Epic is a word that is often overused to describe films today. In an age when directors often use virtual crowds, green screens and CGI set extensions to increase their films’ scale, there is always something refreshing about watching the Hollywood epics of the 50s and 60s.
Back then, directors had to wrangle thousands of extras and, sometimes, literal armies. However, among the likes of The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra and Spartacus, there is one film that stands above them all in terms of pure epicness: Ben-Hur.
The numbers speak for themselves: over 8,000 extras, 300 locations, 110,000 costumes, 365 speaking parts, 213 miles of footage, an unprecedented $15 million budget and, decades before Titanic and Return Of The King got there, a triumphant 11 Oscars. It is no surprise that Warner Brothers have pulled out all the stops for the 1959 film’s Blu-ray debut.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the film is an adaptation of Lew Wallace’s bestseller, which was later made into a 1925 silent epic (also included on this Blu-ray release). It follows Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala. Despite being close as boys, Messala is Roman and Judah a Jew – something that inevitably leads to clashes between the two in Judea, which is under Roman occupation. Banished to the Roman fleet to row for the rest of his days with other slaves, Judah begins an epic quest to return home and avenge himself against his former friend.
Along the way, he rescues the admiral of a Roman fleet (the wonderful Jack Hawkins), becomes a Roman citizen, meets Jesus and seeks to find his banished family. Of course, the final confrontation between the two occurs at the Circus Antioch in the infamous chariot race, which saw both Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd do their own racing in a still-amazing-to-watch sequence.
Director William Wyler actually worked on the chariot sequence on the 1925 film (where a stuntman was tragically killed), and by accepting the challenge, received the largest sum ever paid to a director. The film took five years to plan and almost bankrupted MGM, but the gamble paid off, and before Titanic took cinema goers by storm in 1997, still held the record for the biggest first-run grosser.
With set pieces ranging from a large-scale sea battle between a Roman fleet and pirates all the way through to the crucifixion of Jesus, Ben-Hur is a film that can’t be accused of thinking small. Everything about the film is large, from the sets, to the cast, to Charlton Heston’s oiled-up pecs.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, especially considering Burt Lancaster was once considered. Heston embodies the part with that sense of drive, hatred and new-found humanity that he is famous for. Likewise, Stephen Boyd makes Messala much more than a sneering villain. His scenes with Judah at the beginning of the film are genuinely tender, and you feel the love and friendship that the two share.
Ultimately though, Messala chooses Rome over his friend, putting the two at loggerheads forever. While the film’s overly religious finale may draw some eye-rolling, it does not detract from a film that at its heart is all about friendship, survival, honour and revenge.
As a fan of the film, I already own the four-disc Collector’s Edition on DVD, so I was curious about what the three-disc Blu-ray would offer. I shouldn’t have worried – the Blu-ray includes all the features on the DVD, including the excellent 2005 documentary Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, the 1994 documentary Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic, the 1925 silent version, the Charlton Heston commentary and all the storyboards and screen-tests.
The Blu-ray also includes the exclusive documentary Charlton Heston And Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey, an 80 minute look at Charlton’s career with input from his wife, son, daughters and includes footage from the actor’s home videos. However, the main reason to buy this set is the picture and sound quality, and Blu-ray review sites are already describing the Ben-Hur disc as the gold standard for all future releases.
Unlike other studios we could mention, Warner Brothers has taken extreme care in restoring the film. The studio has gone back to the original negative to make hi-res scans, and in order to provide the best picture possible, have spread the three hour epic over two discs. As such, the 1925 version and special features are all on one disc.
As a result, every colour is crisp, every locale looks breathtaking, and there are no scratches or fake, plastic skin tones in sight. The 1080p transfer positively shines and in the galley and bathhouse scenes, the shiny sweat dripping off the stars is blinding. However, it is the chariot race that steals all the plaudits, with the footage looking like it was filmed yesterday.
And the sound? Well, I hate to overuse the word, but it’s epic – the 7.1 surround sound roar of the crowd, the neighs of the horses, the crunches of the chariots – the entire package has to be seen and heard to be believed.
You can rent or buy Ben-Hur: Ultimate Collector’s Edition at Blockbuster.co.uk.