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Ben-Hur Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 June 2004

Ben Hur

Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: G
starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith
release year: 1959
film rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

“Ben-Hur” stands out among ‘50s Biblical epics. For one thing, it won an armload of Oscars – 11 in all. There are a number of films of that era that are true spectacles in terms of sheer production value, but “Ben-Hur,” unlike most of its kindred, can boast multi-faceted characters. The screenplay credited to Karl Tunberg (Gore Vidal took an uncredited by acknowledged crack at it) from Lew Wallace’s novel, is obviously a product of its day, but it holds up extremely well and it’s a good deal more emotionally complex than, say, “Gladiator.” It is also very long – 212 minutes – and, in its DVD release, very wide. Transferred in its original 2.76:1 aspect ratio, “Ben-Hur” has one of the most extensive (from side to side) and short (from top to bottom) images ever to grace the screen.

After a prologue depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, “Ben-Hur” moves forward 26 years and introduces our hero and his nemesis. Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a young Jewish prince in Judea who was boyhood friends with the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd), a newly-appointed official in the province. The two have a warm reunion that quickly goes sour when Judah refuses to inform on his anti-Roman friends. Soon Judah is framed for an assassination attempt, his mother and sister are jailed, and he is condemned to a slow death as an oarsman on a Roman galley. A twist of fate restores Judah to fortune, but he is consumed by the desire to save his family – and to wreak vengeance on Messala. At the same time, Jesus of Nazareth is spreading the gospels.

The big confrontation between Judah and Messala – a chariot race that stretches from Chapter 43 (the opening procession) to Chapter 49 (victory) – is one of the most famous action sequences in movie history. In terms of on-set physical accomplishment (as opposed to digital enhancement), the sequence is still remarkable and spine-tingling, with nine chariots, each drawn by four horses, careening round the turns. Actually, just about all of the visuals in “Ben-Hur” continue to impress. The cast of thousands are people rather than pixels and even at those times when it’s clear that the principal actors are performing in front of a blue screen, the mattes are accomplished with a lack of seam that would still be rare a decade and more later.

Visually, the “Ben-Hur” DVD is stunningly beautiful and the print quality is exemplary. A lot of DVDs made for films released prior to 1980 are frankly woeful-looking, but the print of the 1959 “Ben-Hur” might have been struck yesterday from a negative finalized the day before that. Without exception, the colors are vibrant, vital and rich, with fiery reds, velvety dark blues, bright but not glowing whites and blacks that are true without swallowing the surrounding hues. The images are sharp and precise, with special clarity on dissolves between scenes, particularly in Chapters 21 and 56. In Chapter 22, when fireballs streak through a darkened sky during a battle at sea, the orange flames hurl across the vast frame without leaving any artifacts in their wake. Although he doubtless never anticipated DVDs, director William Wyler’s masterly shot composition insures that the viewer can freeze the frame at practically any point and be rewarded with an image that has the depth and emotional power of a classic representational painting. The main difference between painting and freeze-frame is that the shots here give a cleaner look to their subjects than oil on canvas can normally provide.

The technicians who have restored “Ben-Hur” for the home video release have done such an overall marvelous job that it feels like taking a cheap shot to gripe about any of it. Given the challenges posed by the original materials, they’ve worked wonders with the soundtrack. However, the limitations are sometimes apparent. Music is mixed democratically throughout the mains and rears, but dialogue and most sound effects reside in the center and mains. This means that the rears have a way of going dead when people are talking for any length of time. Sometimes the ambient sound seems to fall out of the mains as well when there are pauses between speeches. However, the dialogue track is overall strong and there are some fine sound effects. In Chapter 7, the thwack of a spear hitting wood has nice dimension and in Chapter 13, the rears are used to surround us with blaring trumpets and the stamping feet of an army on the move. Chapter 19 surrounds us with more trumpets and wave sounds. In Chapters 46 through 48, the subwoofer gives us the impact of all of those teams of horses causing the ground to tremble – it doesn’t have the heft of an explosion from a DVD of a film originally mixed in 5.1, but it’s enough to shake the floor all the same.

“Ben-Hur” comes on a two-sided disc, with Chapters 1-39 on Side 1 and Chapters 40-60, along with the bulk of the supplemental material, on Side 2. Star Heston provides an agreeably anecdotal audio commentary. The commentary itself comes with a little feature that has its pluses and minuses – because Heston doesn’t talk nonstop, a little arrow appears onscreen whenever he pauses, so that the viewer can fast-forward to his next speech by using the Chapter Advance button on the remote. On the one hand, if the commentary is all that is desired, this feature saves the viewer from sitting through expanses of footage. On the other hand, it forces the viewer to play remote jockey, which for some may be at odds with the usually relaxed experience of listening to a commentary.

“Ben-Hur” also comes with a 20-chapter “making-of” documentary (on Side 2), narrated by Christopher Plummer, with all sorts of intriguing facts. For instance, not only was there a silent film version of “Ben-Hur,” but it was actually adapted for the stage over a century ago and ran for two decades. Another feature of the DVD is screen test footage of Cesare Danova as Judah and Leslie Nielsen as Messala, which probably should be sampled after (as opposed to before) watching the film proper, especially for fans of “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun.” Nielsen’s voice hasn’t changed one bit over the years. It’s enlightening to see the minor but significant changes in the script between the time of the test and the filming of the scenes with the final cast.

“Ben-Hur” gets a bit over-the-top by modern standards, with an ending that will be uplifting to devout Christians but rather didactic for everyone else. However, its human drama and its extraordinary action stand the test of time. Thanks to modern technology and heroic effort on the part of those who know how to use it, so will the movie’s vivid, panoramic visual scope.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1, French Dolby Surround Stereo
aspect ratio(s):
Widescreen Aspect Ratio: 2.76:1
special features: 20-Chapter Making-Of Documentary; Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Actor Charlton Heston; Screen Tests; Photo Gallery; Cast/Director Career Highlights; Theatrical Trailers; Scene Access; Chapter Search; English, French, Spanish and Portuguese Subtitles
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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