Ben-Hur On DVD

Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe. Directed by William Wyler. Aspect ratio: 2.76:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, French). 212 minutes. 1959. Warner Home Video 65506. G. $24.95

When Civil War veteran General Lew Wallace wrote his novel Ben-Hur, little did he suspect how popular it would become. He actually remarked to his wife in 1880 that it might provide them with royalties of as much as $100 a year! Instead, it was eventually adapted to the stage, its long-running theatrical productions featuring elaborate special effects—including the famous chariot race (and you thought this sort of thing started with Phantom of the Opera). It was made into a short film in 1907 and a full-length feature in 1925 starring Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala.

But Ben-Hur's most famous screen realization is the 1959 version, filmed on a $15 million budget with a lavishness that no studio could afford today without massive use of computer effects. That film won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture—a record not equaled again until 1997's Titanic.

Ben-Hur is the story of two men: a high-born and wealthy Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, and an aristocratic Roman, Messala. Close boyhood friends, they are reunited when Messala returns to Jerusalem as the commander of the occupying troops. Soon they become bitter enemies over local efforts aimed at independence from Roman hegemony. As a result of an accident that Messala seizes on as a pretext, Judah and his family are imprisoned or sold into slavery. Four years later, after a combination of good fortune and individual heroism that rescues Judah from captivity and returns him home more powerful and wealthy than ever, he seeks his revenge.

There are strong religious themes in Ben-Hur, which is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ." In this film version, at least, those themes have, to me, always seemed tacked on to a plot that is not at all religious. There is a short religious prologue, and a few pious scenes are scattered about in the middle. Then, in the last half-hour or so (the last six of the DVD version's 61 chapters), when we least expect it, the story makes a startling swing back into religious territory. But this odd script construction doesn't matter all that much; Ben-Hur is an entertaining, absorbing drama, and one of the finest films ever made.

This Warner DVD edition (the movie is an MGM production) is not classified as a "Special Edition," but the two-sided disc offers plenty. In addition to the film itself, there is a long, very informative "Making of" featurette, a full-length commentary by star Charlton Heston, trailers, a photo gallery, and a screen test of Haya Harareet as Esther. But the real gem is another screen test—that of Leslie Nielsen as Messala and Italian actor Cesare Danova as Ben-Hur. Just think: Lt. Frank Drebin as a Roman Tribune! Based on the evidence here, had he won the part, we wouldn't now be writing about Ben-Hur the "classic." Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. Steven Boyd was never a profound actor, but next to Nielsen, he looks like Olivier.

Ben-Hur was filmed in Camera 65, a little-used technique that combined a 65mm negative with anamorphic lenses to produce an aspect ratio of 2.76:1—the widest single-camera aspect ratio ever used, to our knowledge. That ratio is what you get on this DVD—those with small-screen TVs might almost reconsider their dedication to letterboxing! But with a larger set or a video projector, it's a thrill to see these images the way they were originally intended. If your only experience of Ben-Hur is from VHS tape or broadcast television, you really haven't seen the film.

Considering the fact that, even with anamorphic enhancement, a 2.76:1 image has considerably less resolution than even the more usual 2.35:1 'scope films when transferred to video, this transfer looks amazing. The color balance is superb. Like the recent re-release of Lawrence of Arabia (reviewed in the May 2001 SGHT), there is no sign of the aging or color shift so common in films of this era. But unlike Lawrence, this transfer has been mercifully light-handed with the edge enhancement. In fact, I had a hard time spotting any, even when viewing it seven-feet-wide courtesy of a 9-inch CRT projector. The result is a genuinely film-like look. The image tended toward a slightly soft appearance on such a big screen, but on a 42-inch display it looked very nearly as crisp as the best recent productions.

The sound is good, if clearly dated. Dialogue is never a problem, and remains intelligible and generally uncolored. The music is cleanly recorded, if lacking a bit in dynamic range and extension in the bass and treble. It definitely sounds better balanced than the rather bright, forward sound of Lawrence of Arabia.

As for the effects, well, the sound in the justly famed chariot race comes across as an undifferentiated, homogenized mass. The surround sound, too, is peculiar; often, the rear channels seem mere duplicates of the fronts, but at a lower level—when I moved nearer the surrounds during the chariot parade that precedes the race, for example, I could clearly hear music coming from them. But none of this distracts from the impact of the film. The sound may not be the main attraction, but it serves the film well.

This DVD release would be a must-have under any circumstances. At Warner's list price of $24.95 for a nearly four-hour classic film, a one-hour documentary, and more, any DVD fan would be a fool to pass it up. I can't recommend it highly enough.