11 Oscars, 10 hours of material on 4 discs leads to 1 tired judge. But Ryan Keefer loved every bit of this new look of an old classic, and everyone else should too.
"You can break a man's skull. You can arrest him. You can throw him into a dungeon. But how do you fight an idea?"
Warner Home Video has periodically re-done classic films that they still have the rights to, and usually the results have been stellar; 2004's four disc Gone With the Wind release was outstanding. They decided to tackle the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, hoping to leave any criticism behind after a lackluster 2001 release. Is the new four disc edition worthy of the proverbial "double-dip"?
Facts of the Case
Those who have seen Ben-Hur know that trying to recap a three-hour film can be a little bit longwinded and yes, miss some key plot details. And there are a lot of people who still haven't seen it (before this, I was one). The film is about a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) who lives in Jerusalem. He is pleased to find the arrival of Messala (Stephen Boyd, The Bravados) to the town. Messala is a fairly high ranking Roman official, and after some initial jubilation at their reunion, Ben-Hur realizes that Messala views the Jews as obstructions in an eventual Roman occupation of Israel. When the governor of Jerusalem comes into town, Ben-Hur watches the arrival and parade from the roof of his house, when a loose tile falls and almost injures the governor. Even after being confronted with the proof of Ben-Hur's words, Messala still believes the incident was an attempt to assassinate the governor, and, in an attempt to make an example out of him, banishes Ben-Hur, along with imprisoning his mother and sister. The movie jumps ahead three years, to a Roman war boat, where Ben-Hur is one of the rowers, now known as number forty-one. He encounters a Roman named Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins, The Bridge on the River Kwai). Arrius is intrigued by Ben-Hur's views of God and life, and through several circumstances in combat, Ben-Hur saves Arrius' life. The two return to Rome, where Ben-Hur is given his freedom, but also plans to exact his revenge for what Messala has done to him.
The film was a huge gamble by MGM, so much so that they went to Rome for principal photography without a script. And the production budget climbed into the low eight figures, also precedent-setting. But how else could the size of the film be presented? The sets are large and magnificent, plus there are enough extras to fill a decent-sized city. Then there's the chariot race, which has remained a landmark moment in film, for the aspects both in front of and behind the camera. It's a film with a few biblical themes in it, either from the quick glances of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, or from the words that Ben-Hur repeats to Arrius or other figures. When Ben-Hur is banished to the desert, he receives water from Jesus, which, coincidentally, helps to reverse his fortunes, but that should not be met with too much cynicism. The reason why Ben-Hur is out there is because of some actions by a few men, and the actions by a few men help to return him to his family. Whether Christ played a part on one end or another can be interpreted however one wishes.
Based on the book from Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur, aside from being a film with biblical themes is the prototypical epic film. Any action film over two hours long really has its roots tied into this film, subtle (Star Wars) or not (Gladiator). But the difference between those films and this, or even between this film and the other two that have also won eleven Oscars (Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) is that the acting performances are solid. The thing that makes the acting performances good is not even that the scenes weren't done in front of a blue screen, or that the actors were reacting to non-existent perils that would later be inserted via computer. The film is an epic both in front of and behind the camera. The scenes in the boat don't include rowers who are rowing air; there were simulated hydraulics put in that were designed to provide resistance when the actors rowed. For the chariot races, the actors were trained on the horses and shown how to ride the chariots, and the poor guys who were run over were actually weighted dummies designed to look lifelike when trampled over.
And of course, the prominent acting performances are all solid. The actor who plays Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith, Mutiny on the Bounty) took an award home for Best Supporting Actor. Boyd's Messala makes himself into a decent man with misguided values; but he's really a good movie villain that you'd like to see vanquished. Heston's Oscar win is a well-deserved one; he is in almost the entire movie, and carries it magnificently. A lot of people have satirized Heston's mannerisms and speech patterns through the years, but his eyes tell a lot about what his impressions of people are. The movie would be different if Burt Lancaster or Paul Newman took the title role, but Heston, with one epic already under his belt in The Ten Commandments, knew what he was getting into with this film, and it's definitely the one that he will be remembered for. The overall direction of the film by William Wyler (Wuthering Heights) is excellent, but the running time can be an issue with a lot of people. Watching the film, there are a lot of long shots where you take in the splendor of Rome and Jerusalem, along with some of the magnificent action scenes. There may be a little too many of those beats when it comes to some scenes that are designed for less dramatic impact. Ben-Hur's quest spans several years; so a runtime of almost three hours and thirty minutes isn't too long to ask.
If there was one complaint about the previous release, it was that Warner Home Video's flipper disc possessed a cropped image that was lacking. The good news is Warner made up for this and then some, not only creating an improved video transfer, but doing so from the original 65mm elements of the film. And the result is superb, top notch work. If there was a release that would benefit from widescreen televisions, this would be it. The only concern I have is that the reds come across a little bit too bright, but other than that, this looks perfect. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is a holdover from the first release, but it still sounds great, and the score comes across very well during the film. Considering the age of the source material, this is outstanding work.
The film appears to have retained almost all of the extras from the first DVD release. The Heston commentary track remains, and includes edited comments by film historian T. Gene Hatcher. Hatcher deals more with the trivia about the film, while Heston discusses the production, and specifically, working with Wyler. There are some periods of dead air during it which is understandable, but the overall quality of the commentary does enhance the value of watching the film. If the commentary is a little bit too much, then why not play the isolated music soundtrack by Miklos Rozsa, who just happened to win an Oscar for his work on his. Because the film has a few long shots, to have the score back them up the way they do is a nice touch and a thoughtful inclusion.
What has made the set worth buying for a lot of people has to be the 1925 silent film, which takes up Disc Three. The silent film's production was huge ($4 million 1925 dollars went into that film), and silent film legend Valentino was considered for the title role. And if you look close, you'll notice Myrna Loy (who later appeared in the Wyler film The Best Years of Our Lives) as an extra in the film. Ramon Novarro does a great job in the title role, and those who are new to silent film will be blown away by the scope and technical aspects the film exudes. The film runs almost two and a half hours, and uses several different tints in scenes to convey how just large and emotional it is. And yes, the silent film has a chariot race, a very good one too. It's almost hard to compare the chariot races after seeing this version. Each is excellent in its own right, and a case could be made that the 1925 version may be a little bit better than the 1959 version. Granted, the stunt work improved through the decades, but the camerawork in the first version is breathtaking, and paved the way for some similar shots in the second version. Perhaps more importantly, this 80 year old silent film looks (and sounds) fantastic. It's a fresh experience for some who have seen it, and an amazing cinematic experience for others who haven't.
Disc Four contains the bulk of the extras. The 1994 documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic is included. Narrated by Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), this hour-long feature focuses on the origins of the story and the production of this film, and of other various productions. It discusses how Wallace came to write the book, and even talks about the ending he decided to write, which in a way converted his beliefs. The book started as a very successful play, which was eventually transformed into the first film. When the 1959 film was being done, there was a slight controversy over the storywriting credit, Wyler wanted Christopher Fry to receive the credit, the studio wanted Gore Vidal to get it, but eventually the original writer Karl Tunberg got the credit for the screenplay (coincidentally, the only nomination that did not result in an Oscar win). Many people discuss the conversion scene, along with any issues that came from showing (or not showing) Christ's face in the film. In the midst of discussing how difficult the 1925 and 1959 chariot races were, there's some footage of one of the 1959 cameras that was lost as a result of one of the chariots running over it. The discussion of the scene from both films re-iterates just how much of a production and logistical nightmare it must have been to shoot the most memorable scene. All in all, the documentary is very good and an excellent companion to the film.
And if the recycled documentary wasn't enough, there's even a recently filmed hour-long documentary on the impact of the film itself. Entitled Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, this feature focuses more on the influence the film had on such directors as George Lucas and Ridley Scott, and on other technical experts like cinematographers Ernest Dickerson (Malcolm X) Janusz Kaminski (The Terminal), production designer Arthur Max (Gladiator), and composer Don Davis (The Matrix). There are others that are not mentioned, but each share their thoughts about this film, and how it influenced films that they worked on. And in some instances, clips of the influenced films are included. And if someone doesn't think that the pod race in Star Wars Episode I doesn't look a lot like the chariot race, watch this feature, there is a fairly seamless edit which makes things look a little clearer. In other cases, Max recalls that some of the items that were used in Ben-Hur were replicated in Gladiator, as most of the materials were still in storage in Italian studios. It's amazing to see how the film holds up to critical discussion, and the reverence with which each talks about the film is well-earned.
Along with those two extras, the screen tests that were included in the first DVD version have been brought to this edition, but in their unedited form, and are thirty minutes in length. Among some of the actors that were considered in other parts were Leslie Nielsen (Airplane!) and Cesare Danova (Animal House), which would have made for some interesting scenes. Some of the footage is without audio, and a music track plays behind those. Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures is a five-minute musical soundtrack with a still gallery behind it, with various sketches, score sheets and production drawings. Brief film clips are included too, and some of the stills have a three-dimensional look to them, which is a nice change from the usual layout. There are six newsreels that total about ten minutes in length, and they cover the film's premieres in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, along with some other footage showcasing the film's success. Ten more minutes of footage from the 1960 Oscar ceremony is next, some of it is just video footage, but segues into the audio from the ceremony. All of the award winners and their speeches are presented for those to enjoy. And there are five trailers, two are actual theatrical trailers, the others appear to be for separate theatrical re-releases that occurred at some point since its initial run.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Zero. Zilch. Nada. None. Hire David Spade to say it in several other languages if you'd like, but there's nothing to find fault with in this set.
Easily the best release of 2005 by a major studio. Good documentary material? Check. The original silent film? Check. Restored video transfer? Check. Warner Brothers has given Ben-Hur such outstanding love and attention, it truly is a Special Edition, and must be on any film fan's shelf.
Warner Brothers and Ben-Hur are acquitted, and the court is adjourned. The film has found another believer.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Charlton Heston and T. Gene Hatcher
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