[box cover]


Warner Home Video

Starring Charlton Heston

Written by Karl Tunberg
Directed by William Wyler

Review by Dawn Taylor                    

"Now, 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ' is (author) Lew Wallace's title. But it isn't a tale of the Christ. It's the tale of a war between a Roman boy and a Jewish boy."

— Gore Vidal

"The producer ... came to me and said, "How about doing Ben-Hur?" I thought it would be intriguing to see if I could make a Cecil B. DeMille picture. Also, I thought this picture could make a lot of money and, you know, I might get some of it."

— William Wyler

"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"

— Captain Oveur, Airplane!

Ben-Hur: One of the Greatest Films Ever Made or Just Another Movie About Guys in Short Skirts?

1959's Ben-Hur is three-and-one-half hours of sweaty men, elaborate sets, sea battles, chariot races, Jesus Christ, love, politics, betrayal, lepers, and hardcore Charlton Heston scenery-chomping, all in glorious Metrocolor Panavision. Of course it's one of the greatest films ever made. You had to ask? Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards — the most ever, up until 1997's Titanic — and that chariot race is still one of the most enthralling action scenes ever committed to celluloid.

It also saved a studio. By the late 50's, the movie industry was in trouble — television had taken over the affections of the American public, and the only movies that were really drawing crowds were bloated, big-ticket, DeMille-style religious pictures. MGM was in hot water, so they decided to gamble on the multi-million dollar epic-to-end-all-epics. It was a carefully considered bet, as the story of Ben-Hur had always been a big crowd-pleaser: the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur (one of the studio's first releases) had been hugely popular, as was the earlier 1907 silent short and the even-earlier stage spectacular (which featured live horses on treadmills enacting the chariot race). But still ... $50 million — and that was 1959 dollars, mind you — was far and away the most money ever spent on a motion picture, and could sink the studio if it was a stinker.

Obviously, it didn't stink. The aforementioned Oscars were for were for Best Picture; Best Actor (Heston); Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith); Best Director; Best Music Score (Miklos Rozsa); Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration; Best Color Cinematography; Best Color Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Sound, and Best Special Effects.

The Plot; Or, What Ben-Hur is About Since All Anyone Ever Mentions is The Chariot Race

Newly appointed Roman Tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd), on his way to Jerusalem, stops for a visit to his childhood home in Judea. Messala is ambitious and career-driven, having worked his way up through the ranks to where he'll now command his own legions. Sextus (Andre Morell), whom Messala is replacing, fills him in on the local color — the conquered Judeans are, it seems, an unappreciative bunch who "won't pay their taxes in an irrational resentment of Rome ... then there's religion. I tell you, they're drunk with religion, smash the statues of our gods, even those of the Emperor." Why, the nerve! Messala agrees that punishing the rabble-rousers is best, and he's especially interested to hear about some wild man in the desert named John the Baptist who's hanging out with a carpenter's son "who goes around doing magic tricks." It seems that the carpenter's son is putting ideas in the heads of the Jews, who believe that a Messiah is forthcoming, a "King of the Jews who will lead them all into some sort of anti-Roman paradise."

Messala takes a meeting with his dearest childhood friend, an influential Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). They laugh, they reminisce, they toss javelins together while merrily shouting "Down Eros, up Mars!" Messala comes over to the house for dinner and chats up Judah's mom, Mrs. Ben-Hur (Martha Scott) and his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell). Messala and Judah vow to continue honoring their friendship, gaze deeply into each other's eyes, and drink to seal their bond. But Messala soon makes clear his real reason for the reunion: he wants Judah to give him the names of Jewish resistance leaders, calling on their long friendship to convince Judah to become his informant. Judah's refusal — and his denunciation of Rome as evil — sends Messala 'round the bend and he breaks off their friendship. Before you know it, Messala trumps up charges against Judah to make an example of him, has his mother and sister thrown in prison and Judah finds himself shipped off to serve as a slave, rowing in a Roman galley.

And that's all in just the first 60 minutes. The rest of the movie moves faster than hummus in a vomitorium: There's a grand battle at sea, Judah saves a Roman general's life and becomes the general's chosen heir, he returns to Judea to avenge his mother and sister, reunites with a beautiful slave girl, and finally takes on Messala in that Big Chariot Race. Oh, and there's a couple of short bits about Jesus smattered about.

Oh, Those Naughty Gladiators — Rumors and Innuendo Regarding Ben-Hur

A movie as big, expensive and with such a lengthy production as this almost always has a slew of talk about goofs, blunders and various "factoids" attached to it, generally of the "I heard somewhere that..." variety. Let's discuss a few:

"Wyler said, 'What do you mean?' I said, could it be that the two boys had some kind of emotional relationship the first time around, and now the Roman wants to start up again and Ben-Hur doesn't — and doesn't get the point? Willie said, 'Gore, this is Ben-Hur. You can't do that to Ben-Hur.' I said, well, if you don't do something like that you won't have Ben-Hur. You'll have an emotiveless mess on your hands. And he said, 'Well ... you can't be overt.' I said, I'm not gonna be overt. There won't be one line. But I can write it in such a way that the audience is going to feel that there is something emotional between these two that is not stated, but that blows a fuse in Messala. That he is spurned. So it's a love scene gone wrong."

Vidal says that for years, whenever the subject came up, Wyler would deny it, claiming the conversation never happened. But it's there on the screen, in glorious, homoerotic Panavision.

Extras, Audio Commentary and Panavision: Man, Are We Ever Grateful For DVD

Ben Hur is a big movie in more ways than one: it was filmed using a 65 mm anamorphic process and presented in Panavision. 35 mm theatrical prints were shown with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (70 mm anamorphic prints were an even more spacious 2.76:1, and that's what you get on this disc). The days of pan-and-scan are over, fellow movie freaks — we can now rejoice in watching films like Ben-Hur in our own homes, in their original, theatrical ratio. Although, for some of us, the rejoicing may be accompanied by muttered complaints that we don't have bigger televisions: even on a generous 27" monitor, that 2.76:1 presentation makes you want to move all your furniture closer to the screen.

There are a handful of marvelous extras on the Ben-Hur disc that make it worth owning for more than just its widescreen glory. The 60-minute documentary "Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic," produced in 1993 by Turner Home Entertainment, is an extensive and fascinating look at the history behind the film as well as its production. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, the film begins with a discussion of the book, written by Civil War General Lew Wallace and published in 1880. It details the first elaborate stage production, which offered a live chariot race in front of a scrolling back drop, and a sea battle enacted onstage — it was seen by more than 20 million people over the two decades it ran, and made an amazing $10 million. The film also features clips from the early silent versions of Ben-Hur; the story of the $4 million, 1925 version of the film; film footage of the building of the sets, screen tests and shooting of the film; and interviews with Gore Vidal (who, though uncredited, wrote most of the film), William Wyler, and various others involved in the production.

The commentary track by Charlton Heston is interesting more for what he doesn't say than for what he does. As an actor who came of age in the golden days of Hollywood, he's a consummate professional — and plays by the rules, having learned early what side his brioche is buttered on. As an example: by all accounts in the "Making of" documentary and elsewhere, the original script by Karl Tunberg has abominable. Wyler is supposed to have scribbled in the margins "awful ... horrible", and Gore Vidal, on contract to MGM at the time, was brought in to rewrite it. Vidal thought it was so terrible that he didn't want to take the job — and only agreed after Wyler promised to get him out of the remaining two years of his contract. Another screenwriter, Christopher Fry, polished Vidal's work and wrote a new ending, but the Screenwriter's Guild held that Tunberg should receive sole credit for the script (which infuriated Wyler so much he went to the press with the story). In discussing the script in his commentary, Heston bends over backwards to be diplomatic: "Karl Tunberg had written a screenplay. And it was a good script, but like almost all scripts it needed work. That's the mantra of making a movie — 'it needs work' ... there was a scene where Ben-Hur and Messala ... now as grown men were meeting again. Willie was not happy with the scene, nor was I, not that it was really up to me. But it was clear that the scene was just not right." While not offering nearly the insider-scoop one would hope for, Heston's commentary covers a lot of ground in the film, is scene-specific, and mostly focuses on how big the sets were, how tough certain scenes were to do, and how nice the other actors were to work with. He comes off as a genial man who had his hands full on Ben-Hur just doing his job in front of the camera; the technical aspects don't seem to have interested him much. It is interesting, though, to hear about how much time he spent learning to drive a chariot — and it's admittedly fun to hear Heston say that handling the chariot in the race scenes "was a bitch."

In the "Screen Tests" section, along with a test of actress Haya Harareet (who played the hotsy-totsy slave girl Esther), is a real camp gem: a test with Cesare Danova playing Ben-Hur and Leslie Nielsen as Messala. The two are so outrageously wrong for the parts, and so unbelievably bad with each other, that one is torn between laughter and pity. And the entire test is presented — an agonizing seven-and-a-half minutes long, it's like a bad high school play performed by the captain of the football team and the school's Italian exchange student.

Bottom Line — Should You Add Ben-Hur To Your Collection?

Technically, it's a nice presentation. The sound is remixed and mastered in crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and it's great to finally see the film in its correct ratio — almost half the image was lost when it was formatted for television. The digital transfer and remastering of the film is, for the most part, good. In the last half hour of the film, however, there are a few scenes that look terrible. One shot of Heston toward the end, set in a cave at a leper colony, was obviously exposed to the film's limits because of uneven lighting. There are big black blotches in the lower left corner of the screen, the picture wavers, the intensity of the color goes in and out — is this the fixed version? Other scenes towards the end have noticeable archiving. It's really only notable because the first three hours look so good in comparison. What happened?

As for Ben-Hur itself, it's arguably the best written of the era's Biblical epics, and William Wyler's direction can't be faulted — that those gigantic 65 mm cameras couldn't be moved much certainly wasn't his fault (and frankly, the film is edited so brilliantly that you hardly notice how little the camera moves), and he managed to inhabit this gargantuan set-piece with some genuinely complex and sympathetic characters. If there is any fault to be found in Wyler's direction, it's that he allowed Heston to be so over-the-top in the more emotional scenes — Chuck exhausted doesn't just lie back and close his eyes, he flings himself to the ground and sprawls across it; Chuck embittered doesn't just grimace, he clenches his jaw, flashes his eyes and throws himself mightily at the nearest wall; Chuck ashamed doesn't just hide behind a boulder, he clings to it like a long-lost lover, one leg coyly outstretched. That Heston is so good in the quieter scenes — and so dynamic in the action sequences — makes his sporadic over-acting all the more egregious.

But then again, big emotions are what we want from epic motion pictures. Along with chariot races, towering sets, thousands of extras ... and all those sweaty, sweaty men.

— Dawn Taylor

© 2001, The DVD Journal