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Review - Ben-Hur 4-disc Collector's Edition (DVD-2005)
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Ben-Hur 4-disc Collector’s Edition (DVD-2005)

Warner Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

 

William Wyler’s widescreen version of Ben-Hur is one of the mammoth screen spectacles of all time and one of the most noted.  Warner Home Video has just released a stupendous 4-disc collector’s edition of the film on DVD.

 

Set in Judea and Rome at the time of Christ, and featuring more than 8,000 extras, the film stars Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy nobleman, and Stephen Boyd as the Roman tribune, Messala.  The best of friends since childhood, circumstances cause the two men to become the most bitter of enemies. The film is subtitled A Tale of the Christ and the influence of universal spirituality is deftly woven into the fabric of the story.

 

More than 300 massive sets were built for the film and 100,000 costumes were used in the production.  It was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release and the spectacle, decades before the advent of computer generated imagery, is still staggering today.

 

Extensive rewrites of the screenplay ultimately resulted in a masterful script and profound dialogue.  But the credit must largely go to the great director, William Wyler, who created in Ben-Hur, the first intimate screen spectacle.  The epic panorama serves as the backdrop for a deeply intimate and very human story. 

 

The performances capture both great passion and compassion.  Charlton Heston uses his famous voice for all its worth and his Oscar-winning role is bigger than life, almost mythic.      

 

The entire cast is strong.  Frank Thring makes an exceptional Pontius Pilate, a role he seems born to play.  Martha Scott, who played Heston’s mother in The Ten Commandments, plays his mother again here, with dignity.  Sam Jaffe, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Haya Harreet and the many others bring credit to their profession.  And Stephen Boyd is unforgettable as Messala.

 

The art direction and cinematography are exquisite.  The large-format Camera-65 photography captures every detail and careful use of composition and perspective exploit the 70mm film frame.

 

Highlights of the film include the galley slave ship sequence, the naval battle, and, most striking of all, the great climactic chariot race—one of the very greatest action sequences ever filmed—to this day, undiminished in its power. 

 

Miklos Rozsa’s monumental music score is his greatest accomplishment—one of the handful of great film scores—the marches alone would have assured his fame as a composer. 

 

The film transfer from 65mm elements provides additional picture information and is an improvement over the previous excellent DVD release.

 

Extras in the set include an entertaining and informative commentary track by historian T. Gene Hatcher and Charlton Heston, a 2005 documentary entitled “The Epic That Changed the World,” showing the film’s influence on filmmakers.  There is also the superb 1993 documentary “The Making of an Epic,” detailing the history of Ben-Hur as a valuable theatrical property—first as a novel, then as a huge stage production seen by 20 million people, then as a one-reeler film in 1907 (which ushered in copyright protection), then as the equally celebrated silent film classic of 1925 and finally, the William Wyler epic.  Also included are screen tests for the Wyler film, newsreel footage, and filmed acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards where the film won an unprecedented 11 Oscars.

 

A separate disc also includes the entire 1925 silent film stunningly restored, color tinted and including the original two-strip Technicolor sequences and, as a bonus, a truly great stereo symphonic score by the gifted Carl Davis.  The silent version is a film of considerable power and scope with a great chariot race of its own.

 

Ben-Hur is a story of friendship, love, loyalty, honor, family, revenge, forgiveness, and redemption.  It is a film brimming with Mars-type male energy, yet it is as often a tale of tenderness and the healing, integrating effect of the feminine.  Its thematic use of the Christ is indirect and rises above religious structure, institutional or otherwise, Christian or non-Christian.  Only an occasionally crystallized churchliness veers the emphasis from universal spirituality.  But this does not overwhelm the superb craft of the production or the power of the film’s theme.  Indeed, Ben-Hur remains one of the all time great screen entertainments and this spectacular new four disc special edition does the film full justice.

 

 

2005 Tim Sika

 

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