Bigger than Ben-Hur’ has been in the world’s vernacular for generations, and having just seen the film for the first time in 30 years, William Wyler’s epic quickly reminded this reviewer why.
For a film made in the 50s, the sheer scale of this production makes the eyes widen in awe. This is long before CGI, or any of the current crops of trickery we can use to create other worlds or worlds gone by, so every one of the thousands of people inhabiting Wyler’s enormous canvass, every dwarfing statue, cascading staircase, ship and vista—they’re all real or all accomplished old school.
This was the first biblical epic back then to make the focus of the story on character instead of events, and what a story it is. The third adaptation of Governor Lew Wallace’s novel tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince betrayed by a former friend who has risen to power within the Roman legions that oppress his people. Ben-Hur is imprisoned, and, through many years of hardship, swears by his one God to endure so he can seek vengeance and save his mother and sister.
Subtlety is not the order of the day in this film on any level. The story’s narrative is rather heavy handed and simplistic, especially when it comes to the presence of Jesus Christ and the parallels all but signposted between him and Heston’s titular hero; while Ben Hur is asserted to be a humble man of privilege, the continuing comparisons to Christ make the film over the top in its reverence. But this was a different era, and, in that great old tradition, the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad—and never the twain shall meet. It is a testament to its day and should be viewed as such. Judah Ben-Hur is put through the proverbial wringer, and when he does get his chance to right the wrongs, spectacularly, there isn’t a film, then or now, that delivers it with such spectacle. Your jaw will drop and you will cheer during the chariot race; it is still one of the most impressive action sequences ever committed to film.
The late Charlton Heston was not the pick of the bunch to play Ben-Hur, but the role that won him his Oscar is hard to imagine in the hands of anyone else (though this blu ray shows the screen tests of several other candidates.) This reviewer always found Heston’s acting to be passionate, unpretentious—the man gave himself over to every character—but, and please don’t think of this as a criticism, faintly hammy. Not William Shatner ham (whom I also love) but just inching toward melodrama, especially when it came to scenes of heightened emotions. His delivery has been parodied many times since (Homer doing Heston’s Apes shtick), such is the power of his performances, and it is a credit to him that, in the context of this story, you buy him completely.
We are spoiled in this age of green screens and computers, really, so absorbing the production design of this epic is a thing to behold. Besides some clever matte paintings, everything you see in front of you is real, and its scale is awe inspiring. This is the very definition of big budget production.
Ben-Hur was the first, and is only one of three films, to have collected 11 Oscars, and stood alone in that accomplishment for nearly 40 years. Do yourself a favour, and see why. There are few films then, or now, that have the impact of this classic.
Ultimate Collector's Edition
MPAA Rating: G.
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Karl Tunberg
Cast: Charlton Heston; Jack Hawkins; Stephen Boyd; Martha Scott; Sam Jaffe
Genre: Action | Adventure | Drama | History | Romance
Tagline: A Tale of the Christ
Memorable Movie Quote: "A grown man knows the world he lives in. For the moment, that world is Rome."
Distributor: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Home Video Distributor: Warner Bros.
Theatrical Release Date:
Release Date: November 18, 1959
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: September 27, 2011
Synopsis: When a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge.
English SDH, French, Spanish (less)
English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH (less)
Available on Blu-ray - September 27, 2011
Screen Formats: 2.75:1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH, Italian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Thai
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit); French: Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps); Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps); Italian: Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps); German: Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps); Portuguese: Dolby Digital Mono; Czech: Dolby Digital Mono; Hungarian: Dolby Digital Mono
Polish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Three-disc set (3 BDs)
Wow. The film’s ultra wide 2:76:1 aspect ratio is preserved in a flawless, jaw dropping 1080P restoration. The film’s technicolour hues are rich and bold; the contrast, blacks, and flesh tones are detailed to such superiority, I doubt the film looked this good on release. Any print damage has been cleaned away invisibly, without falling into that terrible DNR spectrum; grain and detail are flawlessly intact. This is the one of the best blu rays I have ever seen. You haven’t seen the movie until you’ve seen it in high definition on a big screen.
Special features are generous, varied, and enjoyable. There are exhaustive documentaries on both sat Charlton Heston and the making of the film. There are screen tests, trailers, and an (unpreviewed) deluxe edition with books and lobby cards, etc.
- by Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton Heston.
- Music Only Track Showcasing Mikos Rózsa's Award-Winning Score.
- Trailers (SD; 14:15)
- Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (HD; 1:18:06).
- Ben-Hur 1925 Silent Version (SD; 2:23:06).
- Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (SD; 57:46)
- Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (SD; 58:15)
- Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (SD; 5:09)
- Screen Tests (SD; 29:18).
- Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Telecast (SD; 9:47)
- Newsreels (SD; 9:45)
- Exclusive Production Art Book.
- Charlton Heston: The Ben-Hur Diaries.