Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring
Lew Wallace (novel), Karl Tunberg
The World's Most Honored Motion Picture.
The numbers speak volumes: 100,000 costumes, 8,000 extras, 300 sets and a staggering budget in its day the largest in movie history. Ben-Hur's creators made it the best, the greatest Biblical-era epic ever. Charlton Heston brings a muscular physical and moral presence to the role of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Palestine whose heroic odyssey includes enslavement by the Romans, a bold escape from an embattled slave galley, vengeance against his tormentors during a furious arena chariot race and fateful encounters with Jesus Christ. Heston's charismatic performance brought him the Best Actor Oscar®; the winner as 1959's Best Picture with the legendary William Wyler earning his third Best Director trophy, the film won a total 11 Academy Awards® - a tally unequaled until 1997's Titanic set sail.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby 2.0
Runtime: 222 min.
Release Date: 3/13/2001
• Audio Commentary by Charlton Heston
• “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic” Documentary
• Theatrical Trailer
• Teaser Trailer
• Screen Tests
• Cast and Crew
• Photo Gallery
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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 1, 2005)
To watch 1959's Ben-Hur is to take a class in "How to Win Academy Awards". I say this not solely because of the movie's tremendous success at the 1960 Oscars, though it definitely cleaned up during that ceremony. Nominated for 12 awards, it took home 11, which still ties it with 1997's Titanic for the most trophies ever garnered by one film. (For the record, 1950's All About Eve earned the most nominations with 14, but it "only" grabbed six Oscars. If I'm not mistaken, 1977's The Turning Point and 1985's The Color Purple co-own the record for futility; they both got 11 nominations but won no prizes.)
But Ben-Hur’s Oscar-influence rests not just with its supreme haul. In addition, the movie provides a virtual blueprint for Academy Award gold that works to this day. Epics continue to rule the Oscar roost, and the more elaborate, the better. Make it extremely long and have it take on a serious topic. Execute it with some flair and bingo - you’re almost assured of Oscar recognition.
Okay, it’s not quite such a simple process, but it’s clear that Ben-Hur demonstrates the modus operandi that has helped many films clean up at the Academy Awards. It’s a big, oversized, dramatic film that virtually defines the word “epic”.
Ben-Hur is formally subtitled “A Story of the Christ”, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Frankly, I want to know who Jesus’ agent is; the guy only makes a few bit appearances in the flick and he gets top billing! Well, he plays a bigger role behind the scenes, I suppose, but for the most part the subtitle seems somewhat inaccurate; while the tale of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) parallels that of Jesus, the two only cross paths on a few occasions.
For the most part, Ben-Hur offers a somewhat Job-like tale of a man who is tested but remains faithful. However, Benny isn’t really all that devout; his loyalties are more strongly oriented toward people than gods. Sure, religion plays a part, especially toward the end of the movie, but the flick largely shows concentrates on his attempts to find justice for family, represented both by his actual mother and sister and more symbolically by the Jewish people.
At the start of the film, wealthy merchant Ben-Hur meets up with long-time friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) for the first time in years when the latter returns to Judea as an official. However, their happy reunion soon goes sour when Judah learns of the poor way that Messala tends to treat his people, and not long after that, Ben-Hur and his family are severely punished for an accident that vaguely threatened a Roman governor.
Judah’s mom and sister are imprisoned, and he’s sent into slavery, a fate that virtually always results in death. He gets stuck rowing on a warship, but he eventually escapes during a battle. Ben-Hur saves a Roman bigwig named Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who eventually takes him in as his own and helps Judah’s rise to semi-power. This allows him to ultimately return to Judea, seek out Messala with revenge on his mind, and find his relatives.
A film like Ben-Hur can be difficult to critique because of its long-established regard as a classic. Much of the movie’s status is deserved. Ben-Hur virtually defines the phrase “epic” with its flawless production values. It offers some of the most elaborate and expansive sets and locales ever seen, and it embraces a literal cast of thousands. Few expenses were spared to bring this oversized production to the screen, and the meticulous care and detail are always obvious. They go a long way toward making the final product more compelling.
Ben-Hur also contains a final third that largely works very well. The famed chariot race sequence remains a text-book example of how to shoot a taut and exciting action piece. It’s an absolute show-stopper that deserves its enormous fame and high regard, as it presents a stunning segment of the movie. Nothing else in Ben-Hur can touch it, and its influence continues to this day; the pod race in The Phantom Menace steals from the chariot scene to an almost shocking degree. (By the way, the influence of Ben-Hur on George Lucas seems apparent in other ways as well; for example, the Star Wars series also used British actors for the ruling class while Americans played the populist characters.)
While I expected the chariot race to be exciting, I was surprised at how well-executed I found the crucifixion segments that end the film to be. Although Ben-Hur tends to be schmaltzy, that problem seemed largely absent during the climactic segments. Actually, there’s some cheese on hand, but I still thought the Christ-related parts that finish the movie to seem pretty moving.
However, a lot of Ben-Hur seems less than compelling these days. For one, the acting is not especially terrific. Heston won an Oscar for his work, as did Hugh Griffith for his supporting performance as Sheik Ilderim; neither deserved it. Heston displays a fairly strong presence as Judah, but he can’t manage much else in the role; he seems wooden and stiff throughout most of the film, and emotions other than stark anger clearly are beyond him. As for Griffith, he presents the Sheik as little more than a caricature, and a poor one at that. He makes little positive impression in the part.
Although I do applaud the production values, the movie has a tendency to get lost in them at times. It often feels as though the sets and splendor are doing the work of the story. To be frank, the plot is fairly thin for the most part, and there’s not enough there to carry a three and a half hour movie. That means we find a fair amount of filler during the film, as it seems to go on far too long for many segments.
The era in which Ben-Hur appeared produced some truly terrific epics; Lawrence of Arabia remains the king of these. As it stands, Ben-Hur is a generally solid film that has a number of positive elements. However, it also contains a lot of flaws that keep it from being a genuinely great film.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus B
Ben-Hur appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.76:1 on this double-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Yes, those dimensions are correct; this sucker’s wiiiiiiiiide! It’s both the best movie and the worst movie to use in attempts to convert “black bar” hating friends and relatives. On one hand, the pan and scan rendition offers the visual equivalent of gibberish; more than half of the original image is lost. However, since some people freak out when mild bars appear for 1.85:1 films, I can’t imagine how they’d react to this!
Sharpness seemed quite strong. Despite the many wide shots and the relatively-minuscule nature of lots of onscreen objects, the picture appeared very crisp and well-defined at all times. Even the smallest items came across as clear and detailed. Shockingly, I detected virtually no signs of jagged edges or moiré effects. Given the complexity of the image, I expected to see at least a little shimmering, but those problems seemed almost totally absent.
Colors usually looked vivid and well-saturated. Skin tones occasionally took on a slightly brownish appearance and were pale in a couple of scenes, but for the most part they seemed acceptably natural and accurate, while other hues were wonderfully portrayed. Reds appeared especially bright and rich. Black levels came across as deep and dense, while shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never excessively thick; low-light situations were easily discernible at all times.
The biggest problem I witnessed in this image stemmed from print flaws. That doesn’t come as a shock considering the age of the film. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively few defects I detected. Throughout the movie, I saw occasional examples of grit and speckles as well as a blotch or two, but that was about it. The minor defects could be a little distracting at times, but they seemed fairly insubstantial given the movie’s age. Overall, the transfer held up well.
Ben-Hur also sounded quite good via the movie’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The film featured a modestly involving soundfield that helped make the program more compelling. The forward channels displayed a nicely broad mix during much of the movie. Music showed solid stereo separation, and quite a few directional effects came from the sides. These also moved across the speakers and blended together fairly well; the imaging could be a little awkward at times, but given the vintage of the material, the transitions worked well. A modicum of dialogue also came from the side speakers, though this effect was limited; very little speech emanated directly from one channel or the other, and most sounded as though it appeared in a mid-zone between speakers.
Surround usage was somewhat limited though it worked well given the age of the film. The score was nicely bolstered by the rear channels, as they added a strong dimension of reinforcement to the music. During some of the louder scenes, the back speakers also contributed fairly engulfing atmospheric effects. For example, thunder enveloped me, and the chariot race came across very well. Ultimately, the track sounded unsurprisingly dated, but it provided a relatively positive soundfield nonetheless.
Audio quality seemed inconsistent but was generally pretty positive. Dialogue usually appeared surprisingly natural and warm, and I never detected any problems related to intelligibility. However, some speech was a bit edgy and rough, and a few lines clearly had been re-recorded at some point; the latter stood out among the rest of the dialogue whenever they appeared. Effects generally sounded fairly clean and realistic, and they sometimes offered pretty solid dynamics; for example, the thunderclaps were nicely deep and rich, and most of the ambient audio seemed crisp. One minor disappointment: the chariot race came across as somewhat thin and tinny at times. There was decent depth to the stomping of the horses, but the remainder of those scenes seemed a little shrill, and I heard some light hiss as well.
Music generally appeared quite bright and vivid. At times the highs could seem a bit muted, but they usually sounded clear and fairly crisp, and the score boasted some surprisingly well-defined and deep bass at times. For example, the drums at the start of chapter 13 appeared quite resonant. Ultimately, the soundtrack to Ben-Hur clearly showed its age, but it nonetheless presented a very positive auditory experience.
Ben-Hur provides a few supplements, starting with what the DVD’s case calls “feature-length audio commentary by Charlton Heston”. Technically, that description is correct. Heston begins to speak during the opening sequence, and he continues until the end of the film. However, many large gaps appear between comments. A reviewer on another site claims that Heston’s statements cover most of the film. That writer is badly incorrect. All told, Heston’s commentary fills about 65 minutes, which comes to a bit less than one-third of the movie.
Happily, Warner Bros. have made the enterprise very user-friendly, as all of Heston’s remarks start at the opening of chapters, and the commentary appears on an alternate title track; this means its chapters don’t directly correspond to those found when you watch the film on its own. When Heston’s done talking during one chapter, a cue appears on screen; this lets you know you should hit the “next chapter” button on your remote, which then skips ahead to additional comments. The system works very well, and it makes a potentially-frustrating experience run very smoothly.
It helps that Heston’s commentary is a pretty interesting affair. He covers a lot of ground, from technical details of the production to anecdotes from the set to notes about coworkers. Some of the same material gets repeated on occasion, but as a whole, Heston manages to keep most of the track fresh and compelling, especially when we get to the chariot race; Heston becomes most active at that time, and he adds a lot of solid remarks. He spends a little too much time telling us how good different actors and scenes were, but I really liked the commentary nonetheless, as it provided a strong look at the film.
Next up is a fine 1993 documentary called Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, this 58-minute and 10-second program provides a solid look at the history of the project. It covers the story’s origins in the 19th century and follows it through earlier stage and screen presentations. We learn a surprisingly detailed account of the 1925 film edition’s creation.
Of course, the show discusses all important elements related to the filming of the 1959 version as well. It offers a lot of compelling information about cast, crew, story, script, locations, sets, stunts, music, effects and pretty much everything else you’d want covered all the way up to the flick’s release. It does so through film clips, outtakes, behind the scenes material from the set, and interviews with film historian Rudy Behlmer, author Gore Vidal, MGM executive JJ Cohn, actor Ramon Navarro, director William Wyler, director’s daughter Catherine Wyler, editor Ralph Winters, art director’s son Edward Carfagno Jr., special effects director Richard Edlund, composer David Raksin, stunt man Joe Canutt, and second unit director Yakima Canutt. It’s a frank, funny and informative piece that kept me consistently involved and entertained.
In Screen Tests, we see longer examples of some of the material found during the documentary. We get two clips that feature Cesare Denova as Ben-Hur and Leslie Nielsen as Messala; these last a total of seven minutes and 15 seconds. We also find a 55-second snippet from the make-up test for Haya Harareet, the actress who ultimately played Esther in the film. These pieces offer a fun little historical element.
A few other minor extras round out the DVD. We get both the movie’s theatrical trailer and its teaser. However, these are not the original ads; they both come from post-Oscars reissues. Speaking of the film’s acclaim, Awards details all of the picture’s 11 Academy Awards plus its other accolades. Photo Gallery provides a 10-still section of pictures from the set and from the film plus a couple of drawings. Lastly, Cast and Crew offers filmographies for actors Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, and director William Wyler.
More than 40 years after its initial release, Ben-Hur remains the definition of a screen epic. As a film, it still has a lot to offer - particularly in the excellent chariot race sequence - but some other elements haven’t aged quite as well. The DVD appears quite fresh, however. It provides very good picture and sound plus a complement of solid extras. Despite some weak aspects, Ben-Hur enjoys a special place in film history, and it deserves to be seen. This top-notch DVD release does the classic justice.
To rate this film, visit the Collector's Edition review of BEN-HUR