Ben-Hur (1959)

If you create a user account, you can add your own review of this DVD

Released 15-Aug-2001

Cover Art

This review is sponsored by
BUY IT

Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Listing-Cast & Crew
Audio Commentary-Charlton Heston
Featurette-Making Of-Ben-Hur - The Making Of An Epic
Featurette-Screen Tests
Gallery-Photo
Theatrical Trailer
Notes-Awards
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1959
Running Time 213:39
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (51:50)
FLIPPER (136:05)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By William Wyler
Studio
Distributor

Warner Home Video
Starring Charlton Heston
Jack Hawkins
Haya Harareet
Stephen Boyd
Hugh Griffith
Martha Scott
Cathy O'Donnell
Sam Jaffe
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $34.95 Music Miklos Rozsa


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.70:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.76:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Italian
French
Spanish
German
Italian for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    In the late 1950s, the Hollywood studio system was in major trouble. Television was starting to take off in the United States, and movies were not drawing the crowds they had in the past. MGM chose a bold attack on the problem: they would re-make a movie that had saved them in 1925, and it could save them again. They would spend as much money as it took - risking everything on one roll of the dice. They put everything in the hands of one of their most experienced producers, Sam Zimbalist, and he started the process to make what became the most expensive movie made at that time.

    OK, you've guessed that the movie is Ben-Hur - possibly the title to this review gave it away. The story of how the movie got made is almost more interesting than the movie itself.

    Ben-Hur started as a novel written by General Lew Wallace (ever noticed how American generals keep their rank when they retire? Seems like a lack of modesty to me). It was published in 1880, and became a best seller over a matter of a few years. It was turned into an extravagant stage production, which ran 20 years. Then it became an extravagant silent movie, made in 1924/1925, at a cost of US $4 million! Finally it was remade in 1958/1959, and cost US $50 million. The money was well-invested, however - the movie went on to make US $80 million, won 11 Academy Awards (and numerous others), and saved the studio.

    What is it about? You've heard about the great chariot race, of course - everyone has. That is an important part of the story. What I didn't known when I volunteered to review this story was the full title: "Ben-Hur - a Tale of the Christ". This full title is not mentioned anywhere on the cover of the DVD, but it is part of the opening credits (which occur 11:30 into the movie). By then it wasn't as much of a surprise, because the time between the end of the overture (6:13 minutes - nothing displayed but a picture and the single word "Overture") and the credits is spent showing some fairly familiar stuff: Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem for the great census, the appearance of a star (with a circle around it - there's a lack of subtlety in this sequence), three wise men / kings (including Balthazar), shepherds, a stable, etc.

    For a movie with such a subtitle it is surprising that we never get to see the face of the actor playing Jesus Christ. We see his back, his hands, but we never see his face, or hear his voice. Indeed, I don't recall hearing anyone saying the name Jesus, either. Interesting.

    Ben-Hur is not about Christ, however. It is the story of a man called Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston. He is described as a prince; he is certainly wealthy, and an influence among the Jewish population of Judea, but he is a Jew, and consequently looked down upon by the Romans. A lot of this story hangs upon that racism.

    The story proper starts with the return to Judea of Messala. Messala, played brilliantly by Stephen Boyd, is a Roman soldier. He was a boyhood friend of Judah Ben-Hur, and grew up in Judea. He has returned from Rome as the new tribune - basically the military leader of the Roman occupation. He is answerable only to the Roman governor, and to Rome. Messala is an ambitious man, and he has plans to use Ben-Hur to achieve his ends. He has barely said hello to Ben-Hur when he is dunning him for the names of those Jews who are speaking out against the Roman occupation. Ben-Hur refuses to act as informer, and Messala utters that famous phrase: "You're either with me or against me".

    During the arrival of the new governor, Ben-Hur's sister accidentally knocks some tiles from the roof of their house which fall to the street, causing the governor's horse to shy, the governor to fall, and the Romans to believe an attack has been made on the governor. Ben-Hur takes responsibility, but exclaims loudly and repeatedly that it was an accident. Messala investigates and discovers the truth, but has Ben-Hur and his mother and sister condemned without trial. When Ben-Hur breaks free and confronts him, Messala explains that he is using the opportunity to prove himself merciless, even to a boyhood friend - he wants to be feared. Ben-Hur is sent off as a slave to row in the Roman galleys.

    Cut to three years later. Ben-Hur is now Number 41 (oops, XLI) in a Roman galley, surviving on hate. Through a sequence of events which would take a long while to relate he is freed, and becomes a man of influence again. He returns to Judea, with a single goal in mind: to free his mother and sister; even revenge against Messala is secondary.

    I don't want to say any more, because it is quite possible that you don't know the whole story, and I don't want to spoil it for you. The story is long and complex, and really requires over three hours to tell. There is hardly a wasted minute in this film (well, except for the overture and entr'acte).

    I should also mention how this is presented on DVD. This movie is too large to fit on one side, even one side of a double layer disc, without compromising the quality of the image. The choices they had were to split it over two sides of a double-sided, double-layer disc (a DVD-18), or to split it over two single-sided, double-layer discs (DVD-9s - perhaps the most common variety of DVD available today). In both Region 1 and Region 4 they have chosen to use a DVD-18. To be honest, I'd have preferred that they use two discs, because two discs would be easier to handle, and would be more useful in the event that you had either two DVD players, or a DVD player with multiple disc capabilities. I suspect they used a single DVD-18 so they could state that they'd put the whole movie onto a single disc. Anyway, what it means is that you must handle the disc quite carefully to avoid getting fingerprints on it, and it is a little more fragile. Also, because the only label is a thin ring around the centre of the disc, it is not particularly easy to work out which side is which. It doesn't help that they haven't labelled them clearly, either - both labels say "Widescreen DVD Ben-Hur" - you think they could have added "Side A" and "Side B". The easy way to tell them apart is to look at the serial number: on the first side it ends in A and on the other in B. Still, look at it this way: DVD-18s are quite rare, so you get an uncommon piece of technology for your money.

    An interesting piece of trivia that is mentioned during the commentary: all the Hebrew characters but one are played by American actors, all the Romans and others are played by British actors. This was deliberate on the part of the director.

     Ben-Hur is an important piece of film history, a true classic. You owe it to yourself to see this movie at least once so that you can understand when other films reference it. I'm very glad I watched it, and I can see myself watching it again some time. Yes, it is very long, but it is far from boring.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality

Video

    They have clearly put some considerable effort into presenting this movie in the best possible condition. It helps that it was filmed using MGM Camera 65 with Panavision lenses. That means that they used 70mm film, and each frame is four times the size of a regular 35mm frame - the same size film artefact will only appear one quarter the size.

    The movie is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.71:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. That's very close to the original aspect ratio, which was 2.76:1. This is an extremely wide aspect ratio. Because our picture is fixed in width (we can't open our curtains wider, as they can in the cinema) that means that we get more black above and below the picture. On a 16x9 screen this is quite reasonable. On a 4x3 screen it means that the picture is about half the height of the screen. The sacrifice is worthwhile: William Wyler, the director, is renowned as an expert in using widescreen, and this movie shows that - I hate to contemplate the butchery that would be involved in a pan and scan version of this picture. 

    The image is wonderfully sharp, with strong shadow detail, and no visible low level noise. I must confess that I was not expecting a picture of this clarity. There are movies much younger which show far less detail.

    Colour is bright, strong, and well-saturated. It seems a property of the Technicolor process that blue eyes look very blue, as do Charlton Heston's in this film (much as Jane Fonda's do in Barbarella). Again, this surprised me, for I have seen many movies made in the 60s and 70s that look faded / washed out. That is most definitely not the case here. Even so, there is no colour bleed; I looked for it quite particularly. There were some instances where colour varied slightly from one shot to another, possibly a consequence of slightly different lighting conditions (different time of day, perhaps?); I'd regard those as minor flaws in the original source material, rather than flaws in the transfer.

    There are plenty of film artefacts. It would be extraordinary if there were not, in a film over forty years old. There is probably one every few seconds, but they are tiny, transitory, and not distracting. In fact, on many screens the vast majority of them would be invisible. The same cannot be said of aliasing, I'm afraid. We see aliasing on a lot of things (perhaps the most obvious is at 10:09 on the shawl over the head of the centre wise man). Strangely, even though I find aliasing quite annoying at times, I felt less troubled by it here. I wonder if the reason was because I was expecting a flawed picture because of the age of the movie? There was also some instances of pixelization, but only on dark objects (a night-time sky, for example) - it is hard to see, and not irritating.

    There are subtitles in five languages, including English. They are quite accurate, if a little abbreviated at times. They are presented in a simple, attractive font and placed well below the picture (one benefit of the wide black space). When you choose the commentary, though, there are no subtitles. There is a subtitle track, but it is used to display a symbol on the screen which indicates when Charlton Heston has finished speaking for a while.

    With a double-sided, double layer disc we could have two layer changes to worry about. On the first side, the layer change is located at 51:50 - superbly hidden in a scene change. On the second side there is no layer change; they have placed the rest of the film on one layer, and the extras on the other.



Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two soundtracks, both Dolby Digital 5.1, in English and Italian. I listened to the English soundtrack. There's an additional soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded, containing a commentary by Charlton Heston - I listened to this, too.

    Dialogue is clear and readily understood. I noticed a couple of tiny glitches in dialogue sync, but I'm confident that these are mistakes in ADR, rather than mastering flaws.

    There is a small amount of distortion in a few places, but generally the soundtrack is clean.

    The score won an Academy Award for Miklos Rozsa. In my opinion, it sounds somewhat clichéd, but it may be that that is because it has been plagiarised repeatedly since. Certainly, it suits the action on-screen very well. 

    The original soundtrack has been remixed into 5.1. The surrounds are mostly used by the score, sort of a "deep stereo" effect. The subwoofer is not used extensively, but it does get used to extend some of the loudest passages.



Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Menu

    The menus are static, with music on the main menu. On my Arcam DVD player the main menu did not display a selection marker; it is a nuisance, but can be navigated. On a Sony player the menu works normally - I have not tested other players. All the submenus work normally on both players.

Cast and Crew

    This is just two pages, listing the main actors and the roles they played on the first page, and the main crew on the second page. The Region 1 version has filmographies attached to some of these entries; this disc does not.

Commentary - Charlton Heston (Actor)

    This commentary is presented in an interesting way. They have used a subtitle channel to place a symbol on the screen when Charlton Heston has finished speaking for a while - you press Chapter Skip Forwards when the symbol appears and it takes you to the next piece he wishes to comment on; if you don't press the button then the regular soundtrack continues until we reach that point. This seemed a bit odd, but I was glad of it. Charlton Heston had quite a bit to say at times, but he left large gaps, too. The Chapter Skip button saved me from sitting through extended sections where he wasn't speaking. In all, I estimate he was speaking for about an hour of the full 3.5 hours running time. He did repeat some of his comments, but generally what he said was interesting and provided an insight into the events surrounding the making of this movie.

Screen Tests

    There are two screen tests, but the second one is less than a minute long; just a shot of Haya Harareet in makeup. The interesting one is of Cesare Danova (as Ben-Hur) and Leslie Nielson (as Messala); it runs over six minutes. If you've never seen the young Leslie Nielson (he was in Forbidden Planet, for example), it may come as a surprise to learn that he played a handsome young man back then. 

Photo Gallery

    This is a slow moving montage of 10 stills.

Theatrical Trailer

    This is presented in an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1, is 16x9 enhanced, and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The quality is not as high as the movie, but it's not too bad. It runs almost four minutes.

Awards

    This lists all the awards the movie collected, including all 11 Oscars, and 4 Golden Globes.  

Documentary - Ben-Hur - The Making of an Epic

    This documentary is too big to be called a featurette. It runs almost an hour, and is divided into 20 chapters. It is presented in 1.33:1 (clearly intended for TV) and is not 16x9 enhanced. It was made in 1993. It describes the evolution of the story from book to theatrical production, through two silent movies to the 1958/59 production. It features footage from all three films, and interviews with many of the people involved. It is quite interesting, and worth watching more than once. 

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 disc misses out on:

    The Region 1 disc misses out on:

    There is very little difference between the two. Both are DVD18s. Both seem to have excellent transfers. I prefer the R4 because it is in a better case, and because this is one case where the 4% speed-up of PAL can make a real difference: our version runs 213:39 minutes, while theirs runs 222:13 minutes.

Summary

    Ben-Hur is one of the true classics of film in the 20th century. Your collection is incomplete without it, and now you can own it at a reasonable price.

    The video quality is excellent, especially considering the age of the film..

    The audio quality is good.

    There are some fine extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Tony Rogers (bio-degrading: making a fool of oneself in a bio...)
Thursday, August 02, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDArcam DV88, using Component output
DisplaySony VPH-G70 CRT Projector, QuadScan Elite scaler (Tripler), ScreenTechnics 110. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVC-A1SE
SpeakersFront Left and Right: Krix Euphonix, Centre: Krix KDX-C Rears: Krix KDX-M, Subwoofer: Krix Seismix 5

Other Reviews
DVD Net - Anthony H (read my bio)

Comments (Add)
I'm sorry, but I must disagree about the film - Dean M (Don't talk about my bio. We don't wanna know.)
Box is NOT good value at the moment - MichaelCPE
Classic Collection Box is not good value at the moment - MichaelCPE
R1 duration -
Runtime and Aspect Ratios - Ben Hur -