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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/20/01

1959 (2001) - MGM (Warner Bros.)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Ben Hur Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/B+

Specs and Features

212 mins (222 mins with Overture and Entr'Acte), G, letterboxed widescreen (2.76:1), 16x9 enhanced, dual-sided, dual-layered (DVD-18), Snapper case packaging, Side One is RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 54:03 in chapter 15 - Side Two has no layer switch), "interactive" audio commentary with actor Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic documentary (60 mins, 20 chapters), gallery of production photographs, screen test footage, cast & crew bios, awards listing, theatrical trailer, teaser trailer, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (61 chapters - 39 on Side One & 22 on Side Two), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0 surround), subtitles: English, French, Spanish & Portuguese, Closed Captioned

During the late 50s, MGM and the other Hollywood studios were faced with a problem - people simply weren't going to the movies like they had in the past. The average Hollywood movie was making less from box office receipts, and only big, epic pictures were making any kind of a sizable profit. The reason was television - more and more Americans were bringing their first TV sets home and were being entertained in their living rooms. So MGM decided to roll the dice on a big, DeMille-style epic film, using one of their most successful properties - the story of Ben-Hur (which was based on a successful novel and had been made onto a highly successful MGM film once before in 1925). Director William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Wuthering Heights) was hired to helm the massive effort, and actor Charlton Heston was cast in the lead role. And the pressure was mounting - as costs grew on the production, it quickly became clear that the success or failure of MGM as a studio was riding on it.

Ben-Hur may not be the best epic film ever made, but it certainly was the largest. At a cost of some $15 million, it's 212 minutes feature more than 8,000 extras, 300 sets and one of the most dangerous and thrilling action sequences ever captured on film - the great chariot race. MGM's gamble paid off handsomely, when Ben-Hur grossed some $80 million at the box office, and went on to sweep the 1959 Academy Awards, winning 11 Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director).

While many consider Ben-Hur to be a biblical tale (indeed the film's full title is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), its story only occasionally intersects with the story of Christ. The film is set in the Middle East, beginning in the time of Christ's birth. Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) is a Jewish prince of Palestine. As a boy, he was best friends with Messala (Stephen Boyd), the son of the local Roman Governor. Messala left Palestine when his father was reassigned, but years have passed, and now Messala's returned as the commander of the Roman Legions in Palestine (second-in-command only to the new Governor). He and Judah hope to rekindle their friendship and restore peace to the troubled region. But Messala wants that peace to remain firmly under Roman control, while Judah wants freedom for the Jewish people. When it becomes clear that Messala only hoped to use his friendship with Judah to climb the ladder politically, Judah renounces his friendship. Shortly thereafter, an accident that injures the new Roman Governor is blamed on Judah's family. So his mother and sister are thrown in prison by Messala's order, and Judah Ben-Hur is sold into slavery as an oarsman aboard one of the galleys of the Roman Navy. Fate and, perhaps, divine province afford Judah an opportunity to return to Palestine years later to find and free his family. But will Judah choose revenge or forgiveness for his former friend?

I had high hopes for Ben-Hur on DVD, and I'm very happy to say that I wasn't disappointed by Warner's efforts (note that Ben Hur was one of the many classic titles recently acquired by the studio from Turner's MGM library). This single-disc special edition release features an amazingly good film-to-video transfer. I don't know who's doing MGM's film transfers these days, but they're really kicking ass with their work. Ben-Hur was filmed in the widest aspect ratio ever used theatrically, at a ratio of 2.76:1. That ultra-wide image has been perfectly preserved here through a high-definition, fully-digital transfer. Right from the start of the film's Overture, you'll be stunned. The transfer features startlingly vibrant colors, rich and accurate flesh tones, tremendous contrast with deep blacks and very good fine detail. There's just a few instances where the color seems a little washed out (look at the start of chapter 4, about 18 minutes in), and there's maybe a hair too much edge-enhancement on rare occasions. But those are very minor complaints. I was surprised just how little you see in the way of print defects. Other than the occasional tiny nick on the emulsion, this is a rock-steady image. Given the age of this film, I'm VERY happy with this video quality. You'll also be pleased to know that the film is presented in full anamorphic widescreen on DVD, meaning that you've simply never seen this film looking so good at home before.

One note here - I defy ANYONE to look at the chariot race scene in this film on DVD, compared to the pan and scan versions we've seen before, and tell me that letterboxing isn't the best way to view widescreen films. THIS is the way widescreen films were meant to be seen! And after watching the chariot race, you'll be stunned at just how shamelessly George Lucas copied it for the "pod race" sequence in his recently-released Star Wars prequel. It's almost shot-for-shot in some places.

The audio on this disc is also very good, in fully re-mixed and re-mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. The mix is surprisingly dynamic, with good ambience and solid bass. Dialogue is always clear (although you will occasionally hear a little remaining mono hiss under some of the longer spoken lines). This isn't 5.1 audio to die for, but it's very good given this film. The image is very well supported by this mix. Better still, the Academy Award winning soundtrack by Miklos Rozsa is wonderfully presented. While I'm sure there will be some who will skip past the Overture and Entr'Acte, I loved every minute of listening to the film's sweeping score. What a treat!

This film is presented on a DVD-18 disc. The first half of the film, up to the Intermission, is presented on Side One (with an RSDL layer-switch in chapter 15). Once you're done viewing up to that point, you flip the disc over to Side Two, where you get the rest of the film (on one layer) and the disc's supplemental materials (on the other layer - there's no layer switch on Side Two). Those extras include theatrical and teaser trailers for the film, both in very good looking anamorphic widescreen. There's a small gallery of production photos, a couple of pages of cast and crew information and a listing of the awards won by the film. You also get rare, newly-discovered screen test footage, which features Leslie Nielsen (yes... as in the bumbling star of the Naked Gun films) along with Italian actor Cesare Danova auditioning for the roles of Messala and Judah respectively. Israeli actress Haya Harareet (who landed the role of Esther) is also shown in a costume test. The best of the supplements, however, are a good, hour-long documentary on the history and making of the film, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, and a newly-recorded commentary track featuring Charlton Heston himself. I call it an "interactive" commentary in the spec listing above, because he doesn't speak continuously. Rather, he'll talk for 3 or 4 minutes, and then you'll be prompted to press the >>| button on your player's remote, which will skip over a few more minutes of the film until you get to Heston's next bit of commentary. It seems awkward at first, but it actually works surprisingly well. And the commentary is well worth listening to, even given the film's length. Heston repeats himself a few times, but he's also got some great stories to tell and plenty of interesting information to relay. Ben-Hur was arguably the most important film of his career, and as you listen to him speak, you can really tell he appreciates that fact.

What a great time this is for DVD! With movies like Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai now available on the format (and with Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia set to follow soon) this is a really wonderful time to be a movie fan. Warner's given this massive, sprawling epic their best kid-glove treatment and it really shows on this disc. If you love the cinema, Ben-Hur absolutely demands to be added to your DVD collection.

Bill Hunt
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