Blu-ray Review: BEN-HUR Ultimate Collector's Edition - Biblical Epic Is Greatest Restoration Ever?

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!

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. Wyler€™s 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 Hollywood€™s 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-Hur€™s 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-Hur€™s 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.

QUALITY

Warner 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, Heston€™s son Fraser said,
€œThis 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, well€black! And the sound track was a rich experience in itself €“ lovely clear dialogue, rich mellow score and clean effects.€
Fraser€™s comments are correct: the Blu-ray retains the movie€™s 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 film€™s 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 Rosza€™s score wonderfully highlighting or reflecting the images. Essentially, this soundtrack is completely flawless!

EXTRAS

A truly remarkable range of special features accompanies Warner Brothers release. The following are spread across the 3-disc edition: € Commentary by Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher with Scene Specific Comments from Charlton Heston € Music-Only Track Showcasing Miklos Rozsa's Score € Charlton Heston: A Personal Journey (78 min) - Hosted by Heston€™s son Fraser and including exclusive, never before seen home videos from the set, which were filmed by the actor€™s wife, Lydia, whilst shooting in Rome. This rare footage displays a different side to Heston, who is shown to be a warm and loving father and husband, who is also dedicated and passionate about his work. € Ben-Hur: 1925 Silent Version, from the Thames Television Restoration with Stereophonic Orchestral Score by Composer Carl Davis (143 min) € 2005 Documentary: Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema - Current filmmakers such as Ridley Scott reflect on the importance and influence of the film on modern epics (58 min) € 1994 Documentary: Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic Hosted by Christopher Plummer (58 min) € Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures - Audiovisual recreation of the film via stills, storyboards, sketches, music and dialogue € Screen Tests (30 min) € Vintage Newsreels Gallery € Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony € Theatrical Trailer Gallery In addition to the on-disc content, the following features come with the discs: € Charlton Heston: The Ben-Hur Diaries €“ This accompanying book is a first-time exclusive look into an Oscar-winning actor€™s experience while making an award-winning film. A reproduction of Heston€™s private and insightful diary from January 1958 through April 1960, documents his time before production of the film all the way through his Oscar win. Includes personal photos from the Heston family and Charlton Heston€™s own sketches. The copy of the diary has been kept as authentic as possible, even to retaining the mistakes made by Heston in the original text and the yellowing of the pages due to the manuscripts age, which makes this a wonderful collectible memento that fans will undoubtedly cherish. € Exclusive hardbound book with rare photography, production art and reproductions from the original theatrical press book. Film: 4.5 out of 5 For many, the film may feel overlong and certainly Wyler enjoys setting a scene and spends much of his time lovingly shooting locations and settings. However, Ben-Hur is a sensationally powerful tale that will undoubtedly have some sort of effect upon anyone who watches it. Visuals: 5 out of 5 Warner Brothers have paved the way and set the bar for all future back catalogue Bluray releases with Ben-Hur! Painstakingly restored to the utmost quality, the print here is gorgeous and free from major imperfections in a way that would seem impossible for a 52-year-old film! Audio: 5 out of 5 The audio track is similarly impressive, with easily intelligible dialogue throughout the narrative and a beautiful score that takes full advantage of the HD sound quality. Extras: 4.5 out of 5 A lot of careful thought has been put into the supplementary material available here. The new, feature-length documentary is obviously the highlight, but the quality of the rest of the bonus features will have even the most ardent of Ben-Hur fans impressed. Presentation: 5 out of 5 The front cover provides viewers with the quintessential image from the film: Heston aboard his chariot. But this is only the beginning of the extravagant thought put into the releases presentation. A hard cover booklet resplendent with stunning images also accompanies the release, which will undoubtedly please fans of the film. The video menus are less incredible, but do the job sufficiently. Each limited edition copy is also numbered, giving it an extra special quality. Overall: 5 out of 5 This magnificent release certainly demonstrates just how marvellous Blurays can be. From the immense picture and sound quality, to the informative and in-depth extras and the deep thought put into the presentation of the release, Ben-Hur should be snapped up quickly! Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector€™s Edition is available now, but only until Christmas 2011. For further information on the release plus videos, downloads and other exclusives, be sure to check out the official page at www.benhurmovie.com
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