Ben Hur

Ben Hur (1959)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Screen Tests, Photo Gallery, Trailer

William Wyler’s "Ben Hur" is an epic that epitomizes everything that grand filmmaking is about. Whether it is the film’s considerable running length of 222 minutes, its extremely wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, its number of extras, the level of violence on-screen for its time, its lush production design and gigantic sets, everything about "Ben Hur" is taken to extremes that were never seen before, and maybe haven’t since.

"Ben Hur" tells the story of a Jewish nobleman who falls from grace and struggles for revenge. During a triumphant parade, Judah Ben Hur’s (Charlton Heston) sister accidentally knocks a few shingles off the roof, that fall to the ground and knock the governor unconscious. Immediately Judah takes the blame for his sister but the unimaginable happens. His long time friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) is upset with Judah because he refused to cooperate in the Roman "domestication" of the Jews. Unable to control his anger and pride, Messala has Judah convicted despite the fact that he knows that the incident was a result of an accident. Judah is ultimately enslaved and sent to serve on the Galleys. For years Judah survives the torturous life on board of Roman Galleys, always driven by hatred and his desire for vengeance. During a battle on sea, he is able to save a Roman officer’s life, who in return takes Judah under his wings. Slowly, Judah is able to establish a regular life once again and slowly make plans to return home to face Messala. But first he has to find out what happened to his family, his mother and sister. What he finds is causing him more pain than he could have imagined and he knows that it is time to pay back Messala. The confrontation of the two culminates in a spectacular and memorable chariot-racing scene that ignites the screen with its furious pace, breathtaking stunts and violent deaths.

From the moment, Judah and Mesalla have their fallout to the closing moments of the movie, "Ben Hur" is an exciting thrill-ride that can easily compete with modern day action films in terms of its action and tension. However, unlike modern cinema, much of the film’s focus is also on the character development and as a result, the players in this film come across much more dynamic and dimensional. Especially Judah Ben Hur, the central character of the story is developed with such depth and a wealth of emotions that it is impossible not to sympathize with him, his pain and his hatred. Director William Wyler did a fabulous job, directing the entire cast and production in a way that was always focused exactly on the most driving and dramatic elements. Everything serves a purpose in "Ben Hur" and despite its running length, every moment exists for a reason – to build the tension for the final showdown, and to ensure the viewers is bolted to his seat until Judah finally gets his revenge. Not many film manage to captivate an audience the way "Ben Hur" does and combined with its extremely lush production design it is one of those films that you never forget. Flowing costumes, armies of men, colossal sets, spectacular action and colorful interiors create a world that is mesmerizing and luring, practically hypnotizing the viewer as we see the tragic story of "Ben Hur" unfold.

"Ben Hur" is presented in its original 2.76:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD and this new <$16x9,anamorphic> DVD transfer restores the movie’s full visual scope, taken directly from a 70mm print. Although the transfer is a bit tight on smaller standard 4×3 TV sets as a result of the aspect ratio, trust me that you do not want to miss out on the staggering image composition presented in this whole image. On 16×9 TV sets, the transfer plays its muscles and creates an incredibly rich and filmlike image that is beautiful to behold. The transfer of the film has been cleaned up and it is simply staggering how clean the resulting image looks. Devoid of any mars or blemishes, the film also shows comparably little grain, giving the image a very stable quality. However, the film is showing noticeable registration problems and the image is constantly wavering. Especially during the credit sequences this is very distracting, but it is also clearly noticeable during the actual film. Combined with a number of broken splices where the image jumps up or down for a frame, unfortunately the presentation on this DVD is not as perfect as I would have hoped. Do not let this distract you from the beauty that is "Ben Hur" on this DVD. With incredibly strong colors and a staggering level of detail I can easily say that I have never seen the film look this good ever. Strong shadow delineation, razor sharp colors and deep blacks make this an unforgettable experience. The compression is flawless, leaving all the detail of the transfer fully intact. While the latest blockbuster releases may be great examples to show off home theaters, a beautifully prepared classic like "Ben Hur" is no less impressive when you finally get to witness it in all its epic glory.

The DVD also contains a newly remixed <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track that makes for a solid and well balanced presentation that has been prepared using the original multi-channel sound elements from the movie. Although there are some signs of age audible in the track in the form of occasional hiss and noise, as well as a somewhat limited frequency response, I have always found that a classic movie has to sound like one. "Ben Hur" sounds just like that, just a tad better.

"Ben Hur" also contains a newly recorded <$commentary,audio commentary> by main actor Charlton Heston. Before you get too excited about it, let me tell you though, that it is a scene specific commentary with huge gaps. Heston is talking for no more than 30 minutes of the film I would guess, pinpointing only selected scenes. But even there, his commentary is typically reduced to saying, "This is a great scene that works really well. It took us about a week to shoot this" or "This is [insert name of an actor]. He was really good in this scene." Not a lot of information is coming across in this commentary, sadly making it a bit of a disappointment. Warner obviously recognized the tracks’ deficit and gives viewers the option to skip from one of his commentaries to another, bridging the minutes of footage in between comments. While this is certainly no way to watch the film, it is a good way to quickly breeze through all the commentary moments.

Given the movie’s length and the storage requirements for a high quality presentation, Warner Home Video is bringing us "Ben Hur" on a DVD-18, a double-sided <$RSDL,dual-layer>ed DVD. However, as with "Gettysburg" it is practically impossible to tell which side is which as Warner does not included any information on the discs inner ring. How hard would it be to include a stamp saying "Side A" and "Side B?"
While the first side of the disc contains only the first half of the film up to the intermission, and the commentary, the second side, contains the rest of the movie, as well as some additional features. Among these bonus features is "Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic" a 60-minute documentary from 1993 that takes you behind the scenes with some exciting footage about the making of this extraordinary film. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, the documentary also contains a good number of interviews, as well as some interview footage with William Wyler himself. It is a thorough documentary that also covers the movie’s impact on Hollywood’s history and has been masterfully prepared.

An original original screen test for the part of Judah Ben Hur can also be seen here, featuring one young Leslie Nielsen. A small photo gallery and the film’s trailer are also presented on this disc.

"Ben Hur" is an utterly exciting film and seeing this masterpiece on this glorious DVD makes it an even bigger experience. It is a movie the like they don’t really make them any more, a timeless classic and a colorful voyage into another world. Become part of the Roman Empire, and see Ben Hur on his seemingly hopeless quest for revenge as he struggles along the way, only to find help through Jesus Christ himself. It is one of the most impressive films ever made, and commemorated on this release, while not perfect, this DVD is no less impressive.