NB: As is Anmazon's wont, the reviews for various different editions of this title have all been lumped together. This review attempts to specify whch extras are on which edition, including the 50th anniversary Blu-ray set, but may not apply to future editions.
The film that has become a by-word for the genre and the biggest of the roadshow movies of the fifties and sixties, 1959's Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ is from an audience point-of-view still a great movie, and considerably more intelligent than many modern critics would like to believe.
The best of the redemption epics of the Fifties, where suffering in the likes of The Robe or Quo Vadis makes their protagonists better in the creepily smug way that passes for movie righteousness, it turns its hero, Judah Ben-Hur, into a right s**t. Corrupted by revenge, he rejects Christ and turns away from passive resistance. Mistaken for Christ, he is himself betrayed by a friend and returns from his certain death (in this case the galleys) "like a returning faith," in the words of one of his faithful servants, but he has no faith himself. Having initially rejected Messala's overtures to "look to the west, look to Rome", indirectly the cause of his misfortunes, he becomes Romanised and a mirror image of his betrayer. The character exists in a constant state of flux and torment, journeying from slave-owning Jew to Roman slave to Roman citizen to symbol of resistance, never regaining his peace until the finale. It doen't hurt that Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry's uncredited but much publicised rewrite of Karl Tunberg's script gives the journey some fine dialogue, strong characterisation and real dramatic meat to work with.
There was never an actor more at home in the genre than Heston, and he is in strong form here, although much of his thunder is stolen by Stephen Boyd as Messala (the role Heston was pencilled in for before Rock Hudson turned down the lead) whose intelligent portrayal of ambition is far more Oscar-worthy than Hugh Griffiths' hammily enjoyable Sheik Ilderim. Jack Hawkins and the remainder of the cast perfectly judge their roles, with Wyler's adept direction achieving a perfect balance between the religious, political and human elements of the story.
While making the most of the spectacle, he also ensures that it is often the quieter moments that most impress. His sensitivity with actors ensures the film is driven more by emotions than events, and certainly the scenes dealing with his return to Judea are often genuinely moving without seeming so overtly manipulative as they doubtless would have in other hands.
Miklos Rozsa's score is one of the greatest ever written for any motion picture and is remarkably sensitive to the needs of the film (although Wyler did reputedly want to use Silent Night for the Nativity sequence!). The stunning ten-minute chariot race, played in real-time, has and needs no music, relying instead on the infinitely more effective roar of the crowd and thunder of hooves. The sequence also shows canny production design: the arena is suitably high-walled to limit the number of extras needed for the three-month shoot of the scene.
Ben-Hur is a film which still somewhat defies television in all its formats - the cinema is really the place to see this, the bigger the screen, the better. At an extra-wide 2.76:1 widescreen, it's not quite SuperTohoScope, but it's close, but the lack of picture area that was a major problem with definition and colour balance in the old letterboxed video releases is no problem for the DVD transfer, but it's the 2011 Blu-ray transfer that really excels. It's easily the very best the film has ever looked on home video and reveals a level of detail lost on the previous releases, though it's still not recommended viewing on a small-screen TV. The film is not paced for TV but for the giant screen, inevitably draining some of its effect. Nonetheless, this is a great value-for-money special edition that may not be able to replicate the cinema experience, but does a good job of reminding you of it.
Shot under huge pressure - MGM made it clear that the future of the studio depended on the picture - the resulting stress contributed to producer Sam Zimbalist's fatal heart attack before the film was completed, and the tortuous route to the screen is well documented in the Blu-ray extras carried over from previous DVD editions, including documentaries and even screen tests for Haya Hayareet, Cesare Danova and Leslie Nielson! Even the popular stage production, which ran throughout the US for a decade grossing an astonishing $10m is covered. (In case you're wondering, diagrams are provided of how the chariot race was staged with real horses and carts!) Sadly, although extracts from the notorious unauthorised one-reel 1911 Kalem version are included on the 50-minute documentary about the making of the film, the full short - shot during a beach party, with the camera never straying from the finish line during the chariot race - is not included. But the make-or-break MGM 1925 silent version is included on both the four disc DVD edition and the 3-disc Blu-ray (but not on the 3-disc DVD edition) in the Thames Silents version lovingly restored by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, and makes an interesting comparison.
The 1925 Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ easily dwarfs the 1959 version with its colossal spectacle, running through a then astonishing $4m in its troubled two-year production that saw original star George Walsh replaced by Ramon Navarro and original director Charles Brabin replaced by Fred Niblo, a sum so great it would take six years to show a profit despite doing huge business. It may have been more of a lavish calling card for the newly merged Metro Goldwyn Mayer than a hugely profitable investment, but the money really is up there on the screen in its thousands of extras and lavish sets, not to mention its huge setpieces and early two-strip Technicolor sequences. At times it's like two movies running almost concurrently, one very much a reverential devotional epic showing key moments in the life of Christ, the other an epic melodrama about the wronged idealistic Jewish prince seeking revenge on the Roman childhood friend who condemned him to the galleys and his mother and sister to the leper colony before he finds both retribution and redemption. It's a somewhat leaner film than the sound remake, but still comes in at nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Like many silents, it emphasises height to give the film its epic scale rather than the width of the roadshow extravaganzas of the CinemaScope era, constantly dwarfing its thousands of extras bustling like ants at the very bottom of the frame at the foot of giant walls, towering cities and giant palm trees. Yet it still manages to make them come alive, the extras not just reduced to well disciplined bystanders. Where Wyler's film tends to limit its characters to those who have direct impact on the story, Niblo's Jerusalem is a bustling metropolis filled with ordinary people who are glimpsed in vignettes that humanise the scene-setting a little - even Gratus' fateful entrance into Jerusalem focuses as much on the mockery and discontent of the populace as it does on the hero who really should have spent some of his vast wealth on making sure his tiles weren't loose. There's even some major talent among the extras, in the Hollywood part of the shoot at least, from stars who came to watch the chariot race like John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters to then jobbing-actors like Myrna Loy, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray.
There are quite a few differences from the 1959 version: Simonides does not initially acknowledge Judah's identity because to do so would condemn his daughter to slavery while silence would assure her freedom; here it is Esther rather than Judah who brings his leprous mother and sister to Calvary to be cured; there's a lengthy scene where Messala's mistress tries to discover Judah's identity before the chariot race; and, least successfully, at the finale Judah rallies an army to ride to Jesus' rescue. It doesn't go so far as to rewrite scripture beyond adding a couple more miracles, but it is a bit silly.
Ramon Navarro doesn't dominate the film the way that Heston did (constantly putting him in tights and low-cut tunics doesn't help), but he does grow in stature as the film progresses, with one convincing moment of numbed anguish as he glimpses a galley slave through a porthole after being rescued by a Roman ship. As per Lew Wallace's novel, Messala's not much of a character in this version, more a plot device, so there's less impact when the two antagonists face off in the arena (it doesn't help that Francis X. Bushman, an actor almost as fond of overdoing the eyeliner as Richard Harris, plays him like an unnuanced oaf). The chariot race itself is a mixture of the genuinely spectacular slightly let down by the technology of the day. For all the 42 cameras used and the kinetic camera car work, at times it's severely reined in by the fullframe academy ratio that only allows part of the horses to be seen - this is the kind of setpiece that really cries out for widescreen, if only to keep the chariots in the frame. Still, it's impressively handled by second-unit director B. Reeves Eason (with one William Wyler numbered among its small army of assistant directors), who went on to a somewhat schizophrenic career co-directing many serials and doing second unit work on A-movie like the Land Rush in Cimarron and the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, though his cavalier 'breezy' attitude to safety that saw one stuntman and numerous horses killed is pretty reprehensible.
This time round it's the sea battle that makes the even bigger impression, the studio not content with building several huge fullscale warships the size of department stores but unleashing something far more violent and sadistic than the remake could dream of getting away with. Human battering rams, heads on swords, impaled pirates carried overhead on pikes, slaves hanging from their own chains, bottles of poisonous vipers thrown onto the decks, all given extra ferocity by some bright spark having the great idea of having the pirates and Romans played by rival gangs of Italian communists and fascists and descending into onscreen chaos by a real out of control fire on one of the ships that saw extras jumping for their lives. Even the star carried scars for the rest of his life after jumping through a burning sail. It's no wonder that for years later there were rumors that not all of the extras survived.
The Bluray uses the same master that was previously available on laserdisc and the 4-disc DVD set, and while it's still in standard definition it's a fine looking transfer. The early Two-strip Technicolor is generally surprisingly successful: mainly used for the scenes depicting the life of a constantly off-camera Christ that are the most storybook staged scenes in the film, although one of Judah's triumphs also gets the Technicolor treatment, complete with topless flower maidens (there's a surprising amount of nudity, both male and female, in the film). It's just a shame there's not more about the film on the disc - even the uncut newsreel footage of the location pre-production and the trailer that are glimpsed briefly in one of the documentaries would have been nice (though that documentary does include an interview with the film's production manager). Still, considering MGM tried to destroy all the existing prints in 1959 and even went so far as to initiate criminal proceedings against William K. Everson for screening the silent version until Lillian Gish came to his recue, that the film survives at all is a bit of a miracle.
The extras carried over from the three and four disc DVDs to the Blu-ray include an additional documentary with various filmmakers describing the film's influence on them, a selection of original and widescreen trailers that are splendid examples of the classic Hollywood selling technique, hyping the film in several languages, newsreel extracts from the film's release and extracts from the Academy Awards ceremony. The Blu-ray adds a few more features, including a screen test with George Baker and William Russell (best known as one of Doctor Who's first companions), a mute screen test with Leslie Nielson and Lyle Wexler and a new and rather good 78-minute documentary about the impact the film had on Heston's life and career, drawing on plentiful home movie footage, though the man himself is largely absent - there's only one brief interview extract where he tells the `rigged' chariot race story again. Also included in the region-free US boxed set that's not been released in the UK is a nicely produced 64-page hardback picture book and a hardback edition of Charlton Heston's personal journal covering the making and release of the film.
Even if none are quite as comprehensive as they could be, the 4-disc DVD set and, especially, the 3-disc Blu-ray edition come very highly recommended.