- May 7, 2001
Four-Disc Collector’s Edition
Studio: Warner Brothers
Film Length: 222 Minutes (Includes Overture, Intermission & Entr’ Acte)
Aspect Ratio: 2.76:1 Enhanced Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1
Languages: English & French
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Package: 5 panel Digipak/cardboard slipcover
Directed by William Wyler, this mammoth production consisted of 350 speaking parts and over 50,000 extras. Extremely popular when first released, the film, based on the famous novel by Lew Wallace, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record equaled only by Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), an achievement made more spectacular by the fact that the film was the remake of the prestigious 1925 silent production which had cost a then-unheard-of, four million dollars. While the 1959 film is technically more advanced than its predecessor, many would argue, the remake is less original and exciting than the silent film, directed by Fred Niblo.
Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston) is a member of the Jewish nobility living in Jerusalem, who lives a religious life and peacefully opposes the occupation of Judea by Rome. When his old friend Messala (played by Stephen Boyd) returns to the region as a Roman official, they are divided over the fate of Judea. Throwing friendship aside, Messala has Ben-Hur, as well as his sister and mother, arrested under a wrongful accusation of treason.
While the fate of his family is unknown, Judah is condemned to spend the rest of his life in the Roman fleet's galleys. His fate, however, takes a turn for the best when he saves the life of the commander of the fleet, Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins).
Freed from slavery, he becomes Arrius's adopted son, but instead of forgetting his past to become the heir of a Roman aristocrat, the motives that becomes the purpose of his life is to find his family and take his revenge on the treacherous Messala, which he eventually does through a famous chariot race.
Ben-Hur is less a biblical epic in the manner of The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) but rather a traditional Roman Empire story in the style of Quo Vadis? (1951), or a film set against the background of the life of Christ such as The Robe (1953), a film which it closely resembles. Despite its American alternate title "A Tale of Christ" (used more in reference to the 1925 version), Ben-Hur's star character is not a biblical character, but an eponymous one, who is entirely fictitious.
Furthermore, in spite of Judah's constant references to his God, Christianity is mostly relegated to the background, and apart from a sequence before the opening credits, a brief encounter between Ben-Hur and Jesus, and the last thirty minutes of the picture which deal with the Crucifixion, there is nothing particularly biblical about Ben-Hur, in comparison to the 1925 version, which, although never rising above biblical tokenism, had episodes of the Christ's life regularly interrupting the protagonist's story.
The Feature: 3.5/5
Admittedly, when I started the review, I did so hesitantly, considering some of the posts as well as some of the various screencaps that were posted. As you can see from this Ben-Hur thread, there is great deal of discussion surrounding the mastering of the new Four-Disc Collector’s Edition. As you can see here, Mr. Robert Harris steps up to the plate and posts in an attempt to allay any fear for potential purchasers, offering his enthusiastic support for the new set.
Having said all that, I still can’t help but feel the colors might be slightly off as the new version is abundantly “golden”, not necessarily yellow, but definitely golden. I’m not going to beat the issue to death, but suffice it to say, five minutes into your viewing and this transfer looks terrific and you’re virtually guaranteed to forget anything relating to the so-called problems. The new Collector’s Edition is presented uncropped in its proper aspect ratio of 2.76:1 (realllllly wiiiiiide) and is widescreen enhanced, from restored 65 mm elements.
The only other comment I’ll make as it relates to color, is the presence of “reds”. Not only are the colors vibrant and lush, but reds are pushed (often looking exaggerated) and seem to suffer mis-registration issues. Skin tones looked rather accurate, although some of the close-ups render that “sunny – golden look” I referred to in the previous paragraph. Contrast and shadow detail are both excellent, and the level of detail is good, although unremarkable. Only a minimal amount of fine film-grain was present which leads to my next observation. One thing that does stand out is the amount of dimensionality, quite often displaying a gorgeous amount of texture and depth. The entire presentation – from start to finish – looks as “film-like” as you’ll ever see on DVD. Very impressive.
The print was virtually immaculate and free of any dust and dirt and void of scratches or blemishes – something newsworthy indeed considering we’re discussing a 45 year old film. Authoring seems to have been handled adequately as compression seemed to be non-existent. Edge enhancement never factors in here.
One last note of interest, my observations are based solely on the screening of this new Collector’s Edition as I do not have the previous disc to use as a gauge. For those interested, my video equipment consists of a Sharp DLP XV-Z9000U projector (ISF calibrated) on a 96” Stewart Firehawk screen via a Pioneer Elite 45Ai DVD player.
The biggest bone of contention with the new release might not even be with the video portion of the transfer, but with the audio portion. Gone, is the original 6 channel track so the soundtrack is a 5.1 remix and by all accounts, is identical to what was presented on the original version. Overall, the track does a satisfactory job.
While the track is clean and free of hiss or other noisy distractions, it does seem slightly on the compressed side, lacking (perhaps constrained) in really high end effects. Dialogue was always bold and intelligible and due to the nature of the remix is pretty much anchored, front and center. Unfortunately, due to the loss of the original track, directional dialogue is no longer an option here. Sad, given the aspect ratio and its potential.
The dynamic range is somewhat broad (considering) and there’s a fair amount of heft to it. As he did with so many other films of the period, Miklos Rozsa's score is worthy of praise, eliciting just the right atmosphere and mood for the drama that’s about to unfold. Dialogue is never in competition during the brilliant score.
Surround use is rather limited to the subtle ambiance of crowds and a few of the action scenes however, most of this track takes place up front. Same with .1 usage, very limited however you’ll notice impressive hoofage during the infamous chariot race.
The set is comprised of four discs. While feature film is split over Disc One and Disc Two, the features look like this:
Discs One & Two:
[*] First up is an Audio Commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with comments from Charlton Heston which apparently was ported over from the original release. The commentary 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.
[*] An 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 four-disc 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. Filmed mostly in black-and-white, with some tints and Technicolor sequences, it's accompanied by a stereophonic orchestral score composed by Carl Davis. Many would argue that this probably shouldn't be listed as a "special feature" and that may very well be the case however, regardless of where we place it, its inclusion is a welcome one – the ultimate companion piece.
The 1925 version looks terrific. The print contains a fair amount of grain, with nice texture and dimensionality. Grayscale is what we might expect for a film 80 years old. As we might imagine, there are signs of dirt, debris, and scratches but it never becomes bothersome. This is sure to please fans wanting to add this to their collections. Duration: 144:58 minutes.
There’s sure to be plenty of caps for the ’59 version posted all over the net, so let’s post a few for the ’25 version.
[*] First up is Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema which 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.
[*] 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.
[*] 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.
[*] 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: 9:44 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: 9:31minutes.
[*] 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: 9:44 minutes.
[*] The Theatrical Trailer Gallery 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
[*] And finally….. a 38-page reproduction of the The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur - Souvenir Booklet is included with plenty of stills and factual information relating to the production.
Short of including perhaps a swatch from one of Heston’s many costumes or a sandal lace, I can’t imagine anything else being included here – an absolute complete and perfect package.
Special Features: 5/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
Often criticized for it's length, Ben-Hur plods along at a snail’s pace, a film which also demonstrates that perhaps too much of a good thing is not always better. Many have since lamented that William Wyler was considered an inappropriate choice for the task. Wyler was an immensely talented director of dramas - The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives - (1946) who also directed a few comedies and thrillers, but his ability to direct anything on an epic scale has long been questioned. Admittedly, it doesn't help that this reviewer isn't all that keen on the film itself. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say however, I have a great deal of respect for what was accomplished. Hey, 11 Oscars later and one of the most celebrated films of all time, Ben-Hur has become a true classic, one almost impossible to criticize in any way, shape or form. And one thing is for sure, the picture epitomizes the term "epic" as it relates to classic film.
I suspect many fans of this film will purchase this package on the strength of the '25 silent version alone. Despite what I now consider a few minor hiccups in terms of the presentation, fans of the film with realistic expectations should be ecstatic with this new edition. The special features are among the best you’ll see complementing a film worthy of such acclaim. Certainly a contender for one of the year’s best releases.
Overall Rating: 4/5 (not an average)
Release Date: September 13th, 2005