scooped an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards in 1959 and, unlike some later rivals to this record-breaking win, richly deserved every single one. This is epic filmmaking on a scale that had not been seen before, and is unlikely ever to be seen again. It cost a staggering 15 million dollars and was one of the largest film productions ever undertaken: the Circus Maximus set alone covered 18 acres and was filled with 40,000 tons of Mediterranean sand. But it's not just running time or a cast of thousands that makes an epic, it's the subject-matter that counts and in Ben-Hur
the subject is rich, detailed and sensitively handled. Despite both the original novel
's and the film's subtitle, "A Tale of the Christ", this is really a parallel life, that of Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his estrangement from old Roman pal Messala (Stephen Boyd). The eponymous character's journey of self-discovery through bitterness and hate to eventual redemption has many deliberate echoes of Christ's life (at one point, Judah is mistaken for Jesus, much as Brian would be later in Monty Python's masterful satire), and the multi-layered script from (uncredited) literary titans Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry wrings out every nuance and every possible shade of meaning.
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
DVD MGM/UA, 7321900655064, 1959 Region 2 PAL DIGI