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BEN-HUR
Four Disc Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Haya Harareet
Director:  William Wyler
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.76:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  222 Minutes
Release Date:  September 13, 2005

"I tell you...the day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as never been heard before!"

Film ****

Ben-Hur is a name synonymous with movie spectacle, and rightly so.  It combines the best of eye popping visuals and thrilling action sequences with a most human story of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption.  It’s gargantuan in scope, yet minute in detail.  Its eleven Oscar wins established a Babe Ruth-style record thought unapproachable in the world of cinema, until Titanic tied it some 40 years later.

But in spite of its scope and visual presence, it’s really the story and characters that make this such a classic and memorable film.  Based on the novel by General Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur is not so much “A Tale of the Christ” as it was subtitled, but a story about two boyhood friends torn apart by political and social stations in the Roman Empire in the first years A.D.

Judah Ben-Hur (Heston, in an Academy Award-winning performance) is a Jewish prince.  His long time friend Messala (Boyd) is a Roman officer rising to power in the conquered city of Jerusalem.  In the early going, they embrace, but Judah is about to learn that the bonds of friendship are easily broken by the seduction of power, as his refusal to inform on his people to Messala puts himself and his family at risk.  An accident gives the ambitious soldier all the clout he needs to make an example of the house of Hur.  Judah’s mother and sister are carted off to prison, while he finds himself sold into the slavery of a galley ship.

This paves the way for the first of the film’s landmark set pieces, the naval battle.  As Judah and his fellow slaves row ferociously below the decks of the warship commanded by Quintus Arrius (Hawkins), the tension is maddening.  But either by strange twist of fate, or by the hand of God, Arrius refuses to chain Judah to the ship as is done with the other slaves, and Judah is able to return the favor by saving Arrius when the ship goes down.

The grateful Arrius makes Judah his rightful son and heir, but the now powerful Judah cannot enjoy his fortune.  He still has a family to free, and a vengeance to stake upon Messala.  This comes to pass in the chariot race at the Roman circus.

Not enough can be said about this most legendary of action sequences.  This lengthy segment has amazed audiences for more than four decades.  It’s an absolute masterpiece of fast tracking, camera work, stunts and spectacle, wrapped up in one of the most breathless scenes ever conceived.  It’s the kind of sequence that can be watched repeatedly or even slowed down to examine one angle at a time, and it never loses its sense of exhilaration. 

Yet for all its scope, the characters of Ben-Hur are equally as large.  If we weren’t absorbed by their stories, the picture would simply be a big, loud, empty spectacle like Gladiator.  But the people are what engage our emotions and hold them through thick and thin.  This cast is remarkable, starting with Heston’s most memorable performance in the title role and the excellent Stephen Boyd as Messala.

William Wyler was a director who proved he understood the complexities and nuances of rich, human dramas with his Oscar winning The Best Years of Our Lives, which made him a good choice for the epic picture Ben-Hur.  It would have been tempting to focus on the largeness of the movie and skimp on the humanity.  Wyler’s vision marries the two into an emotionally pure and visually thrilling 222 minutes, and the resulting film left its mark on cinema history.

Ben-Hur is a classic among classics and an epic among epics.  What more needs to be said?

Video ****

Ben-Hur has never looked so good...bravo, Warner Bros.!

For starters, I’d just like to iterate that if you don’t watch this movie in widescreen, you may as well not watch it.  With a staggering 2.76:1 ratio, pan and scan versions mean you’re literally losing half the picture.  (Check out scenes from the film in the included documentary if you need convincing).  Ironically, pan and scan VHS versions of the film switched to a widescreen format for the chariot race scene, proving somebody knew how important the screen image was.  Even more ironically, because of the extra width, this DVD may mark the only chance for fans to see the film as it was intended, because most modern theatrical prints are Cinemascope or 70 mm, which isn’t quite as wide as it should be.

The transfer is glorious.  The picture doesn’t show its age at all to a certain point, with amazingly beautiful and strong coloring, sharp images and crisp detail, and a beautifully clean transfer unmarred by evidence of grain, compression or enhancement.  Even darker scenes maintain a wonderful integrity of imagery.  Occasionally, in some scenes, a bit of slight 'flicker' is noticeable near the edges; this is obviously a bit of aging artifact, but again, very slight, and given how old the picture is and how well it looks overall, not something that I can dock points for in good conscience. 

The original DVD release seemed to have a few flaws directly after the chariot race scene, but for this new transfer, it appears as though they have been addressed and corrected.  At least, it seemed like a much more vibrant and clear experience than I remembered.

I’ll say again for clarity, having owned many previous video versions of this movie:  Ben-Hur has never looked this good.

Audio ****

The new 5.1 soundtrack is a marvelous device for the musical score…the orchestration in the stronger scenes opens up among all channels for an enveloping and dynamic listening experience.  The .1 channel make the two key action sequences of the sea battle and chariot race come to thunderous life.  They have never sounded so powerful and realistic!

Apart from those, the audio stays mostly centered on the forward stage, but with good use of crossovers from left to right for dialogue and other effects.  The audio is surprisingly clean and crisp for its age.  Very impressive!

Features ****

This four disc special edition is loaded with outstanding extras that will thrill serious movie lovers.  For starters, on the first two discs there is a new commentary track from film historian T. Gene Hatcher...Charlton Heston's original DVD commentary, which was kind of sparse, is actually edited into Mr. Hatcher's talk, so that the track runs more smoothly and fully.  While it's a treat to hear Mr. Heston's reminiscences, it's Mr. Hatcher who offers the wealth of trivia, inside information, and terrific stories about the making of the movie and the eventual success.  A terrific listen all the way through.

But how about this for a treat...Disc Three contains the original 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur as directed by Fred Niblo!  Starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, this movie version was as much a spectacle in its day as Wyler's was in his.  The quality is quite good given the age, and features the original color tinting intact as well as a terrific stereo score by the great Carl Davis.  If you pick this disc up for the 1959 version, don't dismiss the 1925 one...I'm serious, put it in and watch it.  You'll be thrilled!

The fourth disc has two documentaries, a new 2005 retrospective featuring interviews with George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Ernest Dickerson and others, and the original 1994 making-of classic.  There is also "A Journey Through Pictures", an audiovisual recreation using stills, storyboards, sketches, music and voices.  You'll get to see some interesting screen tests, including one of a VERY young Leslie Nielsen.  Rounding out is a newsreel gallery, a trailer gallery, and excerpts from the Academy Awards ceremony for 1959.  An outstanding package!

Summary:

Classics like Ben-Hur brought to beautiful digital life on DVD are what the medium is all about for me.  This Warner offering is as good as it gets:  great video, great audio, great features package that will keep you busy for days.  Wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommended...this is a must-own!

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