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Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Disc review by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits
Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition
1959 (2011) - MGM (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray disc on September 27th, 2011
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 20
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A+


Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Ten years ago when classic film fans were railing at the lack of classic titles on DVD, Warner Bros. tossed out one of its then infrequent such bones in the form of a DVD-18 release of William Wyler's 1959 version of Ben-Hur. Those who acquired that disc will recall a fairly decent effort, but one somewhat compromised by some framing and colour fidelity issues. Five years later Warners addressed those deficiencies and then some, in a new four-disc collector's edition DVD set of the film. Now, six years further on, Ben-Hur arrives on Blu-ray with a version that truly stands up to its designation as an Ultimate Collector's Edition.

The work on this release began several years ago and has involved a $1 million restoration frame by frame from an 8k scan of the original 65mm camera negative. It had been hoped to have the work completed in time for a 2009 release (hence the 50th anniversary designation that still appears in the release title), but the meticulous process took longer than expected and to Warners' credit, they did not rush it to meet an artificial marketing deadline.

Ben-Hur relates the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy leader of the Jewish ruling class in Judea. When his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Jerusalem as its new tribune, the two reunite, but it is clear that both have different allegiances now - Ben-Hur to his people in Judea and Messala to the Roman rulers. Messala's orders are to restore order to Judea, but Ben-Hur refuses to cooperate and the friendship between the two dies, with Ben-Hur and his family soon falsely arrested. How Ben-Hur manages to survive being condemned to the life of a galley slave, reclaim his former power, resolve the conflict with Messala, and eventually determine the fate of his mother and sister forms the bulk of the film's more than 3˝ hour running time. The film is subtitled as a story of the Christ and Jesus is present at critical junctures of the plot, playing a pivotal role.

By the late 1950s, MGM was on the proverbial slippery slope to bankruptcy. It had never really adapted to the changing landscape of the times - the advent of television, the film industry's loss of control over its theatre chains - and a succession of bloated films that failed or were only marginally successful at the box office had placed the fabled studio in jeopardy. The response was to make one giant roll of the dice with a film that would be a remake of one of the company's most successful silent epics - Ben-Hur. Responsibility was handed to veteran MGM producer Sam Zimbalist who proceeded to spend $19 million including promotional costs, the most that MGM had ever expended on a production. Where did the money go? Consider some of the following statistics. For Ben-Hur, more than 300 sets covering 148 acres, most of them at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, were used. The chariot race arena took up 18 acres in itself and was one of the most expensive sets ever constructed. Its construction utilized 1 million feet of lumber, 250 miles of metal tubing, 1 million pounds of plaster, and 40 thousand tons of sand from nearby beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. Props for the film numbered over a million. And Ben-Hur was filmed in MGM Camera 65, a widescreen process using film 65mm wide and cameras that cost $100,000 each. The chariot race sequence alone cost $1 million requiring 3 months of shooting time and 8000 extras. The film-going public responded. Ben-Hur grossed $76 million worldwide and put MGM on safe ground again, at least for a while. Unfortunately there was one cost that couldn't be recouped - the life of Sam Zimbalist. He died of a heart attack during production, likely attributable to the stress of the epic production so pivotal to MGM's future.

While the attention to detail and the amount of money invested was prodigious for the time, the film's success really rests on three things - the direction of William Wyler, the acting of Charlton Heston in the title role, and the execution of the famous chariot race.

At the beginning there were questions about William Wyler's ability to handle a widescreen epic, for he had always been best known for more intimate dramas. Wyler himself had doubts, complaining that "the extreme width of the frame took in everything important and unimportant and eventually caused the audience's eye to wander". But the finished product belied Wyler's concerns. It was a masterly blend of spectacle and intimacy. Critical response to Wyler's work was strongly positive although not unanimously so.

Charlton Heston's work occasioned a similar reaction. The character Ben-Hur and Charlton Heston are virtually synonymous now, but Heston was certainly not the first choice for the role. Burt Lancaster had been offered the role and later Rock Hudson was considered. Cesare Danova, one of several Italian actors, was also a candidate. Once Wyler was signed to direct, however, Heston was quickly finalized in the role, partly as a consequence of his work with Wyler on the latter's most recent film The Big Country (1958). Heston proved to be a great choice although Wyler had to push Heston hard to get the sort of performance he wanted. Certainly, Ben-Hur contains one of Heston's most expressive jobs of acting. It was also a marathon job with Heston appearing in all but a handful of the film's many scenes. Heston's work won him the 1959 Best Actor Academy Award - a worthy win, even though it is fashionable to deride his efforts now in favour of others among that year's candidates (such as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot or Cary Grant in North by Northwest).

The centerpiece of Ben-Hur is of course the chariot race. It remains one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. Some credit must go to Wyler for his overall staging of the event, but the principals most responsible were Andrew Marton, the second-unit director whom Wyler left to work out every shot, crash and stunt, and who pre-shot the actual race, and Yakima Canutt who choreographed the stunt work. Crucial also were Heston and Stephen Boyd (who played Messala) both of whom learned to drive the chariots and then had to repeat much of what Marton had pre-shot. In fact, they did virtually all the driving they seem to be doing in the film. The main exceptions were two stunts. One was the sequence where Boyd, doubled by a dummy, was dragged under his chariot. The other is the part of the race in which Heston has to jump a pile-up in his path and almost seems to be tossed out of his chariot. The actual jump was done by Joe Canutt, Yakima's son, who was thrown forward out of the chariot but managed to grab a crossbar that harnessed the horses together. A shot of Heston climbing back into the chariot from in front of it was spliced into the stunt footage resulting in a spectacular sequence. Upon viewing the final version of Marton and Canutt's efforts, Wyler remarked that it was "one of the greatest cinematic achievements" he'd seen.

Warners' new Blu-ray presentation delivers the film in a new 2.76:1 HD transfer derived, as mentioned above, from restored 65mm elements. The film has been spread across the set's first two discs with the break coming at the film's intermission. The image on the new transfer is outstanding - from bright accurate colours (reds, purples, and golds/yellows are most striking) to deep blacks, ultra-clean whites, and an overall crisp presentation that truly conveys the dimensionality that one expects from HD. All the artistry involved in the meticulous costuming and prop work comes through clearly in the image's extraordinary delivery of detail. The image is also exceptionally clean with nary a speckle, scratch, or bit of debris to be seen, nor is there any evidence of untoward digital manipulation.

A new 5.1 DTS.HD Master Audio track graces the release and stacks up well against the excellent video. The whole experience is very immersive with treble being as well handled as the bass registers. Dialogue is generally concentrated in the centre, but there is some good directionality. Fidelity is impressive and LFE well reproduced (particularly noticeable during the chariot race and the film's climactic scenes). It all shows off Miklos Rozsa's wonderful score to very fine effect. The score is also showcased in a music-only track. Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are provided in French, Spanish, German, and Polish while Czech and Hungarian mono tracks also appear. More than a score of subtitles hit most of the main language bases.

The new 3-disc Blu-ray set carries over the supplements from the previous DVD set. That includes the audio commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher and Charlton Heston. Heston's comments are nicely complemented by Hatcher's work. The result is an informative, engaging, and comprehensive commentary track. Also present is the silent version of Ben-Hur made by MGM in 1925 and starring Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman in the Heston and Boyd roles respectively. This version is the Thames Television restoration featuring a new stereo score by Carl Davis. For those unfamiliar with this version, Navarro does impressive work as Ben-Hur and the chariot sequence is every bit as exciting if not as polished as that in the sound version The film looks and sounds tremendous considering its age. There are the inevitable speckles and scratches, but image clarity and detail is very good and the film's tinting and its Technicolor sequences are well rendered. Davis' score complements the film very well and sounds reasonably lush. The only downside is the fact that the film remains in standard definition, not having been accorded a Blu-ray release.

The remaining carryover extras include a couple of documentaries; an audio-visual recreation of the film utilizing stills, storyboards, sketches, music, and dialogue; screen tests; vintage newsreels; highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony; and a theatrical trailer gallery. The documentaries are particularly good. One is 1994's Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (narrated by Christopher Plummer). It provides thorough coverage of the story's past presentation from book to stage to screen. The other one, Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, is newly focuses on interviews with various contemporary film-makers that indicate Ben-Hur's influence on their work.

So what is new? Well, a truly impressive set of material. There's a new feature-length (78 minutes) documentary, Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey that's hosted by Heston's son, Fraser and delivered in HD. This effort is a superb evocation of the time of filming that involved a lengthy location shoot in Rome. Heston's family and several of William Wyler's offspring provide informative on-screen comments, interspersed with Fraser Heston's narration which itself draws heavily on Carlton Heston's personal journal of the time and home-movie footage shot by Heston's wife. An impressive touch is the inclusion in the set of a physical reproduction in the form of a 6"x7" 128-page hardcover replica of the aforementioned journal that chronicles the days before, during and after the physical production of the film. It also includes family photos and Charlton Heston's own sketches. Finally, we also get a 7 ˝ "x11" 64-page hardcover book that includes rare photography, character biographies, production art, and reproductions from the original theatrical pressbook.

The release of Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition, Blu-ray version, concludes a truly impressive month for Warner Bros. on the classic front. Just two weeks ago, the studio released its highly-recommended Citizen Kane Blu-ray set. Now in the Blu-ray version of Ben-Hur, we have an even more impressive set, one that easily lives up to its “ultimate" designation. It's easily the box set of the year so far, classic title or otherwise, and it comes with my highest recommendation.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com
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