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Warner Home Video presents
Ben-Hur: CE (1959 and 1925)

"Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-One. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive."
- Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: September 12, 2005

Stars: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie
Other Stars: Ramon Novarro, Betty Bronson, May McAvoy, Francis X. Bushman, Carmel Myers
Director: William Wyler (1959 version), Fred Niblo (1925 version)

MPAA Rating: G for (brief moments of gore)
Run Time: 06h:05m:28s
Release Date: September 13, 2005
UPC: 012569675353
Genre: epic


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ AAA A

DVD Review

There are epics, and then there's Ben-Hur. Legendary in scope, massive in scale, and meticulously constructed by director William Wyler, this "tale of the Christ" defines the genre, and dwarfs both its predecessors and imitators. Of course, bigger isn't always better, and Ben-Hur often falls victim to its own excess, but Wyler never lets the broad canvas overwhelm him or his story. With this quintessential epic, he proves big films are only as good as their small moments, and it's the human elements of this grandiose work—as much as the spectacle—that captivate and resonate. To classify Ben-Hur as little more than a sea battle and chariot race does the film a grave injustice; at its core, it's an inspiring chronicle of one man's agonizing march toward faith. And without that simple kernel of truth, all the sets, costumes, pageantry, and thousands of Italian extras wouldn't be worth a damn.

Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars back in 1959, and although it surely ranks as one of the all-time classic blockbusters, its status as a great movie remains questionable. No doubt about it, Wyler works wonders with the material, acting as the real-life savior of this religious saga, but the material itself rarely rises above the mundane. Little depth and no ambiguity pervade General Lew Wallace's cut-and-dried good-vs.-evil yarn, and though Wyler manages to pump some passion, sensitivity, and humanity into the cardboard story, he can't get around the novel's inherent deficiencies. Yet despite the handicap, Ben-Hur is still top-flight entertainment—engrossing, exciting—and holds up far better than other Biblical epics of the period. That's all due to Wyler, who proved yet again he could tackle any genre with ease.

The sprawling yet straightforward chronicle begins with the birth of Christ, then fast-forwards 26 years to focus on the relationship between Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), close boyhood friends whose divergent political views turn them into bitter adult enemies. Messala, a Roman soldier, triumphantly returns to Jerusalem to impose order on the conquered Jews, and hopes Judah, the richest and most respected man in town, will help him bring any clandestine rebels to justice. The peaceful Judah, however, refuses to betray his people, causing an irreparable rift with Messala that becomes a full-blown chasm when Judah's sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), accidentally injures the new Roman governor during a parade. Judah takes the blame, but Messala refuses to believe the act was not intentional, and imprisons Judah, Tirzah, and their mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), indefinitely.

Judah vows revenge against Messala, who banishes the Jew to the galleys, where he toils for years as an enslaved oarman. His endurance and hateful demeanor impress Commander Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a naval general who suggests Judah might have a future as a charioteer in Rome. Judah rebuffs the offer, yet when their ship comes under siege from a Macedonian fleet, Judah rescues an injured Arrius from the Mediterranean, and the grateful general takes the slave under his wing, bringing Judah back to Rome and eventually adopting him. With stature and health restored, Judah soon returns to Jerusalem to confront (and hopefully kill) Messala, discover the fate of Tirzah and Miriam, and romance the beautiful Esther (Haya Harareet), daughter of Simonides (Sam Jaffe), a loyal slave who the Romans tortured for defending Judah after his arrest.

All this, and Jesus Christ, too.

Ben-Hur easily could have tripped up by adopting a heavy evangelical slant, but Wyler emphasizes history over religion and keeps his film straightforward and non-denominational. As in the silent version (discussed briefly below), we never see the face of Jesus, but his powerful presence looms over the story, and his subtle, sporadic interactions with Judah and his family provide the movie—and Heston in particular—with many fine moments.

Although the iconic chariot race transpires early in the film's second half (and endures as one of the all-time great action scenes), I prefer the opening act of Ben-Hur, in which Wyler plants the seeds of conflict, and immerses us in the politics and atmosphere of the ancient world. The prologue beautifully depicts Christ's birth, and a scene in which the Messiah defies orders and offers a parched Judah a cup of drinking water arguably stands as the film's most moving sequence. The grueling galley episode is also memorable, and the sea battle brims with color, energy, and thrills. Unfortunately, after the riveting chariot race, Ben-Hur loses steam (how could it not?), and buckles a bit under its enormous weight. Even the compelling crucifixion of Christ can't quite resuscitate it.

Yet Ben-Hur still eclipses all other pictures in its class. Whereas most epics are stymied by plodding dramatic scenes, stilted dialogue, and wooden performances, Wyler's film benefits from a literate script by Karl Tunberg (with considerable uncredited help from such luminaries as Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, S.N. Behrman, and Gore Vidal) and the director's own keen dramatic sense. Seemingly inconsequential scenes possess marvelous warmth and sincerity, and the early exchanges between Judah and Messala crackle with spirit, machismo, and an underlying homoerotic intensity that adds vital subtext to the story. Wyler himself called Ben-Hur "Hollywood's first intimate spectacle," and time has proven it may well be Hollywood's only intimate spectacle—and that's too bad.

I've never been much of a Heston fan, but he's terrific here. Bursting with strength, passion, courage, and conviction, he files without question his most heartfelt performance, and justifiably earned a Best Actor Oscar. In an odd twist, he creates better chemistry with the sinewy Boyd than the exotically beautiful Harareet, but romance is little more than a subplot in Ben-Hur; Judah and Messala fuel this tale of two men, two worlds, and two conflicting ideals, and Heston and Boyd masterfully suck us into their personal war. Boyd especially impresses. It would have been easy to make Messala a cartoon villain, but he avoids the trap, and crafts a full-bodied, often mesmerizing portrayal. Wyler also coaxes fine work from Hawkins, Jaffe, Scott, and Hugh Griffith, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as a gregarious Arab sheik.

This four-disc collector's edition also includes the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, available for the first time on DVD. One of the era's most staggering cinematic achievements, this highly effective telling tightens the story somewhat, yet maintains its epic feel. Director Fred Niblo emphasizes the novel's religious aspects more than Wyler (but keeps preaching to a minimum), and creates a chariot race that equals if not surpasses the 1959 remake. Given the more primitive filming techniques of the 1920s, the sequence remains an unqualified marvel—both breathtakingly intense and unnervingly real. Ramon Novarro makes a noble if somewhat stiff Judah, while the hulking Francis X. Bushman exudes evil as Messala. With marvelous restored tinting, brilliant Technicolor sequences, and a rousing score by Carl Davis, this exceptional film proves Ben-Hur really is a story for the ages, and silence can be as thunderous as sound.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio2.76:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes
Anamorphicyesyes


Image Transfer Review: The 1959 version benefits from a new digital transfer from restored 65mm elements, and when compared side-by-side with the previous DVD issue of Ben-Hur, the difference is palpable. Colors sport newfound warmth and richness; the bright red capes and plumes of the Roman soldiers appear vibrant and lush, and the intense hues never bleed. Fleshtones, which looked pale before, are natural and consistent (though some of the Arab makeup is overdone), and inky black levels add depth to nocturnal and dungeon scenes. Contrast and shadow detail are both excellent, and clarity is superb. The opening titles seem almost three-dimensional, long shots capture a surprising amount of detail, and close-ups possess marvelous presence as they heighten dramatic impact. Print defects are practically nonexistent, with only a few errant specks nabbing attention, and light grain maintains the celluloid feel. Of course, at 2.76:1, Ben-Hur is presented in perhaps the widest aspect ratio of any movie in history, but Wyler and master cinematographer Robert Surtees (who won his third and final Oscar for the film) keep each frame visually interesting. With its tremendous spectacle and high level of detail, Ben-Hur is not an easy digital assignment, but Warner's magnificent transfer meets every challenge.

The 1925 version looks spectacular, too. Sure, moderate dirt, debris, and scratches afflict this 80-year-old picture, but far less than one might imagine for a silent film. The black-and-white image contains a fair amount of grain, but it nicely complements the ancient setting, with the varied gray scale supplying texture and depth. Solid contrast lends the image a nice sheen, as do the tinted sequences. The restored Technicolor scenes, however, steal the show, and prove just how well the three-strip process endures. The beautiful hues brighten the film immeasurably, and add a contemporary touch to this vintage production.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0no
Dolby Digital
5.1
English, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track on the 1959 version seems to be the identical to that of the previous DVD release, and I don't see how it could be improved upon. From the opening strains of the overture, Miklos Rozsa's score commands our attention, filling the room and setting the tone for the drama to come. The music's dynamic range is broad and nuanced, yet the audio remains distortion-free. Dialogue seems firmly anchored in the center channel, but is always crisp and clear, with Heston's inimitable voice often booming in its intensity. Ambient sounds can be occasionally detected in the rear speakers, heightening the atmosphere of crowd scenes or cataclysmic events, but for the most part the sonic action stays up front. Bass frequencies, however, are excellent (especially during the hoof-heavy chariot race), and the thunderclaps that punctuate Christ's crucifixion provide a jarring jolt. Although more pronounced and frequent separation would certainly improve one's aural experience, this 5.1 track is still first-rate, and greatly enhances Ben-Hur.

The 1925 version features a Dolby stereo track that serves Carl Davis' music score well. Although the track lacks any surround elements, Davis' themes sound rich and full, and nicely underscore the action.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 100 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
4 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher and actor Charlton Heston
Packaging: Scanavo 4-pack gatefold
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Screen tests
  2. Vintage Newsreels Gallery
  3. Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony
  4. Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures
Extras Review: Most of the special supplements are housed on Disc 4, but a noteworthy audio commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher—intercut with remarks from Heston lifted from the previous DVD release—and an isolated music track gussy up the first two discs. The commentary provides plenty of fascinating production tidbits and behind-the-scenes anecdotes (Hatcher takes care of the former, Heston the latter) made more enjoyable by the easygoing manner of both speakers. We learn about the original novel, author Lew Wallace, the importance of Ben-Hur to the future of MGM, and how the studio "promoted the heck out" of the film, marketing diapers, polo shirts, action figures, bath towels, and dozens of other items with Ben-Hur connections. Heston admits he never liked Wallace's book (but has great respect for the material), talks extensively about his chariot training, relates several amusing on-set stories, quashes a few rumors, and provides insights into Wyler's unique directorial style and character. "Wyler was hard, not harsh," Heston says. "He was determined to get every ounce of blood out of you in every scene." Hatcher contributes an array of interesting facts concerning the chariot race, notes that Wyler originally wanted Heston to play Messala not Judah, divulges Stephen Boyd wore lifts to rival Heston's height, and addresses the bitterness of second unit director Richard Thorpe. This is a highly worthwhile track for both fans of Ben-Hur and classic film aficionados anxious to learn about one of Hollywood's most colossal and beloved productions.

The music-only track shines a beacon on Miklos Rozsa's glorious score, which could easily stand alone as a major symphonic work. The gifted composer brilliantly evokes the Biblical period with a majestic main theme, but his subtle underscoring of incidental moments lends the movie great warmth and fervor. Rarely does film music merit an isolated track, but Rozsa's exceptional, Oscar-winning score deserves to be not only heard, but honored, and thankfully Warner has done just that with this exceptionally vibrant, enveloping 5.1 track.

Disc 4 opens with the all-new Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, a 57-minute documentary chronicling the impact of this enduring blockbuster and how it has affected film and filmmakers since its initial release. A host of directors (including George Lucas and Ridley Scott), cinematographers, production designers, and historians discuss their affection for the movie, its various elements (costumes, music, set decoration, chariot race), the legacy of storytelling, the impact of the very wide aspect ratio, and how "all directors steal from Ben-Hur." The amount of talent assembled is impressive, and proves just how powerful and influential Ben-Hur has been and remains.

Next up is the 1994 television documentary, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, a more traditional behind-the-scenes account of Wyler's production. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, this engrossing 58-minute film examines all the various incarnations of Ben-Hur—novel, stage adaptation, 1907 short film, and 1925 silent epic—but focuses primarily on the Wyler-Heston version. A wealth of photographs, on-set footage, and interviews punch up the absorbing tale, and add welcome perspective to the film.

Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures presents five minutes of stills, storyboards, sketches, and promotional materials, with Rozsa's score and bits of dialogue as accompaniment. Three screen tests (two with sound) follow, and offer a young Leslie Nielsen as Messala auditioning both Cesare Danova and Yale Wexler as Judah. (George Baker and William Russell play the roles in the third test.) The lengthy tests (two scenes each) prove Wyler and producer Sam Zimbalist ultimately cast the right people in the roles, though it's fun to see other interpretations. The Vintage Newsreels Gallery contains six clips, beginning with Heston appearing at a cinema to spur on advance ticket sales for the film, followed by individual recaps of the New York, Tokyo, Washington, and Hollywood premieres (the latter featuring stars such as Clark Gable, Tony Randall, Debbie Reynolds, and columnist Louella Parsons), and an Oscar wrap-up.

For a lengthier look at the 1960 Academy Awards, check out 10 minutes of highlights from the ceremony that include acceptance speeches from most of the Ben-Hur winners. We see Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Haya Harareet, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eddie Fisher arriving at the gala, and such notable presenters as Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Olivia de Havilland, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. William Wyler accepts both his own Best Director award and Hugh Griffith's supporting Oscar, and Sam Zimbalist's widow takes home the Best Picture honor for her recently deceased husband.

A trailer gallery showcases a teaser and four theatrical previews, all of which trumpet the movie's drama, spectacle, and inspirational nature. In addition, the fold-out packaging includes a beautiful reproduction of the movie's original program. Printed on glossy paper and sporting a number of color stills, this making-of booklet is chockablock with interesting facts and anecdotes. Sections on casting, sets, costume design, music, director William Wyler, author Lew Wallace, and MGM's prized Camera 65 make this program a valuable reference, as well as a lovely keepsake.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

The ultimate blockbuster, both the 1959 and 1925 versions of Ben-Hur define epic filmmaking, and remain the gold standard against which all pretenders to the genre are judged. With thrilling spectacle, colorful pageantry, and intimate drama, these classics continue to inspire and entertain decades after their initial theatrical release. Warner honors them with outstanding video and audio transfers, an absorbing commentary, handsome packaging, and supplements galore, making this four-disc collector's edition as monumental as Ben-Hur itself.

 


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