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Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Blu-ray Review)

23 Sep, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 9/27/11
$20.97 two-DVD set, $49.92 five-DVD set, $64.99 three-disc Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Frank Thring , George Relph, Finlay Currie.

Ben-Hur was something of the Forrest Gump of its day — a big visual effects spectacle depicting a fictional man’s fateful journey through historic events that cleaned up at the box office and during awards season. Its 11 Oscars, including for Best Picture of 1959, was a record that held for nearly 40 years, until duplicated by Titanic in 1997 and more dubiously by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003.

There is so much to enjoy in Ben-Hur even if the film’s religious subtext is a turnoff to some viewers. This is as much a political epic as it is a religious one, and the film uses its expansive canvas to present aspects of the story that would probably be cut today for slowing down the movie.

Though the core story is very much a personal one, the film’s epic feel flows in part the somewhat unusual structure of the introduction of the main characters.

What’s interesting is that the background of the overture and main titles isn’t about Jesus, but a close-up of "The Creation of Adam," the famous image from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of Adam reaching out to God but their fingers never quite touching. This foreshadows one of the film’s primary themes, which is the way God can touch and affect the heart of man without having an overt presence. In this case, it’s one man in particular, Judah Ben-Hur, the role that won Charlton Heston his Oscar.

The film begins with the birth of Christ amid stories of a savior, and Rome bearing down on the people of Jerusalem. Then comes the opening titles, “Ben-Hur” written in giant golden letters, and Jesus only sporadically appears through the rest of the film, though his influence will be felt throughout the proceedings to come.

In fact, the title character doesn’t appear until 15 minutes in (not counting a six-minute overture), after which he is in practically every scene.

Ben-Hur is the head of one of the richest families of Judea (present-day Israel) and a boyhead friend of the new commander of Rome’s military garrison, Messala (Stephen Boyd, who had to wear painful brown contacts to contrast Heston’s blue eyes. Messala wants Judah to tell him who is organizing acts of rebellion against the Roman occupation, but Ben-Hur refuses, urging his friend to withdraw the army and grant freedom to the Jewish people. This angers Messala, and when a piece of loose tile from Ben-Hur’s home falls and injures the new governor, Messala has all the excuse he needs to make an example of his old friend and grow his influence over the region.

It’s a testament to the film’s ability to immerse us in this story so well that even on repeat viewings you still hope that tile doesn’t fall, even though you know what’s coming. And to think the fate of the Western world could rest with some neglected masonry.

Ben-Hur’s mother and sister are locked away in a dungeon while he is sent to serve the empire in slavery, though he vows to return and seek revenge on Messala. This leads to the first connection between Jesus and Ben-Hur, as the slaves are trekked through Nazareth. Ben-Hur collapses from thirst, and Jesus gives him water, infusing him with a renewed sense of hope. Water is of course one of the most common literary metaphors for rebirth, so it’s no coincidence the next scene depicts Ben-Hur’s time manning the oar of a Roman galley three years later.

It’s hard to imagine a 52-year-old film looking any better than Ben-Hur on Blu-ray. It’s certainly a dramatic improvement over the print that was remastered for the 2005 DVD. On Blu-ray, you can see all the details contained within director William Wyler’s impossibly wide frame, from the richness of the set designs to the myriad action that takes place in both the foreground and background. I don’t know why anyone who loves film wouldn’t want this set.

Ben-Hur is not as vivid a film visually as The Ten Commandments, made just three years before, but is much more modern in its sensibilities. Wyler plays a lot with spacing and shadow, and the rich blacks of the Blu-ray are very effective in this regard.

On the flip side, there are faint matte lines that betray the bluescreen effects uses in some nighttime scenes. And it’s easy to see that some of the prop spears and blades are clearly so dulled for safety they couldn’t possibly cut through anything. These are only minor issues that serve more to enhance the film’s historical value than detract from the viewing experience.

Then there’s the chariot race, which is so vivid you might as well be standing on the track.

Since this is Ben-Hur’s story, the most obvious question modern audiences, and certainly those viewers born after the age of the great religious epics, might ask is why so much emphasis is put on Jesus. His presence is so tangential to the main that opening prologue of the manger birth was actually cut from a 1969 re-release of the film to give theaters enough time to slot the film for an extra showing each day.

Remember, the full title of both the book and film is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, though the subtitle is commonly overlooked, and indeed the phrase is nowhere to be found on the packaging of this new deluxe Blu-ray edition.

A lot of the film’s poignancy assumes its audience is already coming in with a Christian bias. But Jesus’ influence is very much central to Ben-Hur’s story, as his message of peace and forgiveness clashes with Ben-Hur’s desire for revenge. As presented, Ben-Hur’s life is presented in parallel to that of Jesus, and at one point an old Balthazar of the Three Magi approaches Ben-Hur believing him to be Jesus.

That Ben-Hur and other lengthy epics of its time exist at all is a result of the film industry’s early battles with television. From the 1940s to the 1950s, film attendance had been cut in half, and struggling film studios turned to widescreen, color and big spectacles people wouldn’t be able to see on TV (though it was never a war the movies were going to win, as today most theatrical releases are simply warm-ups for an afterlife on DVD and cable television). MGM, on the verge of bankruptcy, put all its faith, so to speak, in Ben-Hur.

There’s a touch of irony in the fact that one of the most enduring religious epics is not actually based on the Bible. The book Ben-Hur was originally published in 1880, written by General Lew Wallace while he was serving as governor of the New Mexico Territories. Many aspects of the story are said to be influenced by his own experiences, especially from his service during the Civil War, with a plot borrowed from The Count of Monte Cristo.

The novel was one of the best sellers of the 19th century, and every adaptation it seems became a gigantic undertaking for whatever medium would present it. First, there were elaborate stage productions, with live horses on treadmills to depict the famed chariot race.

The first filmed version came in 1907 with a 13-minute spectacle that was mostly a depiction of the chariot race. This version led to legal precedents for copyright protections when Wallace’s heirs sued the filmmakers, who had not asked for permission to use the story (a common practice at the time).

A longer silent version emerged in 1925, with impressive visual effects and many scenes shot in two-strip Technicolor (this version is also included with the Blu-ray boxed set, as it was with the 2005 DVD). This adaptation had reversed MGM’s flagging financial fortunes at the time, so when the studio needed another kick 30 years later, the same source material was a natural choice. And the gamble paid off when the 1959 version became the highest box officer earner of its year.

The new Blu-ray carries over most of the bonus material from the previous DVD. New to the Blu-ray is the 78-minute documentary Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey, in which Heston’s son Fraser recounts his father’s experiences with the film by showing home movies taken at the time. Fraser is joined by his mother, sister and son, and other actors who were friends of the family. It’s a very personal reflection that complements the reproduction of Heston’s journal that comes in the box, and it also serves as a nice companion piece to the retrospective from The Ten Commandments Blu-ray.

The set also includes the “Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema” talking-heads featurette from the 2005 DVD in which various filmmakers reflect on how Ben-Hur influenced them. For my money, though, the best featurette remains the hour-long “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic,” which originally was made for a VHS release in 1993 and has appeared on all subsequent DVD editions. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, it chronicles the entire history of the story, from when it was first published to the stage versions, the silent film versions and the definitive Wyler. This featurette includes a candid interview with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who hints at what was really going on between Ben-Hur and Messala. Vidal, of course, was denied a screen credit on the film by the WGA, whose rules seem to have been just as arcane and arbitrary then as they are today.

Some things, it seems, never change.

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