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.