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.
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.
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:
In addition to the first act of the film (including the introductory Overture), disc one includes the following extras:
Audio Commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with comments from Charlton Heston which ... provides plenty of interesting production tidbits including information relating to the original novel, author Lew Wallace, as well as the significance of Ben-Hur to the future of the MGM studio. Considering the popularity of the scene, Heston spends a great deal of time talking about his infamous chariot race scene and the training that was necessary. He also discusses Wyler's directorial style and offers some character anecdotes. An extremely informative and interesting track that fans of Ben-Hur and classic film will appreciate.
Isolated Music Track highlights Miklos Rozsa's glorious score. Rozsa brilliantly evokes a majestic yet biblical theme and as is typical with many of Rozsa's exceptional scores, this is a most worthy inclusion.
The Theatrical Trailer Gallery [16:9 video] contains 5 trailers consisting of the following:
- 1959 Loew’s Theater Teaser
- 1959 Theatrical Trailer
- 1961 General Release #1
- 1961 General Release #2
- 1969 70mm Re-issue Trailer
Disc two continues the Commentary and Isolated MusicTrack through the Entr'acte and second act of the film, but has no additional special features.
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.
Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema ...includes interviews with a number of current filmmakers as well as participants from the actual production. The likes of Michael Douglas, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, and others praise the film, and director Wyler speaks of the film from archival footage. Lucas talks about how he borrowed from the film for the pod races, for example. Very interesting and informative. Duration: 57:42 minutes. [16:9 enhanced video]
Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic is a 1993 documentary, hosted by Christopher Plummer which contains a great deal of behind-the-scenes information. Again, very informative and entertaining. Duration: 58:11 minutes.[AVC encoded 4:3 480i Video]
Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures is an odd little feature which is an audiovisual recreation that contains a number of clips and stills, shots of written sheet music with scoring cues, production notes, shots of various characters and character clips. Duration: 5:08 minutes.
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:
Screen Tests contains a series of tests featuring Leslie Nielsen & Cesare Danova, Leslie Nielsen & Yale Wexler, George Baker & William Russell and Haya Harareet in hair and makeup tests. Just so hard to see Neilson as we expect him to look directly into the camera and raise a furled brow… Duration: 29:19 minutes.
Vintage Newsreels Gallery. This feature contains 6 newsreels all relating to various gala and premiere openings across the country. All of these are in great shape. Duration: 9:46 minutes.
Highlights from the 4/4/60 Academy Awards Ceremony features a number of huge stars of the period, many of whom were in the running for a statue that night. Great old footage but there are some audio issues, particularly at the start of the feature – dropouts – at least there was with my copy. If only the speeches were like that today, I might actually, once again, watch the awards. Duration: 9:47 minutes.
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.