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Ben-Hur"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 achievements, Ben-Hur.

Only two films have tied William Wyler’s masterpiece for the number of Oscars copped, and it took nearly forty years for it to happen.

Such is the power, majesty, and all-round greatness of Ben-Hur, Wyler’s 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 the KIng.

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 but 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 too much. It’s eminently 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 look.

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.

II remember 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 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.” 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 be; many 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 this.



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 into 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 good.

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 1925 shots.

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 trailers.

In all, it’s 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 columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.

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Updated May 13, 2006