Ben-Hur: 4-Disc Collector's Edition DVD Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

Ben-Hur: 4-Disc Collector's Edition DVD Review
SRP: £24.79

Picture

Ben Hur (1959)

First things first. This is the second restored version of Ben- Hur to have surfaced on DVD ... and, unquestionably, the best. With further work done to buff it up, this transfer is incredible. The anamorphic presentation of the 2.74:1 aspect is tremendous, literally engulfing the screen in a gorgeously wide canvas that is, without doubt, one of the most captivating widescreen images that I've ever had the pleasure to view.

Very clean and remarkably sharp, the new transfer is beautifully bright and colourful. The primaries are excellent, really crisp, bold and striking. Just look at the red tunics and capes of the Roman soldiers, or the flags of the processions and those dotted around the Circus Antioch, or the differing colours of the charioteers. Equally resplendent is the burnished hue of the statuary and the sand - you can sometimes feel the heat from the image. Skin tones are naturally bronzed, but the sheen to them, particularly amid the poor slaves rowing the galleys, is finely filmic. Blood, especially in the interior scenes - the gouged-open galley or the aftermath of the race - is rich and splashy. There are a few slight colour shifts - the sands, the foliage and against some structures - but these are only noticeable if you are looking for them.

Detail for this release is incredibly good. The previous edition was no slouch, but this one goes even further, benefiting from the extra work put in by the engineers at Warner's that sees the transfer even cleaner and able to produce a greater level of finite minutia, such as seen on the costumes and armour, the chariots and the intricate design of architecture. But even far off objects have a clearer definition, too, like the long lines of Roman soldiers and the endless processions of multitudes. Crowd scenes all exhibit a greater depth and stability, making it a pleasure to rove your eyes around the densely-packed screen.

Black levels are excellent. The dark dungeons offer tremendous depth and a real sense of atmosphere, often resembling something from an old Universal horror film. Contrast levels are impeccable with, for example, a marvellously smart transition from opulent and garish pomp and bright ceremony when Arrius bestows Judah his ring and calls him son, to subdued reflection on a balcony shadowed by the evening outside. All scene changes are handled well and without any unwelcome glaring or filtering errors. Fast action is given the best showcase you could wish for with the chariot race, and the disc does an incredible job of keeping you right up there amid the thundering horses, crashing chariots and flying dust storms. The transfer doesn't miss a visual trick with a solid and blistering display of pixel perfection that captures every frame of the gruelling race with clinical precision. Edges are exactingly maintained, the colours never stray and the image holds fast and tight to the action.

Digital faults are minimal, as well. There is some slight edge enhancement and very occasionally some distant objects do become slightly blurred but this is only to be expected. There is, though, one curious - but tiny - element of fade-out on the Emperor's face for a second to two when he greets the returning Quintus Arrius, but overall, this is a magnificent transfer for a movie from 1959. There are moments when this film positively glows, and I can't think of any higher praise than that for this transfer. This gains an unequivocal 9 for the fantastic restoration job and the way in which the disc captures it all.Ben-Hur (1925)

You will be amazed at how good this film from eighty-odd years ago looks today. There is a terrific level of detail and a truly pleasing filmic quality that denies its vintage. Presented in 1.33:1, the damage is surprisingly slight. We get a few shaky moments, plenty of small dots and speckles (but they really are small and don't distract at all) and grain that is really only apparent on the primitive 2-Colour process sequences. Early on we get an unfortunate vertical line of shimmering frame-edge dots on the right side of the screen, but this doesn't last too long and really doesn't warrant much complaint. Obviously there is a somewhat faded look to the image but some moments, such as the Star of Bethlehem scene look sublime and wonderfully spectral. A sterling effort, folks, and no mistake.
Ben-Hur: 4-Disc Collector

Sound

The delightful overture at the start of the film provides a splendid presentation of Miklos Rozsa's seminal score, the transfer soaring across the front speakers with pride and conviction, and only a little boost from the rears. And this, folks, is somewhat typical of the overall Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which employs an expressively widened and deepened aural design that really only emanates from the speakers in front of you. But, this is hardly surprising, is it? Ben-Hur may have pushed the boundaries visually, but it never possessed multi-channel sound, so any attempt to create a fully immersive mix now would inevitably come across as bogus. So, with the rears used primarily to lend ambience - like the sloshing of the waves and the groaning and creaking of the galleys, or the later rainstorm - or to boost the score and the babble of the great crowds, the mix is actually pretty understated and atmospheric and, arguably, all the better for it. For when the big moments come, its dynamics can often take you by surprise. The sub is effectively used, as is the steerage of voices and action across the front soundstage. Dialogue issues quite commandingly from the left and right as those speaking move across the scene and the mix does a good job of matching the onscreen action for the more bravura moments such as the ramming of ships at sea, the careering and splintering of tumbling chariots and the placement of effects viewed in the extremes of the widescreen image.

Voices have a richness and a depth that is reassuring and very cinematic and its great to hear the complete lack of hiss, crackle or distortion from an original soundtrack that has been meticulously restored. Ben-Hur, as a listening experience is wonderful, with the new mix really opening up the film like never before. On a slight downside, I did notice that the scene in the Sheik's tent when he first entertains Judah has some slightly artificial-sounding shuffling of servants and rattling of trays, and even one line of dialogue that seems a little falsely steered. But, in a movie of this vintage and length, I think you can overlook such miniscule discrepancies with ease. Overall, this is a sterling effort to revitalise the epic, creating a much more engrossing experience for the viewer.

Ben-Hur (1925) contains a 2-channel stereo track that, with some tweaking of your amp, results in a very decent presentation of Carl Davis's score. It comes across boldly and with plenty of dramatic presence, adding immeasurably to the film itself. Again, a fine transfer.
Ben-Hur: 4-Disc Collector

Extras

Still with me? Good, eyes down for the extras, then.

Ben-Hur 1959 is carried over on Discs 1 and 2, unlike the original release which saw the film on two sides of a flipper. The old Charlton Heston scene-specific Commentary is here again, but it is now enlivened considerably by the presence of film historian T. Gene Hatcher, who offers an incredible wealth of information on everything from the horses used to the types of camera Wyler incorporated, from background on all the cast members he can fit in, to anecdote and trivia on the production's many troubles and personality clashes. Hatcher is one of those speakers who sounds a little dry, yet can effortlessly inform and entertain at the same time without you ever feeling like as though you are being lectured. Heston is very good value too, although it is Hatcher who takes the lion's share of the track now. There are many good stories, such as how Hugh Griffith got on with the horses he reluctantly had to act alongside, and Heston offers a few acutely recalled snippets of on-set spats and improvisation. There's even a brief mention of how Wyler insisted on redoing an insert for The Big Country whilst filming on the set for Ben-Hur. Very good and informative all round.

Over on Disc 4 are the rest of the extras, fronted by two very impressive documentaries. The first, from 2005, entitled Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (57.00 mins and in 10 chapters) is a brilliant examination of the legacy and everlasting influence that Wyler's movie has had on the filmmakers and the filmmaking process that have since followed. With numerous contributors - George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Irvin Kershner, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (Malcolm X), producer Arthur Max (Gladiator), sound designer Ben Burtt (Episode 1 The Phantom Menace) and composers Don Davis (The Matrix) and Elia Cmiral (Ronin) among others - this comprehensive feature covers a lot of ground and is never, even for one second, boring. What I found particularly of interest was the contrast and comparison between Ben-Hur and my personal fave Gladiator. Scott and Arthur Max are totally convinced that without William Wyler showing them not only that it could be done, but also how it could be done, their own epic would never have even gotten off the ground. Max has a lot to say and raises many valid points about the relative ease of filmmaking nowadays and the easy option of CG trickery. For instance the real structure of Ben-Hur's Circus Antioch when compared to the partially-built and CG-enhanced Coliseum from Gladiator. Even I have to admit that Ben-Hur stomps the Scott's arena into the dust. Everyone marvels at what Wyler achieved. Archive interviews with the great director, himself, reveal him to be chatty and fondly reminiscent. Heston crops up, as does his son, Fraser - a filmmaker himself - who supplies many acute observations about the production and the styles that it pioneered and have been emulated ever since. An excellent and thorough chronicle. Big thumbs up.

Next up is the second major documentary. Narrated by Christopher Plummer and running for 58 mins (in 20 chapters), this feature from 1994 is called Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic, but it is unique in the way that it details the making of not only Wyler's film, but also the Niblo version, a previous silent fifteen-minute edition, a stage show and even the original book and its author. Using a vast number of stills and some often remarkable behind the scenes footage from even these earlier versions, the full story of Ben-Hur's often troubled and dangerous history is examined. There is crucial information regarding the newly formed MGM studio and its desire to produce the biggest motion picture ever made - not just the once, in 1925, but again in 1959 - and some fantastic anecdotes from both of the huge spectaculars. Try this on for size - in the original silent version's sea battle, one of the galleys really caught fire and the hundreds of extras had to leap for their lives into the sea. Thing is, not all of them could swim and there is no accurate record of whether or not everyone survived the accident. What did survive, however, is the footage of the disaster, which they kept in the finished film. Movie historian and regular DVD contributor Rudy Behlmer scores many points for his vast knowledge of trivia and detail from in front of, and behind the camera. It's a little odd, though, seeing film clips from Wyler's version as they are presented full screen and un-restored, with the speakers waxing lyrical about the look and style of a film that we now know is going to look a whole lot better than the prints they are watching. There's some good stuff from the terrifically-named Gore Vidal about his controversial re-writing of the screenplay, essentially the homoerotic quality that he sought to bring in to pep up the emotional resonance to Judah and Messala's feud. Wyler apparently quashed the idea but the essence of this deeper connection between the two still remains. A great companion piece to the earlier documentary. Together they form an exhaustive and intriguing expose of the myth of Ben-Hur, leaving virtually no stone unturned.

Then we get Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures which is a five-minute audio-visual montage of the film's story, themes and characters, recreated via stills, storyboards, sketches, Rozsa's music and some marvellous snippets of dialogue. Quite good, actually.

The Screentests have a Play All option and last for 29 mins overall. We get to see Leslie Nielsen as Messala and Cesare Danova as Judah as the pair portray their strained reunion, and then Nielsen again opposite Yale Wexler for the same scene. Contrary to what you may think, or possibly hope, Nielsen is actually on fine and serious form. He's quite good too, but check out his delivery of the line “It will be crushed,” for proof that he wasn't the man for the part of Messala. We also see George Baker and William Russell play out the same scene, with Baker good in the role of Judah and Russell sadly not so good as Messala. The set is rounded off with five minutes of Haya Harareet undergoing hair and makeup tests. This and the second of Nielsen's screentests play with the music score over them as the original sound has been lost.

Then there are the Vintage Newsreels that last 9.31 mins with a Play All option. These six short pieces feature jolly music and a jaunty voice-over man as Ben-Hur hits the premier highway from a little UK cinema in which the mighty Heston, himself, serves the bemused customers their tickets to the States and then on to Japan. It's cool to see Chuck meeting Ramon Novarro at one of these outings. This is capped off with 9.44 mins of Highlights From The 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony in which Ben-Hur scooped 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. All the big stars turn out in black and white glitz and glamour to hear some refreshingly short acceptance speeches. The sound for this final segment is very ropey, stuttering a fair bit and even cutting out a few times.

And finally there are five Theatrical Trailers ranging from a 1959 Teaser to a 1969 re-release.

Overall, this is an exemplary package of bonuses that makes the set well worth picking up. The two documentaries are worth their weight in gold, but the showstopper is the original Fred Niblo movie, which just rounds out this restored edition perfectly. You just couldn't wish for anything more. An epic set, folks, that does the film justice.
Ben-Hur: 4-Disc Collector
Just like my oft-mentioned favourite movie Gladiator, Ben-Hur transports us to a bygone time with a determination and a passion that is spellbinding to behold. Whether you think the religious themes are contrived and shoehorned-in or not, there is never any let up in the tale of Judah's quest for retribution and redemption, and it is naturally his saga that is the most compelling. Personally speaking, I follow no religion at all, but even I find Christ's appearances somehow beatific and resonant on a much deeper level than mere Biblical sentiment. The final miracle belongs in the film just as much as the chariot race, its payoff spiritually unique and also something that is only found in such huge-scale epics from the time when studios would literally move heaven and earth to bring their visions to the screen.

This 4-Disc release sees the film benefiting from a glorious restoration that simply cannot fail to amaze. The documentaries and the commentary deliver all you could wish for, and act as the perfect accompaniment to a truly momentous movie. But, for me, the best feature is the inclusion of the 1925 original, which is far better than I ever expected.

A brilliant and thorough package that impresses on many levels. For a film and DVD buff to pass this up would be blasphemy.

Scores

Movie

.
9

Picture Quality

.
9

Sound Quality

.
.
.
7

Extras

10

Overall

10
10
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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