Wonderful Work Goes Digital
By Jim Bray
Finally, Warner Home Video has released onto DVD one of the greatest
and most honored films ever.
The Best Picture of 1959, William Wylers Ben-Hur snagged eleven
Academy Awards, a record never beaten (though it was tied by Titanic in
The $24.95 DVD isnt one of those multi-disc extravaganzas like
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where they include a second disc of extra
material to convince movie buffs to buy the title rather than merely renting
it, but it does the classic film justice nonetheless.
It ends up being a double-faced DVD extravaganza that sandwiches the
extras as well as the post-intermission section of the film
onto the second side.
Bonus materials are gravy; its the movie that really counts and,
fortunately, Warner Brothers has come through in spades with a digital
remastering that must be seen to be appreciated.
The picture looks about as pristine as a forty-two year old movie can,
and in places (especially close-ups) the widescreen image is positively
breathtaking. This is a wonderful change for Ben-Hur on video. I can remember
watching old Pan & Scan versions on VHS (where they lop
the sides off the widescreen picture to make it fit onto TVs squarish
screen) where, when the Roman troops were trooping along near the beginning
of the movie, the figures would 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.
There are a couple of strange anomalies, like a strange jitter during
the opening credits (which you may not notice if you arent picky)
and a few shots that jump ahead as if a couple of frames were missing,
but on the whole this is the version of Ben-Hur for which collectors and
fans have been waiting.
Theyve also maintained the films original aspect ratio of
a whoppingly wide 2.76:1, which is nearly three times as wide as it is
high. Fortunately, theyve also given the DVD the proper enhancement
for 16x9 widescreen TVs, though even here theres quite a bit
of unused black area above and below the picture. On a regular 4x3 TV
the widescreen image only uses about half the total screen!
So the bigger the TV the better
Likewise, Warners digital refreshing of the audio soundtrack has
breathed new life into Ben-Hur.
The original stereo soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1
channel surround and it shows. Most of the film doesnt make
a lot of use of the rear channels, but where theyve invoked them
theyve done it tastefully. For instance, during the opening scene
of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, theres a beautiful choral section
that sets the mood perfectly and the new 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 Im always afraid theyre going to paint a mustache onto
the Mona Lisa, and sometimes they do. Not here, though; the remix is tasteful
The audio works best with Miklos Rozsas gloriously sweeping pre-John
Williams score and during the spectacular chariot race as were
nearly deafened by thundering hooves and humanity.
You can still tell its an old soundtrack, especially with the music,
but its probably about as good as it can be short of hiring a new
orchestra to re-record the music digitally.
There arent a lot of extras on the disc, but what you do get is
Charlton Heston provides a commentary that may disappoint those looking
for inside dirt, but which is a gracious recollection of his experiences
during the long shoot in Italy. Since he doesnt prattle incessantly
for the entire film, you can jump to the commentary sections using the
chapter skip button.
Theres also The Making of an Epic, a one-hour documentary
that starts with the original novel and takes you on a tour of Ben-Hurs
stage and silent versions before tackling the Wyler film.
If that isnt enough, there are a couple of screen tests, one of
which features Leslie Nielsen playing Messala, a short and rather superfluous
gallery of photographs, the theatrical teaser and trailer, and some minimal
cast and crew info.
In all, a wonderful presentation befitting this Hollywood benchmark.
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
Jim Bray's technology
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