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  Directed by
    None Listed
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.70:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 51.49)
  • Dual Sided
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Italian: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Italian - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Audio commentary - by Charlton Heston
  • Photo gallery
  • 1 Awards/Nominations - 58 Min
  • Outtakes - 2 screen tests.

Ben-Hur

MGM/Warner Bros. . R4 . COLOR . 214 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

Originally penned by the rather multi-skilled General Lew Wallace at the tail end of the 19th Century, Ben-Hur has become one of the most enduring and popular adventure stories in modern history - a hugely successful novel, it found a big audience as a stage musical (!) before being filmed at the dawn of cinema in 1907. This epic tale was told, in that version, in a mere 15 minutes, but that was to be the last time this particular story would be recounted in anything less than epic fashion. Ben-Hur made it to the screen again in 1926 as a trouble-plagued 141-minute silent production that cost a small fortune as it went through two directors, many expensive sets, several injured actors and stuntmen and experiments with early two-strip colour photography as it happily exceeded its budget by millions of dollars. The then-fledgling MGM needn’t have worried - the 1926 Ben-Hur turned a profit and gained a lot of press along the way. By the late 1950s, though, the silent Ben-Hur was starting to look and feel a little dated. MGM, now at the tail end of their glory days, went for broke (very nearly literally!) with a mammoth new production of the story, to be directed by the legendary, incomparable William Wyler. It would, by the time of its completion, be the most expensive movie ever made.

Wallace’s story is subtitled A Tale Of The Christ, but while it’s set in the same timeframe as the life of Jesus Christ himself, this is certainly not a biblical story (it could be argued, actually, that Ben-Hur is the “Christ” in this story, as he makes his journey from slave to “people’s god”). Instead, it focuses on a successful, popular Jew named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) who is delighted to welcome the return of his old childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has become an important cog in the Roman machine during the intervening years. Ben-Hur’s initial delight at seeing his old friend is soon quashed, though, when Messala asks him to help identify Jews that the Romans see as subversive. Ben-Hur understandably refuses, and the life-long bond with his old friend is exchanged for bitter hatred. Feeling betrayed and hurt, Messala takes advantage of an accident to set Ben-Hur up as a criminal; soon, without trial, Ben-Hur is enslaved in the galley of a battle ship, his mother and daughter vanished without trace. But a chance incident frees Ben-Hur, who soon travels back to Judea in search of his family - and revenge.

If you haven’t seen Ben-Hur before, the story might still sound awfully familiar - and that’s probably because the core of it was borrowed wholesale for the recent epic hit Gladiator. But Ben-Hur is of a completely different breed. This was the era when the epic movie - and in particular, the biblical-era epic - was king, and MGM pulled out all the stops to ensure that their updated Ben-Hur looked impressive. Costing some 50 million dollars - an incomprehensible amount of money in 1959 - it pushed the boundaries of what was possible in all ways. Mammoth sets, elaborate costume designs, groundbreaking special effects, full-scale orchestral score - it’s all here, along with epic length. At over three and a half hours (not including the music-only sections of the 70mm prints used as overtures before the curtains opened, a common thing with large-scale movies at the time) you would expect Ben-Hur to be a lumbering, tedious beast of a film. But thanks to the skills of William Wyler and three scriptwriters (including Gore Vidal!) there’s rarely a dull moment throughout.

Visually, this one’s a feast. It was made, after all, at the dawn of widescreen movies. Shot on 65mm film, the aspect ratio for Ben-Hur was widened further thanks to anamorphic lenses from Panavision (such lenses are rarely used when shooting on 65mm), the resulting process dubbed “MGM Camera 65”. The defiantly wide frame is filled with incredible imagery on occasion, and thanks to the resolution of the film format the matte paintings and other effects are integrated into the action more transparently than most other films of this vintage could manage. The sea battle looks remarkable, defying anyone to believe it was shot in a shallow pool on a back lot. And then there’s the famous chariot race.

The Roman chariot race as depicted in Ben-Hur is the ultimate blood sport. Essentially it’s just like the humble modern sport of harness racing, save for a few key points: you’re allowed four horses instead of one, you’re allowed to place deadly spikes on your wheels to do in your opponent Dick Dastardly-style, and best of all, if someone crashes you get to run over them and crush them to a bloody pulp with complete impunity. Needless to say, this is exciting stuff, and the way it’s put together in Ben-Hur is every bit as thrilling as anything you’ll see in a contemporary movie.

But while Ben-Hur is most famous for that set piece, the entire film is a monumentally entertaining experience to watch, even 42 years after it was first released. Though there’s a fair amount of cheesy ‘50s-style sentiment to be found within, it doesn’t take very long before you’re completely inside the story and hanging on every theatrically intoned word (see if you can spot, by the way, the scenes where the actors react before the other person has finished speaking, in the great tradition of just-remember-your-lines-and-think-of-England theatre!). You’ll find irony in the speeches made by Charlton Heston (now the president of the National Rifle Association in the US) about how violence is wrong. You’ll marvel at the gay subtext of some early scenes between Messala and Ben-Hur (deliberately added by writer Gore Vidal during production). You’ll ooh and aah at the inevitable romance scenes. You’ll gape in disbelief at the sight of much-missed Melbourne thespian and global theatrical genius Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate. You’ll probably giggle at the occasional cheesy line of dialogue. You’ll certainly boggle at the sheer width of the film frame. But most of all you’ll have a great time watching one of the biggest movies from an era where the word “big” was everything - the days when Hollywood thumbed its nose at the threat of television and raised the stakes to a level we still enjoy today.

  Video
Contract

Ben-Hur has been released a few times in its widescreen format on laserdisc in the US over the years, but those transfers never amounted to much - blurry, indistinct and plagued with problems, they also suffered from the simple fact that the laserdisc format wasn’t really up to the challenge of reproducing the very, very letterboxed image in any kind of decent detail. DVD is far better equipped for this, and the PAL format offers valuable extra lines of resolution as well, making a full widescreen Ben-Hur a far more appealing proposition on home video.

The film has been newly transferred for DVD in 16:9 format, with the image presented at roughly 2.70:1 - very slightly less than the 2.76:1 ratio of the original presentation. This means that you’ll be looking at the most heavily-letterboxed movie you’ve likely ever seen, and for that reason alone we’d recommend that you watch the film on a decent-sized screen - the 14 inch portable in your bedroom simply won’t cut it for this disc.

While it was shot in 1957-58, the image quality here is gorgeous - this is an absolutely stunning transfer done from what is a near-pristine source (it has been suggested that this transfer was done from a 35mm reduction of the original 65mm negatives, which wouldn’t be unusual - My Fair Lady was also transferred for DVD this way). There are, to be sure, a few marks on the film throughout, but nothing that’s going to bother anyone. Immediately obvious is how fresh and vibrant this transfer is - it belies the age of the film greatly, and a good many transfers of films from the past two decades pale in comparison to what’s presented here. There’s some aliasing in evidence throughout, as well as an occasional overdose of edge enhancement; black levels are a problem for some scenes, but this is most likely a limitation of the film stock of the time. There are also a few unexpected “jumps” in the image, like frames have gone missing; only one of these is really obvious.

The overture before the film and the entr’acte music that led the audience back into the movie after interval are represented on screen by static title cards that are not part of the film itself; we would rather have seen black screens used for both of these fairly lengthy segments, as apparently has been done for the new release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. These music-only sections are chaptered so that they can be removed if desired.

Presented across a dual-sided, dual-layered DVD (a “DVD-18”), Ben-Hur is split appropriately at its interval, about 136 minutes in. The layer change during the first half is well placed and fast to navigate; there is no layer change during the second half as the extra features use the second layer. Unlike Columbia’s Lawrence Of Arabia, the authoring here is simple but intelligent - when you turn the disc over, you’re dropped straight into a static menu, from where you can push a single button and resume the film.

The wealth of disc space is used only marginally well - the movie is encoded at a decent, but not overly high bitrate, with plenty of free space left over on each disc side (and with some clever file-system fudging done to compensate for the imbalance between layers).

  Audio
Contract

Remastered from the original six-track magnetic mix done for 70mm exhibition, the audio for this release of Ben-Hur is of astonishing fidelity given its age. Just listen to the opening overture of Miklos Rozsa’s terrific Mahler-meets-Holst score, then compare the sound quality to any classical CD you may have of a recording of late ‘50s vintage - the work done here, both by the original engineers and the team that handled the remastering, is nothing short of stunning.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack essentially recreates the 70mm mix with reverence (in other words, don’t expect major surround activity), though some new sound effects work has been done and a good amount of the dialogue has, like the music, been re-equalised to improve clarity. Everything is crystal clear throughout, though the limitations of the recording equipment of the time are very audible in places. There’s a fair amount of tape hiss here, too - this is, of course, unavoidable. But don’t be put off by the vintage of the audio here - this is a remarkable presentation of an exceptionally high quality 1959 soundtrack, and it’s the best Ben-Hur has ever sounded on home video.

  Extras
Contract

While not packed with extra features, Warner’s DVD of Ben-Hur does manage to deliver the goods, particularly in one important area. It’s a shame, though, that no-one thought to offer the 1907 version of the film as an extra, or even to make use of all that disc space to offer MGM’s 1926 version.

The extras are largely stored on Side B, except for the audio commentary, which of course can be found on both disc sides.

Audio Commentary: Charlton Heston returns to the film he made some 40 years beforehand to offer some thoughts and recollections, and he’s more often than not fascinating to listen to. What a shame, then, that he only recorded the bare bones of a commentary, which is spread out across the length of the movie. To handle this, Warner have authored the commentary option as a separate title on the disc (using the same video stream, of course) with a subtitle-stream icon to let you know when Heston’s done talking, and chapter stops cued to the places where he starts talking again. It would have been nice to have had Heston do a full-length commentary - or perhaps had a few other people in to comment - but what’s here is well worth the time.

Ben-Hur - The Making Of An Epic: An hour-long documentary made for an earlier laserdisc release back in 1993, this is a superb account not only of how Ben-Hur was made, but also of how it came to be made. To this end, footage from previous film versions is used, along with interviews with key players in the 1959 film, including a fascinating contribution from Gore Vidal and some rare archival interview footage of the late William Wyler. Presented full-frame and converted from NTSC, this isn’t of the most pristine quality visually, but the content is invaluable. Particularly enlightening: the excepts from the film in pan ’n’ scan that give you an idea of why this movie MUST be seen in its full widescreen glory, as well as an idea of how substandard earlier video transfers have been. Especially amusing: the last film footage shot by a $100,000 65mm film camera before its demise. The footage? An inescapable line of rapidly approaching horses…! An excellent documentary, this is the kind of extra material more DVDs should be including.

Screen Tests: Presented full frame, this section is largely comprised of a lengthy screen test done with Cesare Danova being dreadful as Ben Hur, acting opposite none other than Leslie Nielsen as Messala. While Nielsen is perfectly capable here, the many years of spoof movies he’s been involved in make this footage unintentionally amusing. Along with this, there’s a brief test done with romantic lead Haya Harareet.

Photo Gallery: A set of still images that would have been a lot more interesting had they been captioned.

Theatrical Trailer: Actually a later trailer for the movie, this one spends a lot of effort crowing about the eleven Academy Awards that Ben-Hur scored. Video and print quality is excellent.

Awards: Static text screens listing the awards the “most honoured picture in history” accumulated.

Cast And Crew: Warner need to stop doing this on R4 releases. While there were actually biographies and filmographies accessible from here on the R1 version, here you just get a static text screen listing the principal cast. There’s no reason for the omission - disc space is certainly not an issue.

  Overall  
Contract

A true Hollywood classic that has been revered, imitated and plundered by countless movie directors since it first lit up the screen, Ben-Hur holds up surprisingly well for a film of its vintage. William Wyler’s insightful dramatic direction, the innovative editing and the sheer spectacle of it all make this just as entertaining an experience today as it was in 1959 - and as an added bonus, modern film fans can play spot-the-influence comparison games against their favourite modern epics.

(Incidentally, it may well have been the thought of more violent modern epics that prompted a change in classification for Ben-Hur in Australia - still rated G back in the '80s, it has since twice been landed with a PG rating by the Office Of Film And Literature Classification, most recently for this DVD release. Curiously, our review copy proudly bears a G rating on the cover.)

Warner’s new DVD of Ben-Hur is the best presentation of the film on home video to date in terms of both picture and sound quality, and this disc is highly recommended for long-time fans of the movie - but especially so for those watching one of old Hollywood’s greatest moments for the first time.


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      And I quote...
    "...the best presentation of the film on home video to date, in terms of both picture and sound quality..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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