It was set for a 50th Anniversary release back in 2009, only to be delayed due to the sheer extent of restoration work done to upgrade this classic film. Read on to discover whether the wait for the ultimate edition of Ben-Hur was really worth it! Produced in an era that bore a number of epic Biblical tales, Ben-Hur is possibly one of the most celebrated of a bunch of films that reflect this time period within Hollywood. Made by MGM in 1959 for $15 million (a staggering amount of money for the time and one that meant the film was the most expensive the studio had ever produced), Ben-Hur is an ostentatious symbol of all that is great about Tinsel Town and the sheen and glamour it churns out. However, the film is also a lot more than a simple big-budget Hollywood romp of excess and high-polish: at the heart of the production lies an unwavering moral backbone in a tale that touches upon many universal themes. Audiences find matters of friendship, betrayal, prejudice, love, pain, kindness, good and evil amongst other elements running through the heavy narrative. The film manages to be extremely moving and sad, yet unequivocally inspirational in spite of this. Helmed by legendary director William Wyler, over 15000 extras were used, 100000 costumes and 300 sets! The sheer magnitude of the production is immediately noticeable and the new high definition transfer on the Blu-ray only heightens viewers appreciation of this. The chariot race scene that the film is most famous for looks simply sensational and is still the highlight of the film. Wylers incredibly skilled camera work which literally weaves in and out of chariots and horses still begs the question of exactly how it was achieved. The fast pace and ambitious shots transport audiences directly into the centre of the heart-racing action, making this a memorable and powerful sequence. Aside from the race, there are plenty of emotional, melodramatic and sensational scenes throughout the film, which help cement its position as one of Hollywoods most affecting and accomplished productions. The performances are suitably melodramatic as were most in the dramas of the 1950s but whilst they may appear slightly histrionic for contemporary audiences, they are in reality completely in keeping with the tone of the narrative. Charlton Heston won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Lead Role, an award that he was fully deserving of. His performance is laced with fraught emotion particularly over the whereabouts of his mother and sister as well as an overarching sentiment of hate towards Messala. The role is incredibly demanding, requiring Heston to emote sheer rage one moment and then break down into tears the next. The actor conveys extreme passion in his performance and it would be hard to find a better one from him elsewhere, despite some powerful competition in equally memorable productions. Support comes from a range of talent, with many similarly impressive performances. Hugh Griffith (as Sheikh Ilderim, the man who provides Ben-Hur with the horses and chariot for the race) won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and again he was rightfully acclaimed. His performance provides some much needed light comic relief at moments of intense emotion, but Griffith is equally accomplished in more dramatic sequences. Haya Harareet is excellent in her portrayal of Esther, Ben-Hurs love. She manages to depict the emotion and distress of her character without over-acting completely, therefore retaining enough credibility to make the character much more than a martyr or stereotypical drama queen from the 1950s. Stephen Boyd plays Ben-Hurs former friend and sworn enemy, Messala, and the actor manages to give a suitably multi-faceted performance. Boyd captures the evil within the character something that is born out of his connection with the Romans without making him completely reprehensible. Messala is an extremely human character, whom audiences can relate to yet condemn in equal amounts. The quality of the acting is second to none, which again demonstrates how important a production the film is within Hollywood history.
QUALITYWarner Brothers invested $1 million dollars into the restoration and high definition upgrade of Ben-Hur and it shows. The film is virtually textbook example of exactly what studios can achieve with catalogue releases on Blu-ray. In fact, upon his first screening of the completed print, Hestons son Fraser said,
This is unquestionably the most remarkable restoration I have ever seen. It was an extraordinary, life changing experience, like sitting next to Wyler in his answer print screening, only better. The picture was clear and sharp, not crisp or brittle like some HD versions. It looks like film not pixels. The colours were rich and vibrant but not overly so, muted where they should be muted, and bright where they should be bright. Blacks were astonishingly, wellblack! And the sound track was a rich experience in itself lovely clear dialogue, rich mellow score and clean effects.Frasers comments are correct: the Blu-ray retains the movies filmic quality whilst disposing of virtually all imperfections. There is occasionally some barely noticeable grain in scenes or slightly soft focusing, but for the most part images are free from any blemishing. The colours look remarkable, with the race sequence once again standing out as a key example with its rich vibrancy and texture, although scenes set in Rome are equally colourful and impressive. Warner Brothers have surpassed themselves here, with the meticulous frame by frame restoration from an 8k scan of the original 65mm camera negative demonstrating just how fantastic historical films can look in the age of modern technology and ever improving definition. As mentioned by Fraser Heston, the audio is similarly remarkable. Dialogue is always audible and intelligible, never swallowed up by the intense background noise or other ambient sounds. The proficiency of the upgraded audio track is immediately obvious from the first moments of the robust and powerful original score composed by Miklos Rosza, which resonates through the opening Overture. Background hiss and distortion have been entirely eradicated; leaving a clean and professional track that does not divulge the films true age. The full range of speakers is put through its paces, with heavy sound effects thundering through certain scenes and the ever-present ruminations of Roszas score wonderfully highlighting or reflecting the images. Essentially, this soundtrack is completely flawless!