The hallmark of Warner Bros.' Ultimate Collector's Editions has traditionally been their deluxe packaging and unique physical extras, and the Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition does not disappoint on those fronts. The contents are all included in a large cardboard box with a lid with a cover reproducing an image from the chariot race arena. The box is in-turn held in a carboard slipcover with the more conventional promotional art and information pictured at the top of this review. When the lid is removed from the luxurious looking cardboard box, the viewer is greeted with the a faux black velvet covered plastic shell that holds in place a three panel digipack with a thick cardboard backing containing the three separate blu-ray discs as well as the following physical extras:



    A 64 Page Commemorative Hardcover Book with character profiles, a plot synopsis, details about several key aspects of the film's production, and a gallery of vintage publicity clippings. All of these elements are accompanied by several high quality renderings of production photos and artwork on generously sized page layouts.



    On The Set of Ben-Hur: a 130 page hardcover book that reproduces several of Charlton Heston's personal journal entries from January 15th, 1958 (in which he discusses the status of his potential casting in Ben-Hur) through April 5th, 1960 (the day after the 1960 Academy Awards). The typewritten pages are reproduced as they were originally created, and even include replica inserts of a photo and a ticket to the gala European Premier that are taped onto the appropriate pages. The replica journal entries are preceded by a brief introduction from Fraser C. Heston. Following the journal entries, the book also includes a gallery of photos taken by Lydia Clarke Heston in Rome during the film's production in 1958-59, a collection of personal sketches drawn by Charlton Heston from the set of Ben-Hur, and some brief biographical notes on Charlton Heston. Altogether, this represents a uniquely personal insight into Heston's experience making the film, and is a perfect in-depth companion to the Charlton Heston and "Ben-Hur": A Personal Journey documentary included in the set.
     
  2. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    Thank you for the great review. I have the boxset, but haven't watched any of it yet.
     
  3. Scott Merryfield

    Scott Merryfield Executive Producer
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    Thank you for the detailed review, Ken. I have the UK version on its way over the pond, and I am really looking forward to watching this great film again.
     
  4. dpippel

    dpippel HTF Premium Member
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    I went the same route Scott and am also really looking forward to viewing this film again, even more so in light of this apparently excellent Blu-ray release. Thanks for your review Ken!
     
  5. John Stockton

    John Stockton Second Unit

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    For the people who are importing this from the UK, I don't think the majority of the extras will be playable in the US machines since they are Standard Def PAL format. Can anyone confirm??
     
  6. John Hodson

    John Hodson Producer

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    It's a 3 Blu-ray set; and as such PAL doesn't enter the equation here? Material for all regions will undoubtedly be encoded identically.
     
  7. David Coleman

    David Coleman Supporting Actor

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    I bought the Best Buy combo pack and let me tell you I'm very impressed with both the audio and video. While my 52" is a little small to appreciate all the wonder of this ultrawide transfer, what I can tell you is there is a detail to every scene. Even the wide shots of crowds during the chariot races are very detailed. In fact, it's the wide shots that are most impressive about this transfer. Close ups are detailed, however given the wide dimensions, close ups aren't really that close. I was extremely impressed with the colors of this transfer. The roman robes and headdress had always taken on an orange look on previous video transfers. No more with this one. Colors are red as they should be. Also very impressed with the detail you could see in clothing and sets. The only moments that didn't look stellar are of course the moments of optical matting which in no way would look fabulous given the then technology. The audio was very impressive. Most impressive was the dynamic range. Who would have thought that a 1959 film would have that much range. What I can tell you is the Miklos Rozsa score never sounded better! In fact that is the best part of the mix. Very detailed. Dialog was very good. When called upon, especially during the ending storm, the LFE was very impressive. A great presentation!!
     
  8. Cinescott

    Cinescott Supporting Actor

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    I picked up the Best Buy Combo Pack as well and wow. Ben Hur is likely the most "filmic" Blu-ray I have ever seen. The shades of black on this one are almost infinite. Detail and color is amazing and the audio is perfect.


    On that note, the only personal issue I had with Ben Hur was the aspect ratio. Sitting about 7' from my 55" display, the 2.76(?):1 OAR is really narrow. I can't imagine how anyone with a display smaller than mine could see enough detail to really enjoy this one. Maybe if they sit very, very close. I'm all for OAR, but this one is really wide.2.50 is fine, but 2.76 seems to be pushing the aspect/detail boundary to its limit. That said, I am more than happy to have a damn near perfect Blu-ray copy of this 1959 masterpiece exactly as it would appear in a theatrical run, maybe even better.


    Regarding content, I have never seen a movie as "big" as this one. It's hard to imagine scenes like the now-infamous chariot race being pulled off without the help of CGI. This stuff was done for real, with enormous set-pieces and thousands of extras. It seems like the dramatic power of everything in Ben Hur benefits from the fact hat everything in it (apart from the obvious matte shots and model ships) is real.
     
  9. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    Just to verify/emphasize: On the US version, all of the 480i material is AVC-encoded.


    By the way, my apologies to those who read this review as it originally appeared. There was some garbled syntax and more than a few typos. I wrote it whenever I could spare a few moments while on a business trip. Spotty hotel wireless and a tiny underpowered laptop were not an ideal mix with my marginal typing skills. Hopefully, it reads better now.
     
  10. Paul Rossen

    Paul Rossen Supporting Actor

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    While there is no CGI there are plenty of cinematic 'tricks' at hand. Matte paintings are used throughout including quick glances at the total crowd scenes in the chariot race. That said a most impressive movie for its time and perhaps out time. Can't wait to see the blu-ray.
     
  11. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    Quote:



    Listen to the commentary for some good information on the clever use of matte paintings. Hatcher even makes an amusing recommendation that viewers do not spend too much time contemplating the direction of the shadows/sun during the race lest they drive themslves crazy.
     
  12. Paul Rossen

    Paul Rossen Supporting Actor

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    I've always had a chuckle viewing the Parade of the Charioteers as well as the race itself due to the shifting sun and shadows. It's great anyway flaws and all.
     
  13. John Hodson

    John Hodson Producer

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    It's a lost art isn't it? I love a good painted matte; not only are some of them gobsmackingly gorgeous, but you sometimes have to marvel at the guile, the sheer invention (Quo Vadis springs to mind in this respect). CGI mattes lack that, well a certain something; I snorted with contempt at the digital matte used at the beginning of the Coen's True Grit. And I find it hard to express exactly why.
     
  14. marsnkc

    marsnkc Supporting Actor

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    That 'certain something' could in part be ascribed to individuality (assuming the individual is a talent on par with your Whitlocks!). A friend of mine was a matte painter for a major studio when I met him in 1995. Having to move to CGI broke his heart, and although he's since worked on movies like Avatar, he gets no satisfaction from it. He also said that matte painting had a 'certain - sensory - something' that he also found difficult to describe. You'll be pleased to know that his heroes included Ellenshaw, Day and the aformentioned Alfred W. I have to say, though, that what's possible now is astonishing, making it more and more difficult for my untrained eye to distinguish between what's real and not. Some period 'exteriors', one is aware, have to be CGI only because one knows they no longer exist, and that owl in the Potter films - when doing its tricks - is either CGI or the best trained, most talented bird in history - animation impossible to achieve with painting. As to the tricks employed in Ben-Hur, I thought I saw somewhere that the arena crowd was padded with cut-outs of one kind or another, though I may be confusing this with a different fim featuring a stadium.
     
  15. Anthony_H

    Anthony_H Stunt Coordinator

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    So if reading correctly... the UK version is that only way to get all the disc content of swag edition without the swag? Also... to put a fine point upont..... there would be no problems with playback in the US?
     
  16. Douglas R

    Douglas R Cinematographer

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    Yes indeed. You're lucky you have a 55". On my 42" plasma the film certainly loses its original "epic" look!!
     
  17. ToddF

    ToddF Agent

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    Thanks Ken. Great review. I watched the movie and congrats to Warner Bros. for a remarkable job.!!
     
  18. Jon Lidolt

    Jon Lidolt Stunt Coordinator

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    I totally agree with your comment. Why they couldn't have extracted the image within the 2.5 composition area is beyond me. When a 35mm film is shot and composed for projection in 1.85 the studios no longer produce DVDs and Blu-rays showing the entire frame. Why change this accepted practice for films shot in the super wide Ultra-Panavision format? Makes no sense to me at all except to produce an unacceptably tiny image on most home screens. I think all the talk of "we want to see the whole frame" on the Home Theater Forum is mostly to blame for this situation.
     
  19. Dan_Shane

    Dan_Shane Stunt Coordinator

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    I think the answer is quite obvious: There are many of us who want to see the film as originally composed and shot. It is not the fault of Warner, MGM, Wyler, Heston, or anyone else that someday the movie was going to be viewed on infintesimally smaller screens than BH was intended to fill. To accomodate viewers with smaller TVs as you describe would require altering the image in (to me) an absolutely undesirable fashion. I own a 73" HDTV, and I for one am thrilled that I am going to be able to enjoy the full OAR in high definition.


    Even when I watched previous video incarnations on significantly smaller screens I never wished the studio had trimmed the sides to offer more vertical resolution. I'm happy I was able to see BEN-HUR in a large theatre decades ago (the way it was meant to be experienced), and I am equally enthusiastic about the new Blu-ray. No nips or tucks for me, please.
     
  20. ahollis

    ahollis Producer

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    Sorry, but I most heartily disagree with your comment. I want to see the what the director wants me to see. That ratio is what he filled in with action and acting along with the ambiance of the era. If Ben-Hur had not been released in it's OAR then I whould have passed on the blu-ray. for I have do not want to watch a partial picture.

    There were a lot of films from the 50's and 60's that I saw on the network movie nights. Those films were presented pan-scan and it was not until the advent of Laserdisc that I finally got to see some of the great films in their widescreen glory. Seeing the OAR for West Side Story, South Pacific, Bridge on The River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia certainly made a difference and almost told a different story. I champion the releases of films in their OAR and glad all the talk of it is to blame for the situation.
     

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