Review by: Matt Brighton
Posted on: January 28th, 2012
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Plot: What’s it about?

Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) has a very comfortable lifestyle, as he is a Jewish price who makes a nice living as a merchant. In addition to his work, Judah loves to spend time with his mother and sister, whom he loves very much and is very close with. Soon, he is visited by an old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has become a Roman commander. The two are pleased to meet once again, but since their lives have taken much different turns, they are more distant than before. This is never more evident than when a procession is led through the streets and a loose brick falls, almost hitting the governor. The brick came loose from Judah’s house and even though Messala knows it was an accident, he imprisons Judah’s family and sends Judah off to become a slave. Now away from his loved ones and previous life, Judah swears revenge at all costs and as time passes, his resolve grows by leaps and bounds. But as a simple slave, there is not power within reach and however he tries, any kind of action will be most difficult. Will Judah be able to attain his revenge and if so, will he be able to salvage any remnants of his prior life?

After an immense waiting period, one of the most epic films of all time has hit our beloved format, in the form of the classic, Ben-Hur. Although other massive scale pictures were done around the same time, I think Ben-Hur aces them all and emerges as the best epic in the business. From the cast of thousands to the breathtaking chariot race to the lavish production design, this movie has it all and then some. I mean, even the aspect ratio is larger than most films (2.76:1), so you know this is one huge movie and on all counts, it exceeds the praised reputation it has gained. Ben-Hur has drama, romance, action, and suspense, pretty much all the elements a movie can have, but it never seems loose or disconnected. The running time of well over three hours might ward off modern audiences, but they’d be missing one of all the all time greats. With eleven Oscars under its belt, this film is what Gladiator was supposed to be, but that movie just couldn’t measure up in the end. The wait was torture for this epic to reach DVD, but with a terrific presentation and some nice extras, it was well worth the effort. I am displeased that Warner didn’t include the original soundtrack, but even so, this disc is one of the easiest recommendations I’ve ever made, a must own for most and a must see for all film fans.

His acting hasn’t won over everyone, but I happen to like Charlton Heston’s work a lot, especially in this picture. Of course, he took home the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts, but even so, he isn’t usually regarded well for his performances. I know he goes over the top often, but his clenched jaw and line delivery just strike a chord with me, I can’t help but enjoy his work. I do think this is one of his best turns in terms of traditional acting, but I happen to prefer his work in lesser known films and cult classics. But I still have a lot of fun watching him in action here, as he proves he belongs among the bigger names in the business. Other films with Heston include The Ten Commandments, El Cid, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Touch of Evil, and The Omega Man. The rest of the cast includes Hugh Griffith (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Oliver!), Andre Morell (The Message, Three Cases of Murder), Stephen Boyd (The Big Game, Fantastic Voyage), Martha Scott (Our Town, Strange Bargain), and Jack Howard (Zulu, Lawrence of Arabia). Ben-Hur was directed by William Wyler, who also helmed such pictures as The Big Country, Roman Holiday, The Best Years of Our Lives, Funny Girl, and The Westerner.

Video: How does it look?

“Ben-Hur” is one of the widest movies out there measuring at an astounding aspect ratio of 2.76:1. If ever there’s an argument for anamorphic enhancement or you want to show someone the benefits of a widescreen TV – pop in this disc. The previous DVD release showcased a pretty good-looking transfer, but this new edition takes it up a notch or two. If possible, the image appears even wider than the original and looks a bit sharper – containing much more detail. Colors are very natural and the original Technicolor image looks astounding. For a movie this age, the print is in great shape and the image is living proof of that. Top notch.

Audio: How does it sound?

I have to admit, I am a little let down with the audio options included here, or more to the point, the lack thereof. While I know most modern viewers feel ripped off when their surround systems are unneeded, I don’t think uniform remixes should be the sole option included, as a lot of longtime film lovers prefer the original audio. Now the Dolby Digital 5.1 track here is very good, especially when you consider the age of the materials, still the original 6 channel surround track does sound great and is very robust. But to the credit of this new mix, the surrounds are never forced much, which ensures a powerful, but natural sounding experience. I found it to be a well made update to be sure, although the mono should have been tacked on also. This disc also includes a 2.0 surround track in French, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

Supplements: What are the extras?

“Ben-Hur” comes to us on not one, not two but four discs. If Warner is trying (in a subtle way, of course) to tell us how “BIG” this epic story is – well they did a pretty good job. The first two discs contain the main movie with a commentary track by historian T. Gene Hatcher; who wrote a book on the making of the movie. Also present (from the last disc as well) is a commentary by Charleton Heston, though his comments are few and far between. The third disc contains the 1925 silent version of “Ben-Hur” leaving the fourth disc for the rest of the supplements. We begin with a new 2005 documentary “Ben-Hur: The Epic that Changed Cinema”. Kind of a self-promoting title, isn’t it? Still, it runs about an hour and has interviews with some directors and cast and crew from the movie. There are also some vintage shots with William Wyler, which gives this documentary a nice look and feel. Also included is the 1993 documentary “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic” hosted by Christopher Plummer (“The Sound of Music” and later…”Dragnet”) which is essentially the same thing, but with more of a focus on taking the novel to the screen. Some screen tests are shown with none other than Leslie Nielsen among the actors who were turned down for a role in the movie. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I could watch this movie and not think of a line like “Why thank you Judah, and don’t call me Shirley”. There’s some highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards where this movie cleaned house, some newsreel clips and the original theatrical trailers. All I all, this four disc set is just about as expansive as you can get with two versions of the movie, a beautiful picture and about as much Heston as you can handle. Hop on your nearest chariot and go pick this up.

Ben-Hur: Special Edition
MOVIE INFO.
YEAR RELEASED
1959
RATING
Not Rated
DIRECTOR
William Wyler
STUDIO
Warner
RUNNING TIME
222 min.


TECH SPECS
  • STANDARD DVD
  • (2.76:1)
  • Video Codec: MPEG-2
  • Audio: Dolby Digital
  • 4 Disc Set
  • DISC FEATURES
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Audio Commentary
  • Deleted Scene(s)
  • Featurette
  • Documentary
  • Digital Copy

DISC SCORES

VIDEO
AUDIO
SUPPLEMENTS
OVERALL