Epic and intimacy.
In 1959, a film that was over five years in preparation and more than three and a half hours in length, was a remake of a silent classic, cost more than any other film to date, featured a two-time winner of the Best Director Academy Award, included an American English, and Irish actor in the three key roles, and went on to win a record (for then) 11 Academy Awards, appeared at our theatres.
That film has finally been released on DVD by Warner Brothers in a special edition befitting the film’s merit. The film? Ben-Hur.
Messala returns to Judea, where he had grown up, as the newly appointed tribune of the Roman province. He is soon visited by Ben-Hur, now a wealthy leader of the Jewish ruling class and formerly a boyhood friend of Messala. Messala’s orders are to restore order to Judea, but Ben-Hur refuses to cooperate and the friendship between the two dies. Messala soon has Ben-Hur and his family falsely arrested.
Ben-Hur is sentenced to the galleys, but saves the life of the admiral of the Roman fleet, Quintus Arrius, when their ship sinks in battle. He becomes Arrius’ adopted son and eventually returns to Judea to reclaim his home and position and also determine the whereabouts of his mother and sister. He confronts Messala and eventually faces him in a chariot race. Soon after, Ben-Hur discovers the fate of his mother and sister.
Jesus Christ is present at critical junctures of the story and plays a pivotal role in the tale’s resolution.
Ben-Hur has suffered from some criticism over the years: it cost too much money and didn’t deserve the awards it received; director William Wyler didn’t handle the widescreen well; Charlton Heston was too wooden as the title character; the story is all epic and no intimacy; and so on. Yet none of these criticisms really hold water on closer inspection.
By the late 1950s, MGM was on the proverbial slippery slope to bankruptcy. It had never really adapted to the changing landscape of the times — the advent of television, the film industry’s loss of control over its theatre chains — and a succession of bloated films that failed or were only marginally successful at the box office had placed the fabled studio in jeopardy. The response was to make one giant roll of the dice with a film that would be a remake of one of the company’s most successful silent epics — Ben-Hur. Responsibility was handed to veteran MGM producer Sam Zimbalist who proceeded to spend $19 million including promotional costs, the most that MGM had ever expended on a production. Where did the money go? Consider some of the following statistics. For Ben-Hur, more than 300 sets covering 148 acres, most of them at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, were used. The chariot race arena took up 18 acres in itself and was one of the most expensive sets ever constructed. Its construction utilized 1 million feet of lumber, 250 miles of metal tubing, 1 million pounds of plaster, and 40,000 tons of sand from nearby beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. Props for the film numbered over a million. And Ben-Hur was filmed in Camera 65, a widescreen process using film 65 millimeters wide and cameras that cost $100,000 each. The chariot race sequence alone cost $1 million requiring three months of shooting time and 8000 extras. The $12.5 million budget is all on the screen and the filmgoing public responded. Ben-Hur grossed $76 million worldwide and put MGM on safe ground again, at least for a while. Unfortunately there was one cost that couldn’t be recouped — the life of Sam Zimbalist. He died of a heart attack during production, likely attributable to the stress of the epic production so pivotal to MGM’s future.
Charlton Heston always maintained that director William Wyler was the greatest plus in Ben-Hur. Yet at the beginning there were questions about Wyler’s ability to handle a widescreen epic, for he had always been best known for more intimate dramas. Certainly the film would be a departure from his previous Academy Award winners — Mrs. Miniver (1942, MGM) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, Goldwyn). Wyler himself had doubts, complaining that ‘the extreme width of the frame took in everything important and unimportant and eventually caused the audience’s eye to wander’. But the finished product belied Wyler’s concerns. It was a masterly blend of spectacle (the chariot race arena, Roman troops in the countryside, the processions in Rome) and intimacy (the exchanges between Ben-Hur and Messala when they are first reunited, the focus on Ben-Hur and Messala during the chariot race, the images of Ben-Hur crouching behind a boulder in the land of the lepers, the lone figure of Ben-Hur at the entrance to the arena after the end of the chariot race). Critical response to Wyler’s work was strongly positive although not unanimously so. Most recognized the blend of epic and intimacy that he had achieved. A small minority saw Ben-Hur as a bloated, empty saga that catered only to the mass audience with no artistic merit whatsoever. Among this group were the French auteurists and their American counterparts who claimed the film confirmed that Wyler was but a commercial craftsman, undeserving of the acclaim accorded him by earlier film theorists. Wyler never seemed particularly concerned by this, and rightly so.
The character Ben-Hur and Charlton Heston are virtually synonymous now, but Heston was certainly not the first choice for the role. Burt Lancaster had been offered the role and later Rock Hudson was considered. Cesare Danova, one of several Italian actors, was also a candidate. Once Wyler was signed to direct, however, Heston was quickly finalized in the role, partly as a consequence of his work with Wyler on the latter’s most recent film The Big Country (1958). Heston proved to be a great choice although Wyler had to push Heston hard to get the sort of performance he wanted. Certainly, Ben-Hur is one of Heston’s most expressive jobs of acting. It was also a marathon job with Heston appearing in all but a handful of the film’s many scenes. Heston’s work won him the 1959 Best Actor Academy Award — a worthy win, even though it is fashionable to deride his efforts now in favour of others among that year’s candidates (such as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot or Cary Grant in North By Northwest).
The centerpiece of Ben-Hur is of course the chariot race. It remains one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. Some credit must go to Wyler for his overall staging of the event, but the principals most responsible were Andrew Marton, the second-unit director whom Wyler left to work out every shot, crash and stunt, and who preshot the actual race, and Yakima Canutt who choreographed the stunt work. Crucial also were Heston and Stephen Boyd (who played Messala) both of whom learned to drive the chariots and then had to repeat much of what Marton had preshot. In fact, they did virtually all the driving they seem to be doing in the film. The exceptions were two stunts. One was the sequence where Boyd, doubled by a dummy, was dragged under his chariot. The other is the part of the race in which Heston has to jump a pile-up in his path and almost seems to be tossed out of his chariot. The actual jump was done by Joe Canutt, Yakima’s son, who was thrown forward out of the chariot but managed to grab a crossbar that harnessed the horses together. A shot of Heston climbing back into the chariot from in front of it was spliced into the stunt footage resulting in a spectacular sequence. Upon viewing the final version of Marton and Canutt’s efforts, Wyler remarked that it was ‘one of the greatest cinematic achievements’ he’d seen.
There are so many other elements of Ben-Hur worth discussing, but space and time precludes covering them in detail in a review like this: the rest of the cast was almost uniformly good (generally non-American actors for the Romans, American for the Jews) although Haya Harareet’s work as Esther was derided by some [‘loved Ben, hated her’]; the images and impact of Christ were very tastefully handled; the grandeur of Miklos Rosza’s score; and the overall technical excellence of Ben-Hur aside from the miniature work associated with the sea battle. The film earned 12 Academy Award nominations and won in all nominated categories except one — that for best screenplay. At the root of that was a convoluted controversy over the actual screen credit that went to one individual (Karl Tunberg) when at least three writers (Tunberg, Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal) seem to have made significant contributions.
Warner Brothers which owns the video rights to MGM’s films of this era has delivered a top-notch DVD special edition of Ben-Hur. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen preserving the original aspect ratio of 2.76:1 and utilizing 61 scene selections. The first two-thirds of the film (up to the intermission) has been put on one side of the DVD-18 disc and remainder of the film with the supplements on the flip side. The sides are identified as A or B in very small lettering on the core of the disc. The image is clear and bright with almost no age-related evidence such as scratches or speckles. Blacks are pure and shadow detail is excellent. There is some occasional occurrence of edge enhancement, but it is not distracting.
Warners has also chosen to remaster the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 with no provision for also retaining the original sound mix. I certainly found the new mix to be highly effective — very natural sounding with occasional effective use of the surrounds. On the other hand, the original mix was deemed worthy of an Academy Award so it seems rather presumptuous of Warners to remaster it without at least offering the option of the original.
Warners has assembled an impressive set of supplementary material. There is a very good full-frame documentary (about an hour long with 20 scene selections) that covers the history of the novel and its earlier film incarnations as well as the making of the present version of the film. This documentary appeared on the earlier laserdisc box set also. During the program we see some coverage of screen tests that were made for Ben-Hur. The full tests are also repeated as a separate supplement on the disc. The major one is of Cesare Danova playing Ben-Hur and Leslie Neilson playing Messala. The latter is clearly out of his depth, delivering an interpretation of Messala that is from the early Tony Curtis yonda-lies-the-castle-of-me-fadda school of acting. Charlton Heston provides an entertaining commentary over the entire length of the film. His remarks provide no startling insights, but do cover a number of interesting reminiscences of people and events. Some of what he covers has appeared elsewhere, including in his own autobiography. He doesn’t speak continuously for the whole film, so the DVD conveniently provides on-screen prompts to jump forward to his next comments. Rounding out the supplements are a rather short photo gallery, listings of film highlights for Wyler and several cast members, and the theatrical teaser and trailer.
One noticeable characteristic of Warners’ Ben-Hur DVD is the image’s failure to render faithfully the reds of the Roman soldiers’ capes. There is a pronounced orange cast to these, made more noticeable when one views the disc’s accompanying documentary that catches the reds much more accurately. One wonders why, when such an effort has obviously been put into this disc, the correct red colour could not have been captured. I don’t, however, believe this deficiency in the image should be considered to be a make-or-break issue given the image’s overall level of quality.
Warner Brothers have greatly scaled back the number of classic titles that they are releasing on DVD, but when they do deign to grant us one, they really deliver. Their recent Giant release (in Canada anyway) was a winner and now they really deliver with Ben-Hur. A solid image and sound transfer is matched up with an impressive array of supplements. There are issues with red colours that are not what they should be and with a missing original sound mix (both of greater concern to some than others), but these should not dissuade you from picking up a first rate disc.