Ben-Hur (1959) – Blu-ray Review

The Process:

Introducing Ultra Panavision: Ultra Panavision, originally known as MGM Camera 65, is a process that uses a 1.25x anamorphic adapter on top of traditional 65mm camera lenses. 65mm, with a native aspect ratio of 2.20:1 then becomes 2.76:1, the widest aspect ratio to ever be used in commercial, single strip film production. The process was used in some of the largest scale films ever made, such as William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World before it was retired in the mid 60s after the production of Khartoum in 1966. The process required filmmakers to essentially create a new style of filmmaking, as they had to scrap traditional set designs to create new ones to accommodate the large aspect ratio, and also to hold up under the detail and clarity of 65mm filming. It was incredibly expensive, and time consuming.

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The process, as well as it’s brother, Super Panavision, were rendered irrelevant by the end of the 60s, seeing very limited application, maybe once or twice a decade through the 2010s. Ultra Panavision was revitalized recently by director Quentin Tarantino for use on his film The Hateful Eight. The lenses have been updated to fit modern equipment, and will also see use on the new Star Wars film, Rogue One, at the end of this year.

The Movie:

Ben-Hur is a movie that is so large in scale, that did things so intensively and with such detail, that it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see such a movie again. The second film to be shot in Ultra Panavision 70, then known as MGM Camera 65, and printed on 70mm for roadshow releases, the film is literally larger than life. The sets, built in various locations, including Rome, are some of the most lavishly designed, and the cast numbers into the thousands, depending on the scene. The large scale action is ruthless and intense, showing a side of ancient war and competition that wasn’t often seen in the late 50s. The score, of which nearly 3 hours was written by composer Milkas Rosa, is considered by many to be one of the most influential scores ever written. The budget of just over 15 million dollars was the largest ever commissioned by a single film, and had it not been a hugely successful film, would have certainly destroyed the future of MGM. The film was beloved in it’s initial release, receiving a then record 11 Academy Awards during its competitive season.

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Ben-Hur is the story of Prince Judah Ben-Hur, a member of one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalim, during a time when the region is ruled under the control of the Roman Empire. Judah’s childhood friend, Messala, returns from a life of war and politics as a tribune of Rome for the region of Judea, and attempts to convince Judah to help him hunt down terrorists in the city. When Judah refuses, he chooses to make an example of him and his family after a tragic accident, condemning him to a life in the galleys. Using the power bestowed upon him by his faith, Judah vows vengeance, and spends the next 3 years rowing oars for ships in the Roman fleet, only his hate keeping him alive. His intensity is rewarded in his freedom during a large battle in which his ship goes down. He saves the ship’s commander, and in return is given a position representing the commander in the Roman games. His accomplishments end in him becoming a beloved son of Rome, finally granting him the ability to return to Jerusalem to take his vengeance upon Messala. All the while, Judah’s tragic story runs parallel to the life of Jesus Christ, who is only seen in passing, playing a pivotal role later on in the film.

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Where does one start when they want to talk about Ben-Hur? The movie is pure magic, from the opening notes of the beautiful overture, to the very last end title card. Judah, played by the always entertaining Charlton Heston, is brilliant in the role of our leading man. He’s heroic, intense, enthusiastic, and a likable guy on screen. His adversary Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, is equal in his intensity, playing the role with unflinching cruelty in his eyes and his every action. The major supporting cast, consisting of various major players such as Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Cathy O’Donnell, and Frank Thring are all wonderful for the most part. Over the course of 3 and a half hours, some performances do fall into the flat or wooden range of the spectrum, but that was a bit of a style during the 1950s, especially when dealing with such a varied and large cast of characters.

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The cinematography, handled by Hollywood legend Robert Surtees, is absolutely outstanding. The film is full of these incredible wide shots, showing off casts that number into the thousands, occupying some of the largest sets ever constructed in the history of cinema. The 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision frame is used to incredible effect throughout the entire film, even in close up shots of our main cast. The cinematography is complemented by the incredible production value created by an award winning costume, set design, and special effects crew. The vast populations of Jerusalem are clothed so convincingly according to biblical description, and there isn’t a single Roman soldier who looks anything less than battle ready. The large scale action scenes, such as the sea battle, blend miniatures and live action footage so effectively. And the chariot race, who can forget the incredible chariot race. The scene features some of the most intense and dangerous stunts ever captured on film, in front of crowds that number into the thousands.

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Clocking it at just over three and a half hours, with overture and intermission music included, the film is edited in such a way, that it never slows down, never loses its grip on you. The music, composed by now legendary composer Miklos Rozsa, captures every emotion that’s placed in front of use on screen, from the delicacies of romances, to the anger and intensity of betrayal, as well as the fierceness of war.

One could go on and on about the greatness of Ben-Hur, how well it handles the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, or how it is loaded subtly with homosexual undertones, but then we’d be here all day. Long story short, Ben-Hur is an incredible movie, and is absolutely worth your time in 2016. It has aged like the finest of wines, with maybe a slight hint of cheese under the surface, but hey, that’s 1959 cinema for you. There will never be another film like it.

5/5

The Video:

Uncovered from the MGM archives, and restored by the experts at Warner Bros., Ben-Hur‘s original 65mm camera negatives were carefully scanned at 8K resolution, and then painstakingly cleaned up and digitally repaired in 4K resolution. The 4K master was prepared in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.76:1. The 1080p Blu-ray, in all of its various versions, maintains that 2.76:1 aspect ratio.

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Legend has it that Ben-Hur was never actually shown in theaters like this in the 1950s. Rumors have floated around for decades, that most theater owners laughed at the idea of buying or changing screens to accommodate the wide aspect ratio of Ultra Panavision 70, opting to project the film in a slightly more modest 2.55:1, matching the size of 35mm Cinemascope. 35mm prints were slightly letterboxed from 2.35:1 to 2.55:1 in the original release as well, although this changed over the years as the film was revived over and over again to great success. I have seen Martin Scorsese’s personal 35mm print here in Rochester, and the aspect ratio of that print was much closer to 2.35:1.

On home video, Ben-Hur has always been troubled, as far back as the original widescreen Laserdisc release. Framing has always been terrible when trying to recreate the 2.76:1 aspect ratio, losing info on the sides, and even the top, as the image was slightly zoomed in to create the video master. Having never owned Ben-Hur on DVD, I can’t comment as to whether or not the same thing occurs.

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I can however say that Ben-Hur looks absolutely majestic in 2.76:1 in 1080p. The image is absolutely flawless, holding up incredible amounts of details in the widest of shots, and resolving beautifully in close ups. Grain is present over the entire image, but is generally non-intrusive and very natural. Color is incredible, showing off all of the recorded color information from the original 65mm film negatives. Ultra Panavision 70 comes to home video in stunning clarity, making me incredibly exciting for the future home video release of The Hateful Eight, due at the end of this month.

5/5

The Audio:

Ben-Hur was originally printed on 70mm film for projection with 6 track magnetic sound. For those of you who don’t know, this refers to a five speaker front arrangement, with a mono surround channel. Having been reprinted and remixed so many times over the years however, it is unclear which sound master was used to generate the 5.1 DTS-Master Audio sound mix that is featured on this blu ray.

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That being said, Ben-Hur is decidedly less bombastic in the audio department. Music and dialogue is restricted to the front spread, with dialogue being restricted exclusively to the center channel. With characters moving across such a wide frame, it just sounds unnatural to hear their voices dead center. On occasion sound effects pan across the front speakers, but their use is very limited, and hardly ever makes their way to the surround channels. The surrounds see very little action outside of some ambient music drifting back that way. The subwoofer is pretty much missing in action at reference sound level, but that isn’t all that surprising, considering the original mix didn’t even have a subwoofer channel.

Listen, I’m not expecting Star Wars, or anything even close to modern sound design, but I’ve heard the film in both Dolby Surround and Dolby Stereo A, and there was definitely way more action in terms of sound panning across the front spread. As it stands, Ben-Hur sounds alright on Blu-ray, but it could definitely be a lot more impressive.

3/5

Special Features and Packaging:

When I acquired my copy of Ben-Hur in 2011 or so, I was a poor high school student. I had to skip the release with the large box and the lavish packaging on the inside, and instead settled with the standard blue keepcase edition of the film. The case opens up to contain a disc spindle on each side, for the two discs that the film is on. The front artwork features a pleasing, but rather uninspired picture of Charlton Heston, with the famous chariot that he rides to his right, under a large 50th Anniversary banner. The back artwork features a few cropped shots from the film, a paragraph about the movie, a list of special features, and a section with technical and legal info at the bottom. This release was the budget packaging, and it shows.

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As for special features, this release of Ben-Hur is fairly limited, hence the budget release. They are as follows:

Commentary by Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher and Charlton Heston – this is an older commentary, recycled from one of the film’s various DVD releases, with scene specific commentary by Charlton Heston that’s even older than that. Nothing too crazy here.

Music Only Track – do you really love the score to Ben-Hur? Then this one’s for you, as that’s all it is. The film’s score, set to the visuals of the film.

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Theatrical Trailers – a collection of trailers, in various conditions from the film’s various releases throughout the years. Kind of cool to have as an archival piece, but nothing really new here.

There are many releases of Ben-Hur available out there, with much finer packaging and features. There are steelbooks, and copies that come with statues, so I’d do my best to avoid purchasing this one.

1.5/5

Overall:

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Ben-Hur is a movie that’s near and dear to my heart. The 65mm photography, combined with the elaborate sets and beautiful costumes make for some of the greatest images ever committed to film. The story is moving, and tragic, yet energized and exciting. The 3 and a half hour length, due to some phenomenal editing, flies by. The acting, for the most part, is convincing and engaging, and the score is absolutely to die for. The movie’s influences are so widespread and evident, that it’s hard to look at Ben-Hur as anything but one of the all time greatest Hollywood films. It stands far above the heads of its peers, and continues to amaze even today. The 1080p Blu-ray, sourced from one of the most impressive 4K restorations of a 65mm negative that I’ve ever seen, is essentially flawless. The audio however, leaves something to be desired, especially considering its original 6 track magnetic source. The budgeted release of Ben-Hur is truly just that; bland packaging, and very little in terms of extras, but that’s the beauty of its various Blu-ray releases. There’s a Ben-Hur for every price range out there. This one is a must have. If you don’t have it, I suggest you make the greatest of efforts to go out and acquire a copy as soon as possible. It’s an absolute essential for every Blu-ray collection out there. Depending on the version you acquire, the score for Ben-Hur’s Blu-ray release might change.

Overall 4/5

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