"Ben-Hur – the
Four Disc Collector’s Edition" DVD
By Jim Bray
Just in under the wire before the DVD
format is replaced by high definition DVD’s (if they ever settle on an HD disc format)
is a spectacular new reissue of one of Hollywood’s crowning
Only two films have tied William Wyler’s masterpiece for
the number of Oscars copped, and it took nearly forty years for
Such is the power, majesty, and all-round greatness of Ben-Hur,
epic story of a Hebrew prince’s search for
vengeance in which he also finds Christ.
The Best Picture of 1959, Ben-Hur snagged eleven Academy Awards,
a record tied by Titanic and Lord of the Rings - The Return of
And now there’s a DVD package worthy of this masterpiece in
Warners’ new four disc set. The original DVD release was good,
a double-faced disc that sandwiched the extras – as well as
the post-intermission section of the film – onto the second
side of the disc.
But this new version easily outclasses the first release, not only
with newly remastered video, but with the inclusion of the entire
1925 silent epic and a fourth disc of goodies.
According to the box, the video features a new digital transfer
from restored 65mm elements. And the video quality is definitely
better than the earlier release’s. This is evident even
from the opening credits, which tended to jitter on the old disc
which are now more or less rock steady. The picture is very good
for the most part, and in
places (especially close-ups) the widescreen image can be breathtaking.
But overall, it isn’t as good as the picture on the latest
release of such other color classics as Gone with the Wind, which
looks like it was shot last year. Ben-Hur, on the other hand, looks
a little over saturated, as if they cranked up the color a bit
watchable, but if you check out the documentary “Ben-Hur:
The Epic That Changed Cinema,” on disc four, the clips
there look better, with more realistic color and a less saturated
Too bad they didn’t use those clips as their
reference. Go figure.
Still, this is a wonderful DVD, and even more than the original
DVD release it beats the pants off of early video versions.
watching old “Pan & Scan” releases (where they
lop the sides off the widescreen picture to make it fit onto TV’s
squarish screen) on VHS where, when the Roman troops
were trooping along near the beginning of the movie, the figures
all smear together into huddled masses of smudgy humanity.
Now, however, you can almost count the individual extras who
make up the “cast of thousands.” And they’ve maintained
the film’s original aspect ratio
of a whoppingly wide 2.76:1, which is nearly three times as wide
as it is high. They’ve kept the DVD’s enhancement
for 16x9 widescreen TV’s, too, which allows for the highest
resolution picture available on DVD today.
This is the way it should
earlier DVD releases (and even some at this late date) were widescreen,
but weren’t 16x9 TV compatible and so owners of widescreen
TV’s had to zoom the picture out to fill the screen, which
reduces the resolution, giving a kind of “looking through
a screen door” effect to the picture.
The original DVD release of Titanic is like this, but there’s
supposedly a new version on the way which, hopefully, will correct
Warner’s gave the audio tracks
a digital refreshing with the original DVD release, and it seems
unchanged with this new version. The original soundtrack has been remixed
Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround – and in places it shows.
Most of the film doesn’t make a lot of use of the rear channels,
but where they’ve fired them up it has been done tastefully.
For instance, during the opening scene of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem,
there’s a beautiful choral section that sets the mood perfectly
and the mix surrounds you with voices, while the orchestra remains mostly
up front with the main stereo speakers.
Whenever I hear of a company making retroactive changes to a classic
film I’m always afraid they’re going to paint a mustache
onto the Mona Lisa, and sometimes they do. Not here, though; the remix
is tasteful and appropriate.
Alas, while the sound quality is clean and very listenable, it is
also a tad thin. At the volume I use as my personal “default” for
getting apples-to-apples comparisons of audio tracks, both DVD versions
of Ben-Hur are quite soft. This is a shame considering the sweeping
and glorious Miklos Rosza score and the music-less mayhem of the famous
chariot race, where the audience should be nearly deafened by the thundering
hooves and howling humanity.
The 212 minute film takes up the first two discs of this set and Warner’s
has wisely chosen to make the break between discs exactly where they
should: at intermission.
The feature also comes with a running commentary provided by film historian
T. Gene Hatcher and Charlton Heston. Hatcher provides interesting bits
of trivia, perspective, and background information and, while Heston’s
comments may disappoint those looking for inside dirt, he provides gracious
recollections of his experiences during the long shoot in Italy. The
man is a class act and seemed genuinely grateful to have worked on the
film and appreciative of the talents of those with whom he served.
Disc three is a wonderful bonus. It’s a restored version of
the 1925 silent epic starring Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis
X. Bushman as Messala. It looks about as good as a 1925 movie can, though
owners of widescreen TV’s that may be prone to burn-in (CRT’s
and plasmas) will want to stretch/zoom the 4x3 full frame picture to
fit their wide screens.
The 1925 film features a stereo score by Carl Davis and it sounds
IIf you love Ben-Hur and haven’t seen this version, you’re
in for a treat.
You may also get a chuckle or two if you’ve watched the “The
Epic That Changed Cinema” documentary, because many of the filmmakers
featured there talk about the brilliance of various Wyler shots, and
it’s plain that (brilliant as Wyler and his version are) some
of the shots mentioned were fairly straightforward reconstructions of
Which just goes to show how great the 1925 version really was.
In fact, I liked its sea battle better than Wyler’s (though
Wyler may not have been on board the project when those obviously model
shots were created).
Disc four includes two excellent documentaries, one of which (“Ben-Hur:
the Making of an Epic”) also appeared on the original DVD. “Epic” starts
with the original novel and takes you on a tour of Ben-Hur’s stage
and silent versions before tackling the Wyler film.
The previously-mentioned “Epic That Changed Cinema” is
also fascinating, featuring clips of Wyler and contemporary filmmakers
including Ridley Scott and George Lucas, the latter of whose pod
race (from “Star Wars Episode One the Phantom Menace”) was
inspired by and is an homage to the Wyler film’s chariot race.
If that isn’t enough, there are a couple of screen tests, one
of which features Leslie Nielsen, a short and rather superfluous gallery
of photographs set to Rosza’s score, vintage newsreels, highlights
from the Oscar night in which Ben-Hur cleaned up, and a gallery of theatrical
In all, it’s a wonderful presentation befitting this Hollywood
Ben-Hur, from Warner Home Video
212 minutes, Widescreen (2.76:1)16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins
Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Written by Karl Tunberg, Directed by William Wyler
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