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Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Palestine whose heroic odyssey includes enslavement by the Romans, a bold escape from an embattled slave galley, vengeance against his tormentors during a furious arena chariot race and fateful encounters with Jesus Christ.
For more about Ben-Hur and the Ben-Hur Blu-ray release, see Ben-Hur Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on September 21, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 5.0 out of 5.
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal, Christopher Fry, Maxwell Anderson (I), S. N. Behrman
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins (I), Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott
» See full cast & crew
Ben-Hur Blu-ray Review
In a nutshell: wow.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 21, 2011
A strange confluence of sociopolitical forces and technological innovations led to the 1950's being the preeminent decade for epic Biblical dramas on film. As television made more and more inroads on the box office receipts of big screen fare from Hollywood, executives were desperate for a countermeasure to stem the tide. Perhaps that desperation put them in a prayerful mood, for stories from the Bible, or which were at least tangentially related to stories from the Bible, seemed ideally suited to a whole gamut of new technologies which were in themselves designed to lure people away from their miniature flickering black and white living room screens. Widescreen processes like Cinemascope and multi-channel recording techniques that at the very least offered two track stereo (and often much more than that) literally and figuratively surrounded the viewer with pomp and pageantry. But epic productions haven't always been able to magnetically attract audiences, and there was something else at work in the fifties which was a symbiotic part of that decade's ascendancy of Biblically oriented fare and the immense success it enjoyed. While the decade hadn't yet erupted into the out and out nuclear fear that accompanied the Cuban missile crisis in the early sixties, when we actually did face nuclear holocaust, there can be no underestimating the psychological impact of the development of the hydrogen bomb and the Soviet Union's surprisingly fast ability to "catch up" to the West in destructive capabilities. The anti-Communist paranoia also led to a culture intent on conformity and assimilation, one which seemed perfectly personified by the "grandparent" Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Part of that conformity was of course a conformity of belief and religious practice, and that no doubt helped to bring audiences to Biblical film dramas, as if attending these spectacles was a religious rite in and of itself. While Biblical dramas had of course existed from virtually the dawn of film, from The Robe onward, the fifties saw one gigantic production after another which sought to cash in on religious sentiment while making the most of widescreen framings and multi-channel sound design. It's perhaps no mere coincidence that the apotheosis of this trend should have come at the decade's end in 1959, with William Wyler's mammoth Ben-Hur, which is of course subtitled A Tale of the Christ. While Biblical dramas certainly continued to be produced well into the sixties (and occasionally beyond), the luster was obviously off as early as 1961's King of Kings, while at more or less the same time we faced nuclear annihiliation in the Cuban missile crisis less than stellar efforts like Sodom and Gomorrah were briefly visiting cineplexes. By the time The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Bible bombed in the mid-sixties, the handwriting was clearly on the wall, like some scribbled prophecy from the Book of Daniel. But everything that the fifties stood for and hoped to achieve in the genre of Biblical drama came together in, well, a miraculous fashion in Ben-Hur, one of the most eagerly anticipated Blu-ray catalog releases of this year, somewhat beyond the film's advertised "50th anniversary".
M-G-M was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in the late 1950's, despite prestige (and often very successful) releases like 1958's Gigi. It was therefore a significant gamble when the studio put up the then unheard of sum of close to fifteen million dollars to underwrite the gargantuan production that Ben-Hur promised to be. It's hard to realize now, given the vantage point of what the film has become since its release, that there were really no guarantees for Ben-Hur, despite its impressive pedigree and its previous success as both a stage play and a silent 1925 film. (It's interesting to note that General Lew Wallace's original source novel took a few years to really ignite, and it wasn't until almost a decade after its initial printing that the book became an international sensation in the late 1880's). But looking back now Ben-Hur, much like Gone With the Wind a generation earlier, was a prime example of the stars aligning more or less perfectly to create a mammoth spectacular that virtually oozed filmcraft from every frame.
It's never totally safe to assume "everyone" has seen a film, but most are probably acquainted with at least the broad outlines of Ben-Hur. Heston portrays Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince from the "wealthiest family in Jerusalem." In the year A.D. 26, the Jews are obviously an oppressed minority in their own land under the thumb of Roman legions. Judah's childhood friend, the Roman commander Messala (Stephen Boyd), returns to take charge of Jerusalem's legions, and Judah hopes for a rapprochement which may help his people in the long run. Things get off to a promising (some have argued homoerotic) start, but almost immediately disaster strikes when Judah's sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) unwittingly pushes some roof tiles off of their mansion which injure a Roman General. Messala reveals his true colors and iimprisons Judah, his mother and sister, soon spiriting Judah off to spend his life as a slave in the Roman galleys. On his way to his life chained below decks as an oarsman, Judah collapses and is bathed in soothing water by a mysterious carpenter's son who seems to be able to magically restrain an arrogant Roman soldier simply by looking at him.
That sets Judah off on a series of adventures which end up with him saving a Roman Consul named Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), which in turn leads to Judah's freedom and actual adoption by Arrius, making Judah a Roman and someone with class prestige and power. That leads to a showdown between Judah and Messala in one of the most famous set pieces in the entire history of film, the chariot race which serves as the film's iconic climax. This brief overview barely touches on any number of salient plot points and sidebars, including a great Oscar winning turn by Hugh Griffith as a lusty Arabian prince, and not the least of which is the intertwined story of what happens to Jesus during this period.
Ben-Hur in fact posits Judah as a Christ figure himself. He is a victim of fate, a martyr whose belief in Divine providence carries him through one ghastly event after another. While some may find the film's subtext of a Jew saved by Christ at least modestly disturbing, the film's evangelical outlook was no doubt perfectly in tune with the late fifties' sentiment in which it was formulated. The film is inarguably reverential, sometimes just slightly comedically. Note for example the opening M-G-M logo, when the studio's iconic mascot Leo is frozen and is not permitted to roar. This may be one of the few documented cases of Christians triumphing over lions. In other ways, though, Wyler beautifully crafts this "Story of the Christ," never showing us Jesus' face but making the character's impact felt in virtually every frame of the story.
In one of the supplements included on this three BD set, it's mentioned that Ben-Hur may not have been the first epic by any stretch, but it was perhaps the first modern epic in that its story was motivated by character rather than events. And indeed Ben-Hur seems to presage the famous David Lean films that were to come which revisited epochal world events through the eyes of individuals. It's in that delicate balancing act between the intimate and the spectacle that Ben-Hur finds its most lasting impact, probably beyond even the film's inherent religious sentiment. As important as Christ's story is to Ben-Hur, it's Judah who remains the focal point and it's from him that the film derives its incredible emotional impact. That impact is still fully on display more than a half century after the film's release.
Ben-Hur Blu-ray, Video Quality
Wow. Just stop there and you basically have the gist of everything that can be said about Ben-Hur's astonishing—really breathtaking, and I mean that literally—debut on Blu-ray courtesy of an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.76:1. Is there any other studio that has so lovingly gone back to its iconic catalog (albeit one that officially "belongs" to M-G-M) as Warner has? Once again the studio has returned to the original negative to source new high-res scans, along with a frame by frame restoration, to present this film in high definition, and to say the results are spectacular is something of an understatement. This well over three hour film has been wisely spread across two BD-50's, so kiss any latent fears of compression artifacts goodbye, especially since the bulk of the supplements are included on a third Blu-ray disc. Everything from the copious Roman foliage to the ornate grillwork in the Hur compound resolves perfectly, with precision and absolute accuracy. Colors are incredibly well saturated and those gorgeous Technicolor reds and purples are all that they should be. I came under some passing criticism for my review of Quo Vadis? on Blu-ray some years ago (for another site), but simply pull out that disc if you have it and compare the reds in that transfer to the reds in Ben-Hur and it instantly becomes apparent what a difference a careful transfer, including absolutely accurate telecine color timing, can make for a release. The film is also stunningly damage free, with nary a scratch, speck or other distraction in view.
True aficionados of Ben-Hur on various home theater media know that the film has routinely, if sometimes slightly, been misframed. We finally are offered the full glory of the M-G-M Camera 65 process (Camera 65 was a 70mm format that afforded 65mm for the image and 5mm for the magnetic audio tracks). Wyler worked hand in hand with cinematographer Robert L. Surtees to craft compositions which exploited the widescreen process and those artful displays of vast vistas are impeccably represented on this Blu-ray. Pay special attention to Surtees' expert use of focus, often in different parts of the frame, which also look spectacular in this high definition outing.
Previous trouble spots like aliasing and significant crush have all but disappeared in this new transfer. Shadow detail is often astounding. All sorts of information which was previously murky in such dank sequences as the nighttime scenes at the Hur compound or the bowels of the prison where Judah's mother and sister are held captive are now visible, from shiny rock surfaces to background matte paintings. In fact the increased resolution has one detriment, and that's that some of the admittedly gorgeous matte work as well as some of the miniatures (particularly in the sea attack scenes) are noticeably fake looking. Some of the process photography also shows its seams (literally), with fairly apparent haloing (not in the artifacting sense) around the foreground characters in front of the process backgrounds.
Ben-Hur instantly becomes the gold standard for what can be achieved in high definition restoration and transfers of catalog titles. While it perhaps may not be financially feasible to devote this much care and effort (not to mention copious moolah) to upgrade every catalog release to these standards, other studios (are you listening, Universal?) should take this new release of Ben-Hur as a sterling example of what can be accomplished if there is the necessary support and willpower.
Ben-Hur Blu-ray, Audio Quality
At the risk of sounding repetitive: wow. Ben-Hur has an absolutely glorious sonic component on this new Blu-ray courtesy of a flawless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. M-G-M has obviously kept the original stems and mag tracks of this film in more or less pristine condition, and it shows throughout this stunning lossless presentation. From the first boisterous moments of Rózsa's incredible Overture, the difference, especially with regard to the low end frequencies, is instantly audible and incredibly fulsome. The 5.1 track is gorgeously spacious, with excellent use of side and rear channels, especially in some of the film's most famous set pieces, including the galley scenes and of course the iconic chariot race, which is awash in LFE and incredible panning effects. Dialogue is perfectly placed around the soundfield and is always easy to hear, but on reflection, it's the unbelievably gorgeous Rózsa score which perhaps benefits most from this new lossless audio offering. Brass blasts from the speakers in alarming clarity, while strings sound brilliantly bright but never strident. Rózsa's evocative use of harps and other percussion is also incredibly well reproduced on this new track, adding a whole new luster to one of the most celebrated scores in the history of film.
Ben-Hur Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Once again Warner has assembled a very impressive and incredibly handsome package which provides a wealth of on disc supplements as well as other swag. The embossed box is enclosed in a slipcase (without the usual—and often problematic—fold around "Blu-ray" cardboard attachment). The three Blu-rays offer both previously released supplements as well as an all new documentary.
Ben-Hur Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
This release instantly becomes the "must have" catalog release of the year. Though some collectors bristle at the thought of these "Ultimate Collector's Editions" and their perhaps unneeded swag, this is one package that all but the most curmudgeonly should enjoy. Yes, it's big (about the same size as the "other" Heston mega-epic The Ten Commandments), but it's stuffed to the gills with great on-disc and extra-disc supplements, including the really innovative and fascinating Heston diary. The film itself is simply a reference quality example of what can be achieved with catalog releases and Warner is to be thoroughly congratulated for once again doing the right thing by one of its most iconic titles. It goes without saying Ben-Hur receives an enthusiastic Highest recommendation.
Ben-Hur: Other Editions
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• Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Reissue - January 27, 2012
Next month, Warner Home Entertainment will reissue Ben-Hur on a 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. One of the most acclaimed films of all time, this Biblical epic stars Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) as the title character, a Jewish nobleman ...
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