‘Ben-Hur’ thunders on to UK Region free Blu-ray with an absolutely stunning 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, framed in the widescreen 2.76:1 aspect ratio. This is very wide widescreen and the High Def transfer has been created by individually scanning each frame of the original 65mm camera negative at 8k resolution. The end result just hits you right between the eyes. The sumptuous, rich reds used in Roman cloaks, the deep blacks in the night shots, the piercing blue of Charlton Heston’s eyes, the golds of Roman interiors – all of them leap out at you. Skin tones are consistently healthy, conveying the heat of the environment and sun exposure convincingly well. The image has amazing clarity and detail that helps to draw you into the scene. It really does feel as if you are looking through a very clean window on the past. Contrast is spot on and it simply shows what can be done with an older movie, given the time and care. There is no sensation of watching a movie made 52 years ago. You really struggle to see any grain thanks to the 65mm source, yet there is a wonderful filmic feel throughout. The film is absolutely free of dirt, dust, scratches and other age related blemishes. The only word to describe this transfer is ‘Wow!’
The audio on ‘Ben-Hur’ comes as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix and is a real treat for the ears. Miklos Rozsa’s score sounds fantastic courtesy of the main stereo pair with rich trumpets, delicate strings and rousing orchestral pieces. It’s a very full bodied sonic image that simply spells quality. The wide front sound stage has been used to add some directionality to the dialogue in places and we can pick out impressively discrete detail such as the clank of armour, the swish of material and the jangle of swords. Dialogue is faultlessly clear throughout, even in the sea battle and crowd scenes. The chariot race benefits from some deep rumble via the subwoofer although you never feel as if you’ve been kicked in the forehead. As you’d expect, there’s no age related hiss, snap, crackle or pop to ruin the presentation. This is a very involving mix although I wasn’t really aware of a great deal going on behind me apart from general ambience. You could almost listen to the soundtrack on its own and see the images in your mind. That would be a bit of a shame though, as you’d miss the fantastic transfer.
The version reviewed was the UK 3 disc package which doesn’t have all of the souvenir booklets that the American box set has, but it does include the movie spread over two discs, while disc 3 houses most of the extras – which are quite considerable. All the same, I’d like a read of Charlton Heston’s production diary which is reproduced in the American box set. Anyway, here are the Bonus materials on the UK package:
Audio Commentary - Film historian T. Gene Hatcher talks us through the production of ‘Ben Hur’ and there’s input too from Charlton Heston in the form of interview snippets that are dropped in at the appropriate moment. This is all presented in a very affable, laid back manner as we get some interesting detail from Hatcher, while Heston gives us a few behind the scenes tales – and it makes a nice balance. We hear about the book by General Lew Wallace upon which the movie is based and of MGM’s massive promotional campaign for the film. Heston tells us what it was like to work for a tough director like Wyler and how he wanted to wring every last drop of blood from his star. It certainly paid off in terms of Oscars. The ‘on set’ stories are fabulous and we hear it from the horse’s mouth while the production facts help explain what happened 50 years ago to a modern day audience. This is a gold mine for movie buffs.
Music only track - We get a wonderful opportunity to hear Miklos Rozsa’s award winning score on its own. We experience the majesty, the sensitivity, the pride and the sadness conveyed in this beautiful work.
Theatrical trailers (SD, 14 mins) - This collection of 5 trailers gives us the chance to see how the film was promoted over a long period of time, from the pre-release teaser to the later re-releases. They all focus on the grandeur and promote the General Lew Wallace book as the most read book ever. The phrase ‘Never knowingly undersold’ sums it all up nicely.
Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (HD, 78 mins) - Heston’s son Fraser opens this new documentary and he’s ably supported by Chuck’s daughter Holly and wife Lydia as we get some background information on the family man with some nice home movie footage and stills (shot by Lydia) from their own archive. It soon moves on to his movie career and the making of ‘Ben-Hur’ in Rome. Fraser reads from his Dad’s diary that he wrote during filming. This gives us a chance to see a more sensitive side to the star and he comes across as very likeable. Some really nice rostrum camerawork enlivens this piece and we hear from those who really knew the man rather than the actor.
Ben Hur: The Epic that changed Cinema (SD, 57 mins) - Here, a whole host of film makers share their admiration for ‘Ben-Hur’ – including George Lucas and Ridley Scott. We also hear from great set designers and cinematographers who tell us of their love for the film – as well as how many people have copied it. There’s no doubt in their minds that this is one of the most influential movies ever made.
Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (SD, 58 mins) - Christopher Plummer narrates this documentary on the making of the movie which leads us by the nose through the story’s various different formats – as a novel, stage play, 1907 short film, 1925 silent feature and finally the 1956 epic. The Wyler production is highlighted by stills, on set footage and interviews to give us a well informed overview.
Ben-Hur: A Journey through Pictures (SD, 5 mins) - Miklos Rozsa’s score provides the backing track to a significant collection of stills, storyboards, production sketches as well as promotional material.
Vintage Newsreels (SD, 10 mins) - The News of the Day Newsreels cover the ‘Costliest film makes Screen History’, ‘The night Ben-Hur comes to Broadway’ , the ‘VIP opening: Capital welcome for Ben-Hur’, ‘Japan’s Emperor goes to the Movies’ as well as ‘Oscar likes Ben-Hur’. Great black-and-white clips from the archives.
1925 Silent version (SD, 143 mins) - It’s good to see the Thames Television restoration of the silent version directed by Fred Niblo with composer Carl Davis providing a new score. This version throws more screen time at the religious aspects of the story than the 1959 version, but it’s still a very enthralling and involving work. The tinted footage adds a different dimension too and we get a chance to see just how powerful a silent film can be. Okay it’s not HD and suffers from some scratches here and there – but it looks very ‘special’. It really deserves a review of its own – but not today. A nice addition to the package.
Screen tests (SD, 29 mins) - Can you believe we have a screen test of ‘Airplane’s Leslie Nielsen in the Ben-Hur role? We also see actors Cesare Danova, Yale Wexler, George Baker, William Russell and Haya Harareet in various scenes. Some are hair and make-up tests and some are without sound. They’re pretty ropey quality and in the 1.33:1 ratio but they’re fun to watch.
Highlights from 4/4/1960 Academy Awards Ceremony (SD, 10 mins) - Some silent footage of the stars arriving on the red carpet and the sound cuts in and out during the actual presentation but we see all of the awards picked up by ‘Ben Hur’. There’s confusion as some people are wrongly introduced.
The multi Oscar winning epic ‘Ben-Hur’ thunders on to UK Region free Blu-ray in a fully restored 3-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition with a stunning 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, framed in its original extremely wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio. The image has great clarity combined with amazing detail and strong colour throughout. Film grain is hardly visible yet it retains a truly cinematic feel. It’s a ‘wow’!
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is no less impressive with clear dialogue and a very full bodied representation of Miklos Rozsa’s triumphant score, combined with an immersive experience to please the ears.
Chariot loads of extras include an interesting commentary from film historian T. Gene Hatcher with inserts from Charlton Heston, an all new documentary on Chuck Heston the family man and more bonus materials than you could shake a Roman spear at.
Charlton Heston gives an Oscar winning performance as Judah Ben-Hur who is enslaved in the galleys by former childhood friend Messala, saves a Roman Consul from drowning, then becomes champion charioteer – before seeking revenge.
One for every film collector.
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