Now this is how you honor a classic movie. In an era where DVDs are getting cheaper all the time, there’s no reason why studios can’t use at least two discs for every Special Edition of a classic film: One for the movie and the other for copious extra features.
In the case of “Ben-Hur,” Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops and gave us four discs: Two for the movie, one for the 1925 silent version, and a fourth for the extra features. On top of that, they’ve included a nice little booklet packed with photos and piles of textual information about the making of both versions of the movie, although of course it’s weighted toward William Wyler’s edition, which won 11 Academy Awards. Couple all that with a very reasonable retail price and this one is a no-brainer purchase for fans of the film.
I’m glad Warner Bros. decided to split the film across two discs, allowing the print to “breathe” at the highest bit-rate possible. Two features accompany the movie: an isolated music track and an audio commentary with film historian T. Gene Hatcher and star Charlton Heston. The latter was brought over from the previous release of “Ben-Hur” on DVD, from what I’ve read.
Hatcher and Heston didn’t sit down and watch the film together; their track is edited from separate sessions. As a result, it’s a bit disjointed, but it’s still an enjoyable listen. Hatcher, of course, goes for the scholarly approach, explaining the film’s context within the world of cinema as well as the history behind “Ben-Hur.” Heston looks at the movie from the point-of-view of someone intimately involved with its production. The two provide nice balance for each other, and they provide plenty of interesting information, with Hatcher even getting into the history behind the Lew Wallace novel on which the film was based while Heston provides a lot of technical details, especially during the classic chariot race sequence.
Over on disc three, we have a beautifully restored copy of the 1925 silent version, which is an epic in and of itself. Hollywood actually produced some pretty lavish films during the 1920s, and this version of “Ben-Hur” was certainly one of them. In fact, I daresay it exceeds the 1959 version in some areas, such as the sea battle. You may also be surprised to learn that there are some color sequences in this film, as well as some color tints here and there. At almost two-and-a-half hours, it’s not as indulgent as Wyler’s version, but it’s certainly not a film that should be forgotten by history. Kudos to Warner Bros. for thoughtfully including it here.
Disc four contains the meat and potatoes of this set’s bonus features. The nearly hour-long documentary “Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema” leads off the platter with an insightful look at the film’s influence on later big budget, epic movies. We hear from Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Michael Douglas and others. It’s a nice piece, although it doesn’t come as a shock that Lucas used the chariot race as his template for the pod race found in “The Phantom Menace.” “Wow, I would have never guessed,” he said sarcastically.
Next up is another documentary that lasts nearly an hour: “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic.” While the first retrospective is a new production, this one is from 1993. Christopher Plummer hosts a detailed look at the making of the movie. Between this and Heston’s commentary, I can’t imagine any stone is left unturned when it comes to how this movie was made.
“Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures” is about five minutes worth of stills showing production notes, character shots, conceptual artwork, etc., as music and dialogue from the film play on top. After that we have a series of screen tests that show us what a disaster this movie could have been, especially if Leslie Nielsen had been cast. Yikes.
A vintage newsreels gallery offers exactly what you’d imagine, along with the theatrical trailer gallery. Given the film’s near-sweep of the Academy Awards, you’re probably not surprised that almost 10 minutes worth of footage from the April 1960 ceremony is presented here. Unfortunately, there are some audio problems at times, but it’s still fun to watch. Here’s to simpler times.
Which brings me to the end of this review. At this point, I can’t imagine what else I could say to help you make your decision. If you haven’t seen “Ben-Hur,” I highly recommend at least renting it and finding out what all the fuss was about. Those of you who were going to buy it no matter what probably don’t need me to tell you to do so.