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Director William Wyler, who had been a junior assistant on MGM's original silent version back in 1925, never sacrifices the human focus of the story in favour of spectacle (he had the good sense to leave the great chariot race to second-unit director and experienced stuntman Yakima Canutt), and it is his concentration on human drama and fully rounded characters that gives Wyler's epic its heart. In this he is aided immeasurably by Miklós Rózsa's majestic musical score, arguably the greatest ever written for a Hollywood picture, in which the development of character-driven leitmotifs produces the effect of grand opera. The Christian theme concentrates on the central character's love and compassion for his family (evoked by the discovery of their leprosy) rather than any heavy-handed sermonising (the figure of Christ is seen but never heard--his presence signalled by a serene musical motif instead).
On the DVD: this long-awaited release presents the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.76:1 in a glorious anamorphic print, complete with remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The music sounds fresher than ever, and both the theatrical "Overture" and "Entracte" are included (civilised times the 1950s: they had specially composed intermission music to enjoy while topping up on ice cream and popcorn!). There's an extensive and enjoyable documentary tracing the history of the story from Lew Wallace through stage productions to the first MGM version in 1925 and then to the 1959 production. Charlton Heston provides an intermittent commentary, evidently enjoying the experience of watching the film again, and his comments are usefully indexed so you can skip to the next bit without having to sit through chunks of silence (during the chariot race he voiced his concern to second-unit director Yakima Canutt that the stuntmen were better drivers. Replied Canutt: "Chuck, just drive the damn chariot and I guarantee that you'll win"). There's also a couple of screen tests, one with Leslie Nielsen in pre-Naked Gun days as Messala and a photo gallery and theatrical trailers complete an epic DVD package. --Mark Walker
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