As if to remind younger Academy voters that Roman epics didn’t start with “Gladiator,” Warner Home Video goes the whole digital hog with the big daddy of them all, “Ben-Hur.” It’s the first of a swath of classic epics due out on DVD in the coming months — and, like Judah and his four Arabian steeds, it’s a winner.
Clocking in at 212 minutes, plus 10 minutes of overture and entr’acte music, William Wyler’s 1959 Roman drama still has a self-confidence and sheer scope that’s jaw-dropping. As well as saving an entire studio (MGM) and setting a still-unbroken record of 11 Oscars, pic also ushered in the great final phase of 70mm historical epics that ended in 1964 with “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” And it was that last movie, in a neat turn of history, that provided the template for “Gladiator” some 35 years later.
WHV’s digitally remastered picture knocks out of the park the 1994 MGM/UA Laserdisc, whose CAV transfer now looks bleary in comparison. Though WHV doesn’t say if any 65mm picture elements were used in the process, the DVD image has a sharpness and detail, especially in medium shots and closeups, that replicate the almost 3-D physicality of the best 70mm pics.
Apart from a few softer, over-creamy moments, colors are firm across the range, with solid blacks and no bleeding on troublesome reds.
This visual immediacy rips away the intervening years. Though some of the religious material sounds dated, overall the picture more than holds its own on the dramatic side. Notably, it is the supporting perfs — especially Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Andre Morell and Hugh Griffith — that have stood the test of time, with Boyd’s utterly convinced playing of Messala resonating long after he’s off screen. Ironically, it is Heston’s stiff, very ’50s-style acting that dates the movie most.
Extras include the highly informational, hour-long docu, “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic” from the 1994 Laserdisc, with helpful contributions from Gore Vidal, Catherine Wyler, editor Ralph E. Winters and Joe & Yakima Canutt. New to the DVD — and of most interest to epic buffs — is seven minutes of screen tests by Cesare Danova and Leslie Nielsen as Ben-Hur and Messala; these provide a rare airing of Karl Tunberg’s script before Vidal and Christopher Fry elevated the original, workaday dialogue.
Also new is an audio commentary by Heston but, for all it contributes, it may just as well not be there: Heston has almost nothing of interest to say, repeats himself, remains silent for long stretches, and largely recycles anecdotes from his published diary and autobiography. The track would have been better employed, as on the LD, by an isolated version of Miklos Rozsa’s masterful score.
Unlike the LD, the picture slightly crops the massive Camera 65 2.7:1 aspect ratio, giving a 2.5:1 image on a widescreen TV. The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is firm and clean but lacks the immediacy of 70mm magnetic soundtracks of pre-Dolby days. Incredibly, WHV’s use of the dual-layer DVD format gets the whole five-hour program on a single disc, with the side break conveniently at the intermission.
Is it too much to hope that the same care can now be lavished on a badly needed 70mm restoration, so “Ben-Hur” can ride again on the bigscreen?