Review: Ben-Hur 50th Anniversary Blu-ray

STUDIO: Warner | DIRECTOR: William Wyler | CAST: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Sam Jaffe, Jack Hawkins, Hara Hayareet, Martha Scott, Hugh Griffith, Cathy O’Donnell
RELEASE DATE: 9/27/2011 | PRICE: 3-Disc Blu-ray $64.99
BONUSES: commentary, documentaries, featurettes, 1925 version of Ben-Hur, much more
SPECS: G | 222 min. | Historical epic | 2.76:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Swedish and Thai subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

It’s no surprise that Warner’s 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the 1959 epic film Ben-Hur looks and sounds outstanding.

Ben-Hur movie scene

Charlton Heston rides his white horses glory in 1959's Ben-Hur.

The venerable 1959 movie, which was directed by William Wyler (Funny Girl) and stars Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments), won a staggering 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and set the standard for Hollywood spectacles.

The classic film underwent a $1 million frame-by-frame restoration for its Blu-ray premiere. And, man, you can see it! The 100,000 costumes that adorn the stars and extras, the dozens of enormous sets, and the sprawling action-and-crowd set pieces are rich, colorful and amazingly detailed. Never before has the movie’s landmark 10-minute chariot race been rendered so gloriously — the intricately designed horse-drawn chariots roaring around the gargantuan Roman arena as thousands of extras scream is as awesome as it is immersive.

And the sound is equally impressive, from the thundering hooves and screeching wheels of the chariot race (we’ve gotta talk a lot about that, right?) to the destructive capsizing of galley ships during a sea battle, it’s all grand. Even the quieter scenes of Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur interacting with his family, friends, enemies and the man known as Jesus Christ are effectively evocative.

Bravo.

Virtually all of the bonus features included on the Blu-ray have appeared on previous DVD versions of the film, save the excellent new feature-length documentary Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey. Directed and produced by veteran digital documentarian Laurent Bouzereau in cooperation with Heston’s son Fraser Heston, it’s an outstanding, polished work that offers never-before-released footage culled from Heston’s wife’s home movie collection. She shot lots of material on location in Italy during Ben-Hur’s production, and even more of Heston off the set, as he and his family lived their lives in an Italian villa over the course of the nine-month shoot. It’s great-looking stuff. We get everything from Heston applying fake blood to his arm right before the chariot sequence to the actor and his son playing shuffleboard on the deck of their ocean liner as it steams across the Atlantic to Italy.

The home movie material, coupled with son Fraser Heston reading from the journal his father kept during the production, elevates A Personal Journey above most making-of featurettes that endlessly re-examine classic American movies. It even overshadows the talking heads who pop up over the course of the documentary to talk about Ben-Hur, a group that includes Wyler’s daughters, Heston’s wife and children and, strangely enough, actor Tom Selleck. Interestingly, it’s Selleck who makes one of the piece’s most memorable remarks: “There’s a lot to be said about [Charlton Heston] as an actor that I don’t think is generally appreciated.”

Maybe.

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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.