Instead of turning water into wine, the 1959 production of Lew Wallace’s 1880 epic Christian novel turned MGM’s impending financial ruin of bankruptcy into box office gold with the most lucrative not to mention award-winning Hollywood endeavor of the year, thereby blessing the studio offscreen with the same level of miraculous wonder that changed the life of Charlton Heston’s eponymous hero onscreen in Ben-Hur.
The first of only three films in history to win a whopping eleven Oscars (with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King following suit in ’97 and ’03), three times proved to likewise be the charm for the legendary widescreen MGM remake as 1959’s production marked the third film adaptation of Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
Still one of the grandest old-school hero’s journeys of them all, director William Wyler’s Technicolor odyssey set the bar for Hollywood epics and helped usher in the era of event movies that would eventually follow from Spartacus to Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia.
Admittedly, the meandering structure of Wyler’s production make it hard to deny that Ben-Hur would’ve been helped by a sharper final edit of a good thirty to forty-five minutes as the movie devolves into episodic subplots following the cinematic crowning achievement that is Hur’s legendary chariot race sequence.
However, aside from its clunky pacing problems which ultimately stem from the overall awkward genre transition from adventure film to passion play as Hur strives to be all things to all audiences, it’s nonetheless aged remarkably well and the movie’s influence can still be felt over five decades later in the films of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott in particular.
In fact, an entire documentary could be made focusing on the impact that Hur has had on contemporary popcorn pictures, beginning with a sharp focus on the decade of the ‘80s testosterone fueled blockbuster of modern hero’s journeys, in addition to Ben-Hur’s obvious influence on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (itself an amalgam of Hur and the Hur inspired Spartacus), of course.
Gorgeously restored to digitally enhanced perfection and packaged as a five-DVD fiftieth anniversary limited edition gift set collection with two keepsake books containing Charlton Heston’s private set diaries and an in-depth production book with original pressbook photos, studio information and more, Warner Brothers’ release of the MGM classic also serves up the 1925 feature for contrast and comparison.
And while it’s a treasure trove for scholars – not to mention Heston enthusiasts – as far as this critic is concerned, the feature presentation itself is the main attraction. The anniversary edition boasts eye-popping clarity, pitch-perfect flesh tones that stand up well next to the sun-drenched landscape and the film’s magnificent use of rich red hues look so impressive in DVD that I couldn’t help but wonder what – if any major – difference the high definition recent Blu-ray release would make.
Miklos Rozsa’s iconic score soars through every speaker of your home theater system both as part of the picture and as the main event given the DVD bonus of watching Wyler’s work with the isolated musical score to soak up the film on an aesthetic level alone.
Yet whichever way you prefer to soak up the well-preserved grandeur of this National Library of Congress certified National Treasure, the one thing that everyone can agree on is even in the cyclical world of film – when just like in the ‘50s, studios are relying on all kinds of gimmicks like extra wide screens and 3D to lure in viewers – there’s still nothing more thrilling than the effort of real human beings working together without state-of-the-art effects.
And nowhere is this feat best evidenced than in action director Andrew Marton’s five-week long chariot race shoot. One of Hollywood’s best adrenaline-fueled adventurous showdowns ever captured on celluloid, the death-defying climax of Ben-Hur is so miraculously awe-inspiring and groundbreaking that it’s the cinematic equivalent of turning water into wine.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.