Ben-Hur (Four-Disc Collector's Edition) Review
Born at the same time as Jesus Christ but from a very different background, Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) grows up as one of the wealthiest men in Judea but does so under the rulings and laws of Rome. Able to count those who serve Rome as his friends, Ben-Hur enjoys a life of relative peace until his oldest and dearest friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), asks his assistance in rooting out any Jews guilty of encouraging an uprising against Rome. Ben-Hur refuses, choosing to side with his people than with his friend and so the seeds of an uneasy relationship between the two men are planted. Messala leaves to take up his position as Tribune but swears that he will not forgive Ben-Hur of his decision.
Some time later, Messala is part of a Roman procession that is being watched by Ben-Hur and his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), from the roof of their villa when a loose tile falls onto the new governor, injuring him. Messala and his Roman guards storm the house and arrest not only Ben-Hur but also his sister and his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott). Unable to forgive him for his crime of treason against Rome, Messala sentences Ben-Hur to a life in the galleys as a slave whilst his mother and sister are to be imprisoned. Walking across the desert, Ben-Hur swears revenge on Messala but even while he thinks of vengeance, he has his first meeting with Jesus Christ, who offers Ben-Hur a cup of water. Over the coming years, circumstances take Ben-Hur back to Judea and into Messala's circle of influence but he never forgets how the tribune tore his life apart. As strange a journey, though, as it is, Ben-Hur also finds that the stories about Christ are growing and believes that this man may be the messiah who would lead the Jewish people to freedom. But as Ben-Hur takes his revenge on Messala, so the people turn on Christ and a terrible fate befalls the temple of Jerusalem...
It's easy to forget, whilst watching Ben-Hur, that the point of watching the film is to engage with the story. Ben-Hur is certainly a remarkable film and is almost the definition of epic filmmaking but one tends to forget about what there is of a story amongst the thousands of extras, the three-and-a-half-hour running time, such standout scenes as the sea battle and the chariot race and, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, the sheer size of the picture. Even here, with a re-release of the film on DVD, Ben-Hur is rewarded with a lavish four-disc set and with a list of extras that includes another entire version of Ben-Hur. Were you only to choose one film to exemplify the glory of Hollywood, it would be no surprise if Ben-Hur came to mind alongside Gone With The Wind. Even the original film poster, which has been updated for the cover of this DVD, features the title of the film etched in the stone of a towering monument, on which the people of Judea stand and cheer as Judah Ben-Hur races past on his chariot. So impressive is all of this that one shouldn't be surprised that the story tends to be somewhat overlooked amongst the history of Ben-Hur.
From the very first moments of the film, the viewer is left in no doubt that Ben-Hur is going to be an epic film of huge significance. Using the image from the ceiling of the Sistine chapel of God giving life to Adam as a background, the Overture to Ben-Hur announces its arrival and Miklos Rozsa's score stirs the film to life. As that scene passes and the MGM logo appears, even the lion maintains a stately silence as the film portrays the birth of Christ in a manger in Bethlehem. A star shines down on the stable in which he was born and shepherds and wise men travel to be by his side before the film skips twenty-six years pass and Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are reunited after years apart.
So begins a film that has trouble deciding exactly what it ought to be. That is an epic is unquestionable but the first conversation between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala suggests that a homosexual affair is in their past. With Gore Vidal amongst the writers, pleasure is taken in hearing Charlton Heston, that most WASP-ish of actors, talk of his fondness for Messala and as both he and Stephen Boyd gaze into one another's eyes, something approaching love flits between them. Even their throwing of spears into a crossbeam is as flirtatious as any one character gets with another in Ben-Hur and yet, quite unlike Laurence Olivier's character in Spartacus, it doesn't quite fit. This, though, is a criticism that can be made for almost all of Ben-Hur.
When the action comes, and there is surprisingly little of it for a film whose reputation centres around a chariot race, the impression one gets is of sequences born only of a writer's need to allow Judah Ben-Hur to extricate himself from slavery and, later, to take his revenge on Messala. Where one looks for the story to build naturally, Ben-Hur is shakily built on coincidences - that the sea battle ends with Ben-Hur and Quintus Arrius afloat on a piece of wood sighting a Roman ship in the distance would be one coincidence too many were it not for ease with which Ben-Hur, who was famed as a prince of Judea before enslavement, re-enters a life in the upper echelons of society before facing Messala in a chariot race. Even the meetings that Ben-Hur has with Jesus Christ look to be as a result of Lew Wallace's appalling plotting, where events take place not to develop the character of Ben-Hur nor for the audience to find an emotional connection with him but to simply keep the story moving forward. The worst example of this, and this is something that Gore Vidal refers to in the extras, is the rise of Messala and his falling out with Ben-Hur, which is dealt with so abruptly and perfunctorily that one questions if it is really the basis for all subsequent events in the film. Vidal cannot have been the only person who questioned the nature of the relationship between the two men. Indeed, conversations of such importance as this are concluded with such a lack of reason that the question arises whether we are actually seeing an epic story or simply one told very slowly.
That might sound a ridiculously stupid to ask but Ben-Hur lingers on sentences and on the silences between them to such an extent that you feel a great deal of footage would have been trimmed by a studio less interested in creating such a lengthy film. Summarise the story of Ben-Hur and there is very little there but Wyler stretches every scene until the audience has no choice but to accept it as the epic that he so wants to be. The chariot race alone is twenty-minutes long but as exciting as it is, it is barely over before one realises that a great deal more time must pass until the story of Ben-Hur is concluded. In a less impressive-looking film, the lack of structure in the story, which sees the sea battle followed by some dreary dialogue in Jerusalem and the chariot race giving way to the long, long search for Miriam and Tirzah in the valley of the lepers, might well have left Ben-Hur as the last hurrah of a struggling MGM. But Ben-Hur is such a long film that you begin to feel as though, for example, the rescue of Quintus Arrius is from an entirely different film to that of the chariot race. One almost forgets that the opening scenes between Messala and Ben-Hur bear any connection to the crucifixion of Jesus given the pace of the three hours that separate them. In that sense, the length of the film works very much in its favour with one almost giving in to it, as though it were so great a weight that the viewer simply has no choice but to collapse underneath it. As Ben-Hur enters its second, third or fourth hour, the viewer does begin to accept Ben-Hur as an epic but only because, by then, feeling tired, hungry and in need of water, it has become a test of one's physical endurance.
On a personal note, though, Ben-Hur has always troubled me. As a Catholic, I find its use of the life of Christ to be an interesting element to the story but, equally, it's nowhere near as respectful as many consider it to be. Indeed, contrary to the views of many people who speak on behalf of various churches, I find Monty Python's The Life Of Brian to be a much more respectful film than this. Subtitled A Tale of the Christ, Ben-Hur is really no such thing as Christ barely features in a film that casts Heston's hero firmly in the centre of the action. Even during his few appearances, the character of Christ is only used as a means to move Ben-Hur's story along, with the crucifixion scene being little more than an opportunity for Ben-Hur to be redeemed, his hunger for vengeance finally being sated with the death of Messala. In essence, we are being told that of the two stories - one of Ben-Hur, the other of Christ - the former is of much greater importance than the latter and that, should you believe it, the son of God is little more than a footnote in the more fascinating story of Ben-Hur.
The Life Of Brian, on the other hand, is not the insult to religion that it is often portrayed to be and one can directly compare a scene from it to one in Ben-Hur. In the sermon on the mount - the location of such beatitudes as, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" - Ben-Hur turns away and rejects Christ's teachings whereas Brian, being quite some distance from Christ, remains but only hears, "Blessed are the cheese makers..." As irreverent as Monty Python's version is, the overriding theme of this scene and of the film is, "Stop listening to this idiot [Brian] - something remarkable is happening over there!" Ben-Hur, on the other hand, presents its story as being greater than that of Christ's, with even the rains that fall following the death of Christ are being little more than a means to cleanse Miriam and Tirzah of their leprosy. If this suggests that Ben-Hur is simply biblical hokum, then that is not an entirely inaccurate assessment. General Lew Wallace's intentions may have been honourable but his adventure in the time of the gospels is but a simple page-turner with grand ambitions. The Life Of Brian has been, and may still be, considered blasphemous but it was written by the weighty intellects of Monty Python whereas with Wallace, should you look underneath the spectacle, the literary shortcomings of his story are obvious.
But the story is not what Ben-Hur ought to be celebrated for. Instead, it succeeds simply as a spectacle. It is an incredible looking film and in spite of, or because of its length, it's an undisputed heavyweight of the screen. It's a remarkable film in many ways but not always a particularly good one and yet it deserves to be seen properly at least once in a lifetime, if not every few years or so. Outside of the cinema, this DVD is the best that it's ever been seen and despite the flaws in the film, Ben-Hur is a resounding success, if not for the film itself, then for the glory days of the Hollywood studio system that produced it.
Although this version of the film has been included with the suggestion that it is only an extra - all of the material on the cover of the DVD refers only to the 1959 version - it is worth considering this film on its own merits as well as a companion piece to the main feature. A silent film that is accompanied here by a score from composer Carl Davis, this version of Ben-Hur is a convincing argument for recognising silent films as being the equal of those that followed the talkie revolution of the late-twenties. Indeed, there are many sequences in this film that are much better handled than in William Wyler's film and with a running time of just over two hours, which is one hour and twenty minutes less than Wyler's film - the length of an entire other film by other directors - the feeling persists that the tale of Judah Ben-Hur is undeserving of the hours that MGM gave to tell it in 1959.
The 1925 version of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ had a troubled production with both its star and its director replaced during shooting. George Walsh was the first choice for Judah Ben-Hur before Roman Novarro was offered the role whilst Charles Brabin found himself ousted from the director's chair in favour of Fred Niblo. The production has just as impressive a list of figures as the 1959 version with a cast of thousands of extras, a long location shoot with further reshoots in Hollywood and footage that would be found during editing to be unusable. Like the 1959 version, it is an impressive-looking film, with an ambitious use of its location shoots, a number of exceptionally detailed matte paintings and some surprisingly convincing effects. Whilst the standout sequences continue to be the sea battle and the chariot race, there are some breathtaking shots, including the star shooting across the night sky over Bethlehem and the destruction of the temple following the crucifixion of Christ.
The story is much the same but this version places much more emphasis on the role of Jesus Christ in the life of Ben-Hur. Where William Wyler places Claude Heater's back to the camera at all times, Fred Niblo is much less hesitant about the use of Christ in his film, drawing a greater parallel between the lives of Christ and Ben-Hur. Similarly, Niblo places much more emphasis on the birth and death of Christ and of the two, Niblo's film fares much better, particularly in his portrayal of the Passion, which begins, as it does in the Catholic tradition, with the arrival of celebrated Jesus on Palm Sunday before the Last Supper and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Unlike Wyler, Niblo portrays all of these moments onscreen and produces a convincing display of destruction following Christ's death.
Otherwise, and despite being much shorter, the plotting of the 1926 version of Ben-Hur is just as poor as the 1959 film, which suggests that General Lew Wallace's novel is to blame. What both films share is the early placement of the film's peaks - the sea battle and the chariot race - which leaves an achingly long search by Ben-Hur for Miriam and Tirzah before they conclude with the crucifixions on Mount Calvary. But, like Wyler's film, the reputation of this film rests on the sea battle and the chariot race and it certainly doesn't disappoint. If anything, the sea battle in Niblo's film is more impressively staged and paced than that in Wyler's, with two full-scale ships only inches away from one another before Ben-Hur swoops to the rescue of Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier). As for the chariot race, there really is very little between the two versions with only the size of the arena and Yakima Canutt's planning and execution of the sequence being more impressive in Wyler's film. Indeed, the only aspect of this film that gives away its age, other than the black-and-white/tinted footage is the melodramatic acting, which is very much of its time.
This is, though, a beautiful film with the original tints and Technicolor sequences restored. Whilst it does look its age, the sepia, colour and black-and-white sequences are sharp, rich in colour and contrast and, in the main, free of print damage. Whilst I doubt many will be buying this set for the 1925 version, to have it included demonstrates, once again, just how impressive this set is.
Ben-Hur has been released on DVD once before but I suspect that this is the definitive release of the film. The splitting of Ben-Hur across two discs - the earlier release used both sides of a double-sided DVD - gives it sufficient space such that the bitrate of the film is not limited by the available capacity. Again, with Warner Bros. handling the DVD release, who have impressed numerous times with their restoration of films from not only their own archives but elsewhere, it all points to this four-disc set being a superior DVD release.
And so it proves - with the film transferred anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.76:1, Ben-Hur looks wonderful. The first thing that one notices is the sheer width of the picture and that William Wyler makes great use of it, daring to use close-ups in such a wide frame as well as stunning long shots, such as those of the desert and of the chariot race. As should be evident from the screenshots included here, the edges of the frame have not been left unused and on a bigger screen, it looks marvellous.
The width of the picture, though, is not where this release of Ben-Hur stops being impressive - colours are rich without leaving the picture oversaturated, it is sharp without being uncomfortably so and, even up close, there is very little noise in the image. Print damage is almost non-existent and the only criticism that I can make is that in a very small number of scenes set against a sandy background, such as those in a brightly lit desert or in the stadium in which the chariot race occurs, the colours of the sand fluctuate slightly. This doesn't happen often and although it is noticeable, it certainly doesn't detract from making this an exceptionally good transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is a perfect match to the picture - great but not perfect. The subwoofer and front speakers are well-used, particularly in hearing how dialogue moves seamlessly between the left, centre and right speakers, but the rear speakers do not appear to be used much outside of ambient effects. In, for example, the rainstorm that follows Christ's death, the sound comes from all corners of the room but the sea battle, which should have been an aural treat as much as a visual one, doesn't sound quite as impressive as it should.
Commentary: This is partly the same commentary that appeared on the first release of Ben-Hur on DVD, with Charlton Heston reappearing sporadically and offering only scene-specific comments. Around this is a new commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher, who has published a book on Ben-Hur and who offers a feature-length commentary on the history, production and release of the film. He also takes the time during the overture to summarise the plot and offers much trivia and background information as the film progresses.
Music-Only Track: Miklos Rozsa won an Oscar for this score on this film and this audio track isolates it for your enjoyment. To be honest, I don't find the score for Ben-Hur to be a particularly inspiring piece of music as it's all much too pompous and joyless, which, some might say, makes it a suitable accompaniment for a film that has also been described as such.
Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (57m42s): Produced this year and featuring archive interviews with William Wyler and Charlton Heston, as well as Ridley Scott, Ben Burtt and George Lucas amongst many others, this is a wonderfully detailed and structured look back at Ben-Hur and it's place in film history. There's nary a bad word about the film and most of those interviewed look upon it as being in the top ten American films, which flatters it somewhat. Everyone, though, speaks with passion about it, which does make a change and there are a number of comparisons made between Ben-Hur and more recent films such as Malcolm X, Gladiator, Star Wars Episode I and The Matrix with Burtt and Lucas being particularly forthcoming.
Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (58m11s): Narrated by Christopher Plummer, this 1994 documentary makes a good companion piece to Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema given that it spends much more of its running time on the writing of the novel by General Lew Wallace and the history of various productions. Editor Ralph Winters, co-writer Gore Vidal and the film historian Rudy Behlmer, who has contributed to the DVD releases of Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood, are interviewed and discuss, in an impressive amount of detail, the stage shows and the 1925 and 1959 films. Vidal is, as always, a enormously entertaining interviewee and talks openly about the homoeroticism in the scene between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala as well as the open auditions, actors who had also been considered for Ben-Hur and the production of the film. Finally, for evidence of how much work was done during the restoration of both versions of Ben-Hur that have been included in this set, compare the footage in this documentary to that on the first three discs - the improvement in the picture quality is quite stunning.
Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (5m08s): This is a short montage of images from the production and from promotional material that quickly tells the story of Ben-Hur, with assistance from footage taken from the final edit.
Screen Tests: As Gore Vidal mentions in Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, MGM held open auditions for roles in the film when many of the actors being considered for the roles of Messala and Judah Ben-Hur expressed disinterest. This feature contains three screen tests of actors who would not make the final production, including Leslie Nielsen and Cesare Danova (6m59s), Leslie Nielsen and Yale Wexler (11m27s), William Russell and George Baker (5m34s), all of whom pair up as Messala and Ben-Hur, respectively. Finally, there is a Hair and Make-up Test (5m07s) with actress Haya Marareet who played Esther. There is also an option to Play All (29m08s).
Vintage Newsreels (9m31s): In a little under ten minutes, six newsreels play out with such titles as Costliest Film Makes History, Oscar Likes Ben-Hur and Japan's Emperor Goes to the Movies. None of them is anything less than flimsy but as period pieces from 1959, they're an entertaining insight into the promotion of films when television and the cinema were locked in a battle over viewers.
Highlights From Academy Awards, 1960 (9m44s): Only two other films have equalled Ben-Hur's armfuls of Oscars - 1997's Titanic and 2003's The Return of the King. This short feature offers highlights from the night in 1960 that Ben-Hur consolidated its commercial success with its take of eleven Oscars. Opening with the sound fading in and out, it sees, amongst others, Charlton Heston picking up his award for Best Actor, William Wyler receiving the Best Director Oscar from John Wayne and Sam Zimbalist's widow accepting the award for Best Picture.
Theatrical Trailers (14m10s): Five trailers are included from the Original 1959 Release (57s, 2m59s)through a General Release In 1961 (3m04s, 3m05s) and on to the 1969 70mm Reissue (4m05s).
Finally, there is quite an impressive little booklet contained in the set that describes the plot as well as featuring articles of William Wyler, casting, the production, the sets, wardrobe and music. It finishes with a cast list and the camera technology used in the production and is nicely but artificially aged.
Apologies for the length of this review but it doesn't seem fitting, when looking at Ben-Hur, to write anything less than 2500 words. In that respect, and despite beginning this review with the best of intentions to keep it short and punchy, I end it as William Wyler must have finished Ben-Hur - aghast at the length of the end product. I hope that you understand.
As I've said throughout, Ben-Hur is a remarkable film but that doesn't make it an unqualified success. Instead, it becomes an impressive spectacle, an awesome visual treat and, yes, an epic but it's not particularly strong in its storytelling. Gore Vidal, in the documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic states that at the time he was asked to look at the script, which was shortly before production began, Ben-Hur's script was widely considered a mess, with there being nothing that the audience could engage with. Similarly, Vidal also questions the subtitle A Tale of the Christ, saying that it was no such thing but was, instead, the tale of a war between a Roman boy and a Jewish boy, which, in his search for emotion in the piece, led him to consider there being a homosexual relationship in Messala and Ben-Hur's past.
Inasmuch as the length of Ben-Hur is impressive and adds to its sense of being an epic, it also works against the film. I found myself compartmentalising the film into manageable parts and, as mentioned earlier, enjoying the nativity scene, the argument with Messala, the arrest of Ben-Hur, the sea battle, the chariot race and the passion of Christ without ever feeling the epic sweep of a great story.
That said, this is a wonderful release and, once again, demonstrates that Warner Bros. are the undoubted leaders in the release of films from the archives. From the inclusion of two versions of the film, over two hours of documentaries, four discs and a booklet but only adequate packaging, this is an excellent set and even with the doubts that I have about the film, Ben-Hur can be praised wholeheartedly.