High-definition Blu-ray hits greater heights with the arrival of the visual splendor, thundering action and towering drama of this record-setting winner of 11 Academy Awards®* including Best Picture. Charlton Heston brings a muscular physical and moral presence to his Best Actor Oscar®-winning role of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Palestine whose heroic odyssey includes enslavement by the Romans, vengeance against his tormentors during a furious arena chariot race and fateful encounters with Jesus Christ. Best Director Oscar® winner William Wyler masterfully grips the reins of an enduring and spellbinding spectacular.
There are epics, and then there's 'Ben-Hur.' Legendary in scope, massive in scale, and meticulously constructed by Oscar-winning director William Wyler, this much revered "tale of the Christ" defines the genre, and dwarfs both its predecessors and imitators. Of course, bigger doesn't always mean better, and even actor Charlton Heston's brawn can't keep 'Ben-Hur' from occasionally buckling under its elephantine weight, but Wyler never lets the broad canvas overwhelm him or his story for long. With this standard-bearing epic, he proves big films are only as good as their small moments, and it's the human elements of this grandiose work — as much as the spectacle — that captivate and resonate. To classify 'Ben-Hur' as little more than a sea battle and chariot race does the film a grave injustice; at its core, it's an inspiring chronicle of one man's agonizing march toward faith. And without that simple kernel of truth, all the sets, costumes, pageantry, and thousands of Italian extras wouldn't be worth a damn.
'Ben-Hur' won 11 Oscars back in 1959, and although it surely ranks as one of the all-time classic blockbusters, its status as a great movie remains questionable. No doubt about it, Wyler works wonders with the material, acting as this religious saga's real-life savior, but the material itself rarely rises above the mundane. Little depth and no ambiguity pervade General Lew Wallace's cut-and-dried good-vs.-evil yarn, and though Wyler manages to inject some passion, sensitivity, and humanity into the stilted story, he can't get around the novel's generic, by-the-numbers presentation. Yet despite the handicap, 'Ben-Hur' is still top-flight entertainment — engrossing, exciting — and holds up far better than the period's other bloated Biblical epics. That's all due to Wyler, who proved yet again no genre was beyond his grasp.
The sprawling chronicle begins with the birth of Christ, then leaps 26 years ahead to focus on the relationship between Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), close boyhood friends whose differing political perspectives turn them into bitter adult enemies. Messala, a Roman soldier, triumphantly returns to Jerusalem to impose order on the conquered Jews, and believes Judah, the city's wealthiest and most respected man, will help him bring any clandestine rebels to justice. The peaceful Judah, however, refuses to betray his people, inciting an irreparable rift with Messala that becomes a full-blown chasm when Judah's sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), accidentally injures the new Roman governor during a parade. Judah takes the blame, but Messala refuses to believe the act was not intentional, and imprisons Judah, Tirzah, and their mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), indefinitely.
Judah vows revenge against Messala, who banishes the Jew to the galleys, where he toils for years as an enslaved oarman. His endurance and hateful demeanor impress Commander Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a naval general who suggests Judah might have a future as a charioteer in Rome. Judah rebuffs the offer, yet when their ship comes under siege from a Macedonian fleet, Judah rescues an injured Arrius from the Mediterranean, and the grateful general takes the slave under his wing, bringing Judah back to Rome and eventually adopting him. With stature and health restored, Judah soon returns to Jerusalem to confront (and hopefully kill) Messala, discover the fate of Tirzah and Miriam, and romance the beautiful Esther (Haya Harareet), daughter of Simonides (Sam Jaffe), a loyal slave who the Romans tortured for defending Judah after his arrest.
All this, and Jesus Christ, too.
'Ben-Hur' easily could have stumbled by adopting a weighty evangelical slant, but Wyler emphasizes history over religion and keeps his film straightforward and non-denominational. As in the 1925 silent version (equally riveting and discussed briefly below), we never see the face of Jesus, but his powerful presence looms over the story, and his subtle, sporadic interactions with Judah and his family provide the movie — and Heston in particular — with many fine moments.
Although the iconic chariot race transpires early in the film's second half (and endures as one of the all-time great action scenes), I prefer the opening act of 'Ben-Hur,' in which Wyler plants the seeds of conflict and immerses us in the politics and atmosphere of the ancient world. The prologue beautifully depicts Christ's birth, and a scene in which the Messiah defies orders and offers a parched Judah a cup of drinking water arguably stands as the film's most moving sequence. The grueling galley episode is also memorable, and the sea battle brims with color, energy, and thrills. Unfortunately, after the eye-filling chariot race, 'Ben-Hur' loses steam (how could it not?), and strains to sustain itself. Even the compelling crucifixion of Christ can't quite resuscitate it.
Yet 'Ben-Hur' still eclipses all other pictures in its class. Whereas most epics are stymied by plodding dramatic scenes, stilted dialogue, and wooden performances, Wyler's film benefits from a literate script by Karl Tunberg (with considerable uncredited help from such luminaries as Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, S.N. Behrman, and Gore Vidal) and the director's own keen dramatic sense. Seemingly inconsequential scenes possess wonderful warmth and sincerity, and the early exchanges between Judah and Messala crackle with spirit, machismo, and an underlying homoerotic intensity that adds vital subtext to the story. Wyler himself called 'Ben-Hur' "Hollywood's first intimate spectacle," and time has proven it may well be Hollywood's only intimate spectacle — and that's too bad.
I've never been much of a Heston fan, but he's terrific here. Bursting with strength, passion, courage, and conviction, he files without question his most heartfelt performance, and justifiably earned a Best Actor Academy Award. In an odd twist, he creates better chemistry with the sinewy Boyd than the exotically beautiful Harareet, but romance is little more than a subplot in 'Ben-Hur'; Judah and Messala fuel this tale of two men, two worlds, and two conflicting ideals, and Heston and Boyd masterfully suck us into their personal war.
Boyd especially impresses. It would have been easy to make Messala a cartoon villain, but he avoids the trap, and crafts a full-bodied, often mesmerizing portrayal. Wyler also coaxes fine work from Hawkins, Jaffe, Scott, and Hugh Griffith, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as a gregarious Arab sheik.
'Ben-Hur' is muscular moviemaking at its best. Though the story may have a few hackneyed elements and some of the spectacle and pageantry may seem a tad bombastic, it's still a fascinating and wholly impressive piece of popcorn entertainment that holds up surprisingly well a half century after its premiere. 'Ben-Hur' may not be an original, but it remains the standard by which most epics are judged, and it hasn't met its match yet.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video does many things well, but one thing it does better than any other studio is produce collectible editions for classic films that truly epitomize the classification. Forget that the sleeve that protects this massive box set denotes that this is the 50th anniversary edition of 'Ben-Hur' (despite the fact that the film premiered 52 years ago - more about that in the Video section below). This is a keepsake in the very best sense of that word. Remove the protective covering and you'll find a beautifully embossed black cardboard box that houses the three-disc set, as well as two hardcover books. The first volume measures 11"x7-1/2" and features 64 glossy pages filled with color and black-and-white photos encompassing almost every aspect of this storied production. The principal cast members are saluted with luxurious photo spreads, as is director William Wyler. The story is laid out with lavish illustrations; set sketches and costume tests are included, as well as a wealth of behind-the-scenes pictures, a reproduction of the movie's original press book, and a look at the film's marketing campaign and the many awards it garnered.
The second book is a 6"x7" reproduction of Charlton Heston's personal journal chronicling the actor's daily schedule during the picture's production and premiere, and including many rare photos and bits of memorabilia. The 128-page book is an exact replica of Heston's diary (including typos and handwritten notations) and provides a fascinating look at one man's journey through an unforgettable experience that demanded strength, stamina, confidence, and perseverance. Heston's perfunctory yet revealing account of that time allows us rare access to his feelings and views, as well as a rare glimpse inside the making of a blockbuster epic. Heston speaks freely about his quarrels with and respect for Wyler ("WW is beyond question the toughest director I've ever worked for..and I still think the best"), his rigorous chariot training, script issues, and pulls no punches regarding his opinions of various colleagues. He also notes his feelings on winning the Oscar. The never-before-released book features an introduction by Heston's son, Fraser, and concludes with a selection of beautiful family and on-set photographs taken by Heston's wife, Lydia, as well as sketches by Heston himself, and a brief biography of the actor.
A handsome tri-fold case with full-color photographs houses the three Blu-ray discs. The movie itself is wisely spread across two BD-50s to ensure maximum quality, and the bulk of special features are housed on the third disc. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and the default audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion of the disc, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
When 'Ben-Hur' was released on DVD back in 2005, it boasted a "new digital transfer from restored 65mm elements," and the picture quality blew me away. This new anniversary edition proclaims the film has been "newly restored and remastered" once again, this time "frame by frame from the original 65mm camera negative." Reportedly, more than $1 million was spent on the 8k scan, "making this the highest resolution restoration ever completed by Warner Bros. studio." And the meticulous process took so long to complete, WHV – according to a press release – couldn't release the film in conjunction with its 50th anniversary. Thankfully for film fans, quality outranked a marketing ploy, and what we have for the 52nd anniversary of 'Ben-Hur' is arguably the most spectacular video transfer of any movie – classic or otherwise – I have ever seen.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering exhibits breathtaking clarity, incredible depth, and pitch-perfect contrast and color timing. Not a speck or mark of any kind betrays the film's age; the image is so razor sharp and pristine – from intimate moments to massive spectacle – the film looks like it was shot yesterday instead of more than a half-century ago. 'Ben-Hur' was filmed in an extremely wide aspect ratio (2.76:1), reducing the amount of real estate the image takes up on screen. Yet this transfer exhibits such crisp detail, nothing in the frame is ever obscured or fuzzy. Talk about looking through a window… This transfer transports us to ancient Rome, the deserts of Palestine, and their respective ornate residences and humble abodes like the finest HD travelogues, completely immersing us in the culture, scenery, and action. Grain is absent, yet this superb rendering never seems artificial. At all times, 'Ben-Hur' maintains a very real film-like feel, and it's an exhilarating view from start to finish.
The intricate designs on the Romans' breastplates are stunningly clear, as are the peaks of dancing flames deep in the background. Embroidery, appliqués, and adornments to all the lavish costumes flaunt palpable texture, and even in long shots, foliage is well delineated. Close-ups are razor sharp, yet still maintain a natural look. Facial creases, scars, and various anomalies are easy to discern, and Heston's piercing blue eyes provide a striking accent.
The proof of the pudding, however, lies in the chariot race, and here 'Ben-Hur' surpasses even the highest expectations. From the manes of the horses to the jagged-edged wheels of Messala's vehicle, detail is stupendous. Even the longest, widest shots exhibit astounding levels of clarity. If I had an Italian relative who was an extra in the crowd, I swear I could probably pick him out.
Colors are bright and vivid, but never bleed or appear over-pushed. Once again a slightly muted, earthy look predominates that keeps every scene looking real. Reds especially pop in long shots, but accent hues, such as Pontius Pilate's purple robe, exude just the right amount of vibrant lushness. Black levels are rich and deep, yet shadow detail never suffers, and fleshtones remain stable and true throughout the film's lengthy running time.
At times, the enhanced clarity makes the limited use of backdrops and miniatures seem more obvious, and occasional rear projection work suffers from lines that are a bit too sharp, but these are very minor quibbles. No banding or digital noise afflict the image either. Even if you don't like 'Ben-Hur,' you owe it to yourself to check out this top-notch, A-1 transfer that's literally a visual feast.
Breathtaking picture notwithstanding, 'Ben-Hur' would be nothing without sound, and thankfully the quality of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is every bit as spectacular as the video. Clear, dynamic, full-bodied, with clean, bright highs and solid lows, this track fully immerses us in the action, pageantry, and soul-stirring moments of this classic historical saga.
Natural stereo separation across the front channels nicely opens up the sound field, while subtle surround atmospherics punch up the film's drama. Details are crisp; all the rustlings of fabric, janglings of armor, and footsteps in sand and on stone are distinct. The bass frequencies during the chariot race output palpable rumbles that enhance the spectacle without overwhelming it - another example of the meticulous nature of this mix.
The music score by Miklos Rozsa ranks among the finest ever produced for the screen, and here it receives the royal treatment, bursting forth with supreme fidelity and a warm surround feel. From the clean brass tones to the passionate strings and weighty drums, all the elements are perfectly integrated and balanced, providing a marvelous listening experience with nary a hint of distortion or break-up.
Dialogue is consistently clear and comprehendible, and no age-related deficiencies, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, intrude. This is an active, involving track that rivals the quality of more recent films, and those who appreciate great sound will be thrilled by it.
All of the supplements from the massive 2005 Collector's Edition DVD (including the 1925 silent version of 'Ben-Hur') have been ported over to this release. In addition, there's a brand-new feature-length documentary (described below) and two noteworthy hardcover volumes (described above). All the material is first-rate, and will satisfy even the most ravenous film history fan.
'Ben-Hur' is the quintessential epic, and this spectacular 50th Anniversary Edition from Warner may just be the quintessential Blu-ray collector's set. Boasting arguably the finest 1080p transfer of any classic film, exceptional audio, supplements galore, two handsomely produced hardcover volumes, and classy packaging, this is without question one of the top Blu-ray releases of the year and a must-own for every film aficionado. So clear some shelf space and give this thrilling Academy Award-winning film a prominent spot in your library, and enjoy the passion, spectacle, and, above all, the eye-popping, fully restored image of one of Hollywood's grandest and greatest achievements.