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Blu-ray Review: Ben-Hur (1959) – 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

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Warner Brothers gives William Wyler’s Ben-Hur their Ultimate Collector’s Edition treatment as they celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, albeit two years late, with a limited run of 125,000 copies. Based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, this winner of 11 Oscars comes to Blu-ray in an impressive transfer filled with extras that will keep Classic Hollywood fans engaged for hours.

After a musical overture from Mikos Rózsa’s award-winning score and a prologue detailing the birth of Christ, the film introduces Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Jewish merchant. He is reunited with childhood friend Massala (Stephen Boyd), who is now a Roman soldier. Massala asks Judah to name those who speak out against the Empire, but Judah refuses. When an opportunity later presents itself, Massala has Judah, his mother Miriam (Martha Scott), and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) arrested. Judah is sentenced to work the galleys and on his way, he encounters a kind carpenter, seen only from the back, who offers him some much-needed water.

Years go by and Judah finds himself in the galley of Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who is after Macedonian pirates. For no apparent reason, Arrius orders Judah not to be shackled, which works out well for him when the pirates attack. Rather than be trapped and left to drown like most of the other slaves, Judah emerges to save Arrius’ from being killed by an attacker and then jumps in the sea to rescue him. They drift away and are found by Romans. To show his thanks, Arrius requests the charges against Judah be dropped and adopts him.

Judah searches for his family only to discover they are dead. This motivates him to enter the chariot race where Massala is one of the entrants since, as he is told, “there is no law in the arena. Many are killed.” It is one of the most elaborate sequences ever staged and a landmark in the medium. Later, Judah re-encounters Jesus Christ. He hears of the Sermon on the Mount and during Christ’s march to Calvary, he returns Christ’s generosity by offering him water. During the Crucifixion, as thunderstorms rage, Judah undergoes a conversion.

While Ben-Hur is an undeniably significant film in Hollywood’s history, it falters a bit during its 212-minute runtime because the story and its lead character are too simplistic and the screenwriter’s heavy hand can be felt directing the character toward the intended conclusion. It’s hard to believe Judah would spare Arrius and except the adoption after the years of punishment he and his people have endured at the hands of Romans. Also, his conversion was effortless and uncinematic. It’s certainly understandable that the kindness and words of Christ could have an impact upon a person, but when God magically cures lepers in a lightening strike, it’s a bit over the top. The realization of the character isn’t helped by the fact that Heston is much better as an action star than an emotive actor.

The visuals on the Blu-ray looks are very impressive. As Will McKinley of Cinema Sentries reports, “Warner Bros, embarked upon a $1 million digital overhaul of “Ben-Hur, using the original 65mm negative as source material. Each frame was scanned at an ultra-high resolution of 8K (8000+ lines of resolution, eight times greater than HD) and color corrected…Not surprisingly, the effort took longer than expected, and the 50th anniversary restoration became a 52nd anniversary restoration.”

The disc has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer and is displayed at the original aspect ratio of 2.76:1. Colors are very impressive. The Roman red robes stand out and the countryside locations appear lifelike from the green of trees to the browns of the soil. Details are particularly impressive, like the intricacy of the metal work on the armor. No digital artifacts were noticed, including during the chariot race when they had ample opportunity with horse hair flying in the wind and objects whizzing by. Spreading the film across two discs likely helped in this area.

There are some minor quibbles. With the image having such great clarity, the matte paintings stand out dramatically. There is no film grain, but thankfully all other detail appears intact. Some soft focus creeps in on occasion, which is understandable in such a wide area as 2.76.1 covers. But overall, the effort and expense that went into the new transfer is well worth it.

The audio comes in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround. Rózsa’s evocative score fills the surrounds from the opening overture and makes frequent use of them throughout. The action sequences also envelop the viewer. During the sea battle, the clanking of the slaves’ chains fills the front speakers. During the chariot race, the hooves are thunderous in the subwoofer as the horses race by. The dialogue is clear and voices are position in the sound field, but the ADR understandably renders them flat.

All but one extra is ported over from previous DVD release. On the film discs, film historian T. Gene Hatcher leads the commentary track with comments by Charlton Heston edited in. Some of Heston’s remarks are repeated in other extras. Music fans can hear Rozsa’s score on a music-only track. The Trailers (SD, 14 min) offer four and a teaser. The remaining video extras come on a separate disc.

“Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey” (HD; 78 min) is the only new and only HD extra. Friends and family tell Heston’s story, raving about him as you’d expect. His son reads excerpts from his diary, which owners of this set can do as well.

Made in 2005, “Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema” (58 min) presents modern filmmakers like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Ernest Dickerson, Ben Burtt, and Michael Douglas extolling the film and many different aspects. Wyler and Heston appear in archival footage. Made in 1993, “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic” (58min) offers another look at the film. It’s narrated by Christopher Plummer and covers the book and the transition to stage and film. “Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures” (5 min) presents stills and storyboards while Rózsa’s score plays.

Ben-Hur 1925 Silent Version” (143 min) presents the previous version with original tints and Technicolor sequences restored and a score by Carl Davis. This is an outstanding extra that I appreciate slightly more than the ’59 version. The galley battle left me awestruck upon seeing the amount of people fighting on actual boats in the water when ’59 used models and you can see people getting hurt. The chariot race doesn’t have the same scale but holds its own. The use of tints during the Christ scenes was done well. My main disappointment is there’s no scene-selection option.

There are four “Screen Tests” (29 min) though Leslie Nielsen and Cesare Danova were so wrong for the parts of Massala and Judah I can’t even believe they tested. In the “Newsreels (10 min), subjects covered are the high cost of the film, Heston helping sell tickets at the box office, and the film premiering at Broadway, Hollywood, Washington D.C., and Tokyo. “Highlights from 4/4/1960 Academy Awards ceremony” (10 min) show the winners accepting.

There are also two physical supplements. A 64-page book uses color and black and white stills to tell the story of the film, from costume tests to newspaper clippings. A reproduction of Charlton Heston’s diary is fascinating for film fans as he catalogs his days and it contains little mementos like a photo and a ticket stub.

Ben-Hur was a grand spectacle when it was first released in theaters and it returns to being a grand spectacle on Blu-ray. Fans of the film and of paraphernalia will enjoy this Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS