My dear friend and surrogate uncle Steve Cohen loves William Wyler. So much so that when we last spoke about Wyler and Ben-Hur in particular, he declared that there was no greater epic film than this. You may or may not know Steve Cohen, but when he declares something, even if you don’t agree with it, life is easier if you just shut up and pretend that you do. Well, after screening this movie (I haven’t had a chance to screen all the epics yet), I will say that Ben-Hur is one of the best movies ever made. And that my friends, is a topic that really isn’t up for discussion. Uncle Steve, you’re rubbing off on me.
This movie is one that was made on an ultra-grand scale. It has sweeping vistas, a large canvas and chariot scene at the end of the picture that rivals many of today’s finest action sequences. Sure, we can look at this film and tell when the actors were moving against a screen or a painting, but put in it’s proper perspective, it isn’t like Wyler was in a room with a Wacom tablet and a bunch of G5’s, right? Yet, at it’s heart is the simple tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a man sold out by his dear friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Ben-Hur’s journey to revenge and eventual redemption. Truthfully, the story isn’t as simple as that but it’s pretty close. William Wyler, the films Eisenhower, spared so expense in telling this highly uplifting tale of one man’s travels to find himself again.
Disc One and Two
Commentary with Charlton Heston and Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher and Music Only Track
This commentary track seems to have been cut together with Hatcher and Heston watching this movie in separate places. Sadly, they seem to give more time to Hatcher, but that’s probably because as someone removed from this movie he has a different kind of reverence for it. I really liked hearing from both of these people. Heston on a more personal level where he discussed the film and the effect it had on his career. Hatcher’s take was personal but laced with facts about the production and William Wyler in general. I skipped through a lot of the “Music Only” track, because all it was was the movie without dialogue. I am sure there are people who only see film as a visual medium, and they will love this. Personally, I just wondered what was the point?
The Thames Television Restoration with a Stereophonic Orchestral Score by Carl Davis
You’ve got to love a DVD that not only gives you a film as big as Ben-Hur, but then also gives you the original 1929 Full Screen version of that movie as well. This whole 4 disc box set is like a mini film school for this movie. What I found fun was comparing and contrasting certain scenes. The two most important ones for me were the falling out between Ben-Hur Messala, and the Chariot race. While I do think that Wyler’s film does them better, they are no less as emotional and when remember the year was 1929, it makes the Thames Television Restoration that much more impressive.
Documentary’s on the Making of Ben-Hur
There is a 2005 documentary titled Ben-Hur: The Epic that Changed Cinema as well one from 1994 titled Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic. The 2005 documentary is very well done and we get to hear from the likes of George Lucas, Ridley Scott and William Wyler (through old footage) as they discuss the film. It is readily apparent that Scott and Lucas have been unduly influenced by this movie. There are a bevy of other people talking on here about such issues as the movie being a “product of the fifties,” the “musical score” and of course “the Chariot race.” The 1994 documentary is longer and it looks at Ben-Hur in a more in-depth way. It looks at the movie from it’s very inception as a book, to it being short film, then the 1929 film and then the eventual film that William Wyler made of it. Both of this documentaries are worth a look simply if you’re interested in film production and history.
Ben Hur: A Journey Through Pictures; Vintage Newsreels Gallery; Screen Tests and Highlights from 4/4/60 Academy Awards Ceremony
These final features are actually what you might get on a one or two disc release of this movie. Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures basically covers the same ground as the documentary, it is just edited with today’s technology. The “Vintage Newsreels Gallery” is a collection of the kind of newsreels that used to play in theaters before the movie started. The big difference between these newsreels and what comes on before today’s movies, is that these newsreels actually contained content that was important. I loved the “Screen Tests” because we get to see Leslie Nielsen (yes that Leslie Nielsen) try his hand at some of the roles here. He really is an actor with a lot range, and I don’t think people realize how strong he can be when he plays a bad guy. Lastly, the “Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards” give us basically the highlights of all the awards that Ben-Hur managed to garner. It picked up 11 and that is probably why this box set has been released with all the bells and whistles it has.
New digital transfer [16x9 - 2.76:1] from restored 65MM elements. Widescreen version presented in a “letterbox” widescreen format preserving the “scope” aspect ratio of it’s original theatrical exhibition. Enhanced for widescreen TVs. This movie looks amazing. From the opening shots of the immaculate conception, to the legions of Roman officers in Judea, to the galleys of the ship... this film is big and large as only Hollywood can do it. The style of film used to tell this story accentuates EVERY color. One gets the impression that there was not a piece of clothing used by any of the actors or the extras that wasn’t there for a reason. This move is lush and rich and while I had a few problems with the 2nd disc (DVD hits, I think), once I cleaned my player and the disc everything worked out fine. This is filmmaking on the grandest of scales.
Dolby Digital. English and French Dolby Surround 5.1. What would a movie like this be without the big orchestral score to go with it? Watching this movie and listening to the score, you are seeing film history unfold before your very eyes. While I may have limited musical tastes, I can certainly appreciate the bombastic sounds that the orchestra has created for this film. I know I rail against music underlining emotions or telling us what to feel (especially if it is plainly evident on the screen), but in the case of Ben-Hur one is watching the history of where a lot of this usage originated. While I think over the years, filmmakers have tended to rely on this too much, there is certainly something to be said for seeing it in it’s rawest form.
The cover features statues, the white horses and the city folk with Ben-Hur in big bold letters in the foreground. These things press up from the box in a 3-D like fashion. The back features a listing of everything that’s on these 4 discs, some pictures from the movie, two cast lists (from the 1959 and the 1929 movies, respectively) and some technical specs. This vinyl cover houses all the discs in a piece of packaging that unfolds featuring all 4 discs in separate trays. There are pictures and drawings from the movie spaced throughout this layout, a more in-depth look at everything that’s on these disks and if that isn’t enough... there is even a small booklet that seems to have been put together when the film was originally released, detailing it’s history and production. This layout, like this movie, is weighty and full of depth and something for film lovers and historians to treasure.
It’s very easy to look at the acting of the past and judge it by how people act today. Conversely, it’s easy to look at the actors now and say that they can’t hold a candle to the actors of yesteryear. Depending on your tastes or style or preference, you can go either way. Personally, I found the acting in Ben-Hur to be a little overdramatic for my liking. This isn’t to say that I thought it was bad or that I had a problem with it, but this is one of those movies where there are many weighty moments. It’s so well crafted that I wonder how young people today might react to a film of this nature. Especially those who are raised on diets of Reality TV, where good or bad, those people are essentially acting.
Ben-Hur is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking. It is bold, brash and every step of the way seems to have been concocted by a man who knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted to say. This film is a must own for any serious DVD collector. The kind of movie you let sit in your collection, and every 5 years or so it is taken out and rewatched so you can see and remember why it is in your collection in the first place.