Ben-Hur: Ultimate Collector's Edition Review
Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ was adapted from the 1880 book of the same name written by Lew Wallace. This lavish 1959 production was mounted by MGM and cost $15 million dollars (well over $100 million today) and without the film's staggering box office success the ailing studio would surely have gone under. Charlton Heston dryly observed that there'd be a parking lot in Culver City, CA right now if it weren't for Ben-Hur, although MGM has sailed close to the wind a few times since then.
The story uses the time honoured device of blending fictional characters with established events to give the audience a vicarious involvement in that world. Once the rousing overture has died down, the movie starts with the traditional nativity scene of the Christ child being born and the Three Kings paying their respects. With a fanfare we segue to the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Roman-occupied Judea whose boyhood companion Messala has returned to Jerusalem, not as a friend but as commanding officer of the Roman garrison. Messala urges Judah to use his influence to calm local unrest but tensions boil over between the two men, and Judah and his family are arrested by Messala due to an unfortunate accident. Judah is dispatched to the slave galleys to row his life away, while his mother and sister are imprisoned, along with anyone else closely associated with the house of Hur.
Three years later, Judah escapes his life (or perhaps, death) of maritime bondage by a twist of fate, saving the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius during an attack upon Macedonian pirates out at sea. When they arrive back in Rome, Arrius is championed as a conquering hero and he is permitted by The Emperor to free the slave who rescued him. Arrius is so taken with Judah that he adopts him as a son, and, as a Roman, Hur makes his presence known to Messala. Judah journeys back to Jerusalem to find out what has happened to his family, and along the way he makes an unlikely friend: Sheik Ildirim, whose passion is chariot racing. Messala just happens to be the pre-eminent Roman chariot racer, and with a race coming up to fete Pontius Pilate, the new governer of Judea, the stage is set for a climactic showdown on the track between these friends turned foes. Throughout the film we get glimpses of an enigmatic figure, a man who is never named but whose messianic story frames Judah's struggle and ultimately closes out the film.
Much is made of Ben-Hur's astonishing production values, but the human story at its core is what makes the movie tick. Director William Wyler was not known for his action epics, yet his character-driven approach is exactly what the film required to give it some heart amongst the monstrous sets and lavish costumes. The script should've been a disaster, Karl Tunberg's draft labelled as awful by Wyler, but playwright Christopher Fry and a young Gore Vidal were recruited to polish the dialogue. Vidal bestowed a homoerotic aspect upon Judah and Messala's prior relationship, which adds an intriguing dimension to Messala's quietly crazed reaction to Judah's rejection of him. (The credit for the script was awarded solely to Tunberg after arbitration, and it is said that this in-fighting is what cost the film that mythic 12th Oscar.)
The movie is smart enough not to browbeat us with overt political leanings or hyperbolic religious fervour. The lack of the latter is surprising, seeing as this movie is usually lumped in with the other Biblical epics of the time. But the religious aspect was toned down for this adaptation of Wallace's book, the ultimate aim of which was to make the movie appeal to as many people as possible (even though it's still labelled as A Tale Of The Christ). It's that wider appeal which means that the movie still feels fresh, because it's a story of one man's struggle to survive the persecution of both himself and his people. The story is almost universal in its scope, and is merely topped and tailed with some of the defining moments of the fledgeling Christian faith.
The performances are a big part of what allows that humanity to shine through. Charlton Heston is superb as Judah Ben-Hur, his huge prescence a perfect fit for the expansive scenery behind him. Heston may not have had the greatest range, but by God he always gave it everything he had, and he's just as comfortable with the quieter moments as he is with the action scenes. The Academy Award was well deserved, Chuck. Stephen Boyd is mesmerising as Messala, his buttery-smooth voice and chiselled looks belying the brooding menace and ruthless ambition of our Roman antagonist. Ben-Hur's other love interest, Esther, is played by Israeli actress Haya Harareet with no small amount of doe-eyed charm. Jack Hawkins displays his usual class as Quintus Arrius, and Hugh Griffith won an Oscar for his portrayal of the playful Sheik Ilderim. Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell don't get much to do as Judah's mother and sister.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the incredible technical prowess of the movie. It was lensed with MGM's Camera 65 process, using 65mm film with a slight anamorphic squeeze to produce an ultra-wide ratio of nearly 3 to 1. That wide expanse would be for nought if it wasn't taken advantage of, but the compositions are masterful, knowing exactly when to show off the extraordinary sets & matte paintings and when to provide an intimate close-up. The photography is there to serve the story; even though it's showing off some cutting-edge camera technology, the movie isn't a bright colour-drenched spectacle. Plenty of sequences are shrouded in darkness and gloom to suggest the emotional mood of the scene. The editing is excellent as well, creating what could be called the first modern action scene with the breathless chariot race, the cinematic vernacular of which is still being imitated half a century later. And the decision to leave Christ's face off-screen works so well, our reaction to Him being informed by the characters instead of our own pre-conceptions.
The music score for the film is nigh-on a masterpiece. Written and conducted by the multi-Oscar winning composer Miklos Rozsa (Ben-Hur being his third golden baldie) it's the archetypal 'epic' orchestral score, equally adept at rendering delicate motifs as well as the big, bold themes. The music is used to set the scene rather than being an ever-present emotional manipulator, although it does become an instrinsic part of the storytelling when required, such as the build-up of the ever-increasing rhythm of the rowing slaves when Arrius puts them through their paces. But it's the lack of music during key story beats which makes the score all the more powerful when it does kick in; as with the rest of the production, we're not repeatedly bludgeoned with the technological ability of the filmmakers. The only elements necessary are those which tell the story and the chariot race is a prime example, because it's such a strong assault on the senses that any music would be superfluous. The same applies to the immediate aftermath of the race, although in that case it's the intense emotional content of that scene which negates the need for music to tell us what we should be feeling.
I could go on, but I think I'll leave it there. Ben-Hur is a staggering cinematic achievement which has as much substance as it has style. Some aspects of that style (the occasionally stiff acting & dialogue delivery) are unavoidably dated, but the movie is both a product of its time and a trend-setter which is still being copied today.
Ben-Hur hasn't had the easiest ride on home video. The ultra-wide aspect of 2.76:1 was cruelly neutered by the early pan-and-scan versions, but even when widescreen editions were released they had problems of their own. The first major DVD release from about 10 years ago was framed at 2.76, yet it was a matted version of a 2.35 transfer (from 35mm elements I'd presume) so it actually lost picture information rather than gaining it. The DVD Special Edition from 2005 did indeed feature a correctly framed 2.76 transfer from the 65mm elements, however it was telecined on less than optimal equipment so it lacked sharpness and had some noticeable issues with colour registration. It's for that reason that some of Warner's older large format transfers actually came from pristine 35mm IP reductions (e.g. Grand Prix), because the technology used to harvest large format images simply wasn't good enough. Ben-Hur was a case in point.
For this Blu-ray, Warner has wisely chosen to go back to the original negatives once again. This time around, the technology has allowed them to lavish an 8K scan on the movie (finished at 6K) and the results are spectacular, shown here in 1080p24 and framed at 2.76. The colour is wholly different from the prior DVD version, toning down the bright, almost gaudy saturation and delivering something with a cooler balance. Thankfully the yellow menace of recent-ish Warner transfers (see The Searchers or The Wild Bunch) has not made an appearance here, so skin-tones retain their burnished look and not a jaundiced one. The brightness has been adjusted also, casting swathes of darkness across the image during certain scenes which were brightly lit with a more theatrical, stage-bound look on the old transfers. Whether either of these aspects are now closer to the original intent, I will not presume to say. What I will say is that both colour and blacks are almost flawlessly rendered, with only the opticals and dupe sections resulting in a characteristic hardening of the colour and slight shallowing of the blacks.
The all-important fine detail does not disappoint, revealing the intricacy and texture of the sets, costumes and locations like never before on home video, although it does waver from time to time. Noted film restorer Robert A. Harris has said that the negative was not in the best of shape, and this is occasionally apparent, with certain segments looking softer than you might expect owing to the problematic source (the ladies are lensed with the typical filtered look of the time, so those shots are not a concern). There are some jarring jump-cuts sprinkled throughout the show, so don't think that your Blu-ray player is on the fritz if the picture appears to 'skip' at certain points!
Grain is not ever-present, nor should it be on a large-format production such as this. There is the slightest dusting of it in blue skies, but that's your lot. The image is absolutely spotless, with no sign of any nicks, scratches, dirt or debris. I thought I did see a speck of dirt in one shot, but looking at the scene again proved it to be a tiny fly buzzing around, such is the level of detail that this encode is capable of. The preservation of such minutiae is testament to the diligence of the clean-up team. There's not so much as a hint of any visible edge enhancement artefacts or DNR, nor are there any compression nasties either.
Ben-Hur looks glorious on Blu-ray, and even with the minor source-related quibbles it would be churlish to give this encode anything less than a perfect 10.
The audio is presented as lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The original theatrical mix used the typical 70mm 6-track layout of 5 screen channels & 1 surround, and this Blu-ray incarnation is suitably front-heavy with relatively sporadic use of the discrete subwoofer channel. The swelling rumble that accompanies the thunder storm at the end of the show is suitably hefty, and there's a moderate thwump when the Macedonian ship rams the Roman galley. The chariot race is big and loud but lacks the gut-punching LFE that it richly deserves.
Dialogue is always clear, though the ADR'ed lines have a harder edge which is not unexpected, and there is only the barest hint of the directional dialogue which was apparently such a key part of the original mix. The wonderful music comes off best, with a rich, detailed presentation that's spread across the front sound stage, with a little bleeding through to the rears from time to time.
I would've loved a mix that was a bit more lively with regards to the advantages of a modern 5.1 sound field, but the key elements are presented in a clean, precise manner that doesn't stray too far beyond the original remit, lack of directional dialogue aside. That will always be a sticking point for purists, but folks who weren't around for the 70mm engagements will not notice anything amiss.
The commentary with film historian T. Gene Hatcher and Charlton Heston runs for the length of the movie and is very informative, although it feels very scripted and lacks spontaneity because the two were not recorded together. Hatcher's contribution is delivered in such a measured way that it sounds like you're listening to the talking clock, while Chuck's comments are gracious and thoughtful.
Miklos Rozsa's score is available on an isolated music track, unfortunately it's plain Dolby Digital 2.0 and sounds somewhat restrained compared to the rousing treatment heard in the main DTS-HD 5.1 audio.
Disc 1 also contains several trailers which are a welcome inclusion, as they are omitted all too often these days. Presented in SD video and 2.35 widescreen (unless stated), they include the 1959 Loew's Theater Teaser (16:9), 1959 Theatrical Trailer, 1961 General Release Trailers #1 (16:9) and #2, and lastly the 1969 70mm Reissue Trailer which is surprisingly arty in terms of the way it's edited.
Disc 3 contains the bulk of the special features, and it's a sizeable haul of Ben-Hur goodness. The first section, Behind The Scenes, contains three very good documentaries. The oldest of the bunch is the 58-minute The Making Of An Epic (4:3, SD, 1993), which takes a look at all of the main iterations of Lew Wallace's story, from the stage version of the late 1800's, through MGM's first filmed effort from 1925 and ending up with the 1959 version. It's narrated by Christopher Plummer and features interviews with a wide array of talent who worked on the '59 film, as well as some interesting outtakes and behind the scenes footage. Next up is The Epic That Changed Cinema (16:9, SD, 2005), which runs for 57 minutes and focusses more on the legacy of this great film. It takes in comments from several modern-day filmmakers including Ridley Scott and George Lucas, and covers the key aspects which have continued to influence movies to this day, such as the lighting, editing, production design, costume design and so on.
The newest documentary is Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (16:9, HD, 2011), a 78-minute look at a life well lived, with Ben-Hur as the centrepiece of Heston's career. We hear from friends and family members as they remember the man, with lots of rare home movie footage. Points of contention like Heston's political views are mentioned, albeit briefly, but the overriding impression is of a straight-talking person who loved his family and his job (not always in that order, mind you). Last up in this section is Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (4:3 SD), which uses an odd assortment of publicity portraits, Rozsa's sheet music, behind the scenes photographs and dialogue from the film to tell the story in a mere 5 minutes.
As with the 4-disc DVD Special Edition, the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur has been included. It's not been given an HD upgrade, but the recent Turner restoration got it looking as good as anyone would dare hope, and the reinstatement of the 2-strip Technicolor scenes (long thought lost) is a great touch. The sprocket holes visible at the edge of the frame only add to the authenticity! Carl Davis' score from the Thames TV restoration is well treated by the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The movie is encoded with AVC and presented in a 1.33 ratio.
The final section is labelled as Additional Footage, which is a very simple way to sum up the myriad screen tests and vintage newsreels on offer here. There are four screen tests totalling 28 minutes, each presented in 4:3 SD: Leslie Nielsen and Cesare Danova, Nielsen and Yale Wexler (no sound), George Baker and William Russell, and Haya Harareet's Hair and Makeup Test (no sound). Six black-and-white newsreels are up next, running for nearly an hour altogether. Rounding off this selection is 10 minutes of black-and-white highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony, which look nice but the raw sound is very choppy. It's great to see Chuck get his hands on that iconic trophy, because you can see just how much it meant to him.
So, this is a worthy array of features but you do hear the same anecdotes repeated throughout because the pool of talent behind the film is diminishing rapidly as the years go by (the film was of course so stressful to make that it claimed the life of producer Sam Zimbalist during production), and the tantalising glimpses of additional wardrobe tests and outtakes during the documentaries are all too brief.
N.B. Disc 1 is a BD50 while discs 2 and 3 are BD25's.
Warners know how to treat their crown jewels, and this magnificent Blu-ray edition of Ben-Hur is no exception. The newly-remastered video presentation is utterly superb and the audio is respectable enough. The extra features aren't as all-encompassing as one might imagine, but time has claimed most of the film's participants so we should be grateful for what's on this set (the little chat with George Baker during his screentest takes on a poignant air given that he's just passed away). The movie itself is a timeless classic, the legacy of which will surely be felt for decades yet.