DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Ben Hur (1959), 4-Disc Collector’s Edition

Hi-Def transfer of both the 1959 epic and the 1925 silent version, with many extras

Published on September 26, 2005

Ben Hur (1959), 4-Disc Collector’s Edition
Ben Hur (1959) 4-Disc Collector’s Edition

Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet
Directed by: William Wyler
Music: Miklos Rosza
Studio: MGM/Warner Bros.
Video: 65mm Cinemascope enhanced for 16:9 widescreen; 1925 silent full screen B&W with 2-color Technicolor sections
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish (feature film only)
Audio: English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1
Extras: Complete 1925 version with stereo orchestral score by Carl
Davis, Commentary track by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton
Heston, Music-Only track of entire film, Documentary Ben-Hur: The Epic
That Changed Cinema (2005), Documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic
(1994), Ben-Hur: A Journey Thru Pictures, Screen tests, Vintage
newsreel gallery, Highlights from 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony,
Theatrical trailers, Illustrated booklet on the film
Length: 222 minutes
Rating: *****:

Ben Hur truly was the epic that changed Hollywood and movies in
general. It won 11 Academy Awards in l960 and set the standards for
epic films for decades. it was one of the first films to be shot on
65mm stock, for a 275% increase in filmic real estate over standard
35mm film. Special anamorphic lenses were ground for the six Panavision
cameras, which cost over $100,000 each (one was accidently destroyed in
the filming of the chariot race). The resolution and detail of the
impressive widescreen images is startling in this top-quality digital
transfer. The feature’s designers gave careful attention to the
composition of every shot so that it made the most artistic use of the
widescreen 2.76:1 frames.

I started this time-consuming viewing with the 1925 silent version
starring Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman.  Part of it was
also filmed in Rome, just as most of the 1959 version was. It tells the
story well, and the chariot race is just as exciting as in the later
version. There are some differences in the story, which had begun as a
novel by a former Civil War general and was later presented
successfully for many years as a stage play. The silent version has a
number of naive scenes from the life of Christ; both the silent and the
1959 version are subtitled “A Tale of the Christ.” But it really isn’t
that – it is the gripping story of a wealthy Jewish prince who as a boy
was a close friend of a pagan Roman who later becomes a Tribune in the
Roman army.  The Roman is stationed back at Judea to head the
garrison of soldiers, and when he demands his old friend Judah Ben Hur
give him the names of those Jews who oppose Roman rule the friendship
quickly comes to a halt and the two enemies are primed for a struggle
thru most of the rest of the film.

In the silent version it is suggested subtly at the conclusion that
Ben-Hur is so moved by his interaction with Jesus that he converts to
Christianity. This is left open in the 1959 film, but there are now
even more scenes with Jesus – the Sermon on the Mount, Crucifixion, and
so on. Both films use the ploy of never showing his face – only those
of persons who encounter or are listening to him. Most of the religious
story is found in the preface to the film showing the Nativity, and in
the portion following the climactic chariot race, with the Crucifixion,
during which Ben Hur’s mother and sister – who had contracted leprosy
while in prison – are healed by Jesus (though more indirectly than in
the silent version). The other top spectacle of the many in this epic -
gorgeously photographed by Robert L. Surtees – is the section on Ben
Hur serving in the oar galleys of the Roman ships, where few of the
prisoners lived more than a year. The sea battle with the Macedonians
is stunning. (But not as realistic as the one in the silent film, when
one of the ships caught fire, burned too fast and most of the crew
jumped into the water – which was not in the script!)

One of the 11 Oscars went to composer Miklos Rozsa for his epic musical
score, surely one of his best among many.  Ben Hur has not only a
ten minute or so Overture (while the screen image stays on a close up
of Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam), but later a similar
Entr’Acte which introduces the second portion of the film (on Disc 2).
In addition to the option of selecting the continuous commentary during
the film by Heston and the film historian, music lovers also have the
option of selecting only the full-volume Rozsa score to accompany the
entire film – no dialog or sound effects. Speaking of the latter, those
who select this option will be watching a silent film for the entire
spectacular chariot race – William Wyler convinced Rozsa that the race
would work much better accompanied only by the sound effects, with no
music whatever! And after seeing it that way Rozsa had to agree. 
Since the original film had multichannel sound, there were plenty of
source materials to create one of the best-sounding Dolby 5.1
soundtracks I have heard on a DVD.

- John Sunier

 




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