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Everyone knows that Ben-Hur is a classic, but I’ll let you in on a secret: if you’ve only seen it on a pan and scan VHS tape, then you haven’t seen Ben-Hur. All movies should be viewed in their original aspect ratio (with DVD thankfully making this a far easier task than before), but Ben-Hur is one of the movies that really showcases the merits of widescreen. With Warner’s DVD edition of Ben-Hur, it’s now possible to enjoy the epic as it was meant to be enjoyed, and be swept up in the adventure and the spectacle of it all.

Set in the embattled Roman province of Palestine, Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince who runs afoul of Roman politics when he crosses wills with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), recently arrived from Rome to command the garrison of Jerusalem. What results is an epic tale of Ben-Hur’s life after this conflict, with revenge sustaining him through brushes with death, dramatic adventures, and striking reversals of fortune. Along the way, Ben-Hur meets up with a remarkable cast of supporting characters, from the charismatic Roman consul Quintus Arius (Jack Hawkins), to the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), to Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) back in Jerusalem.

“Epic” is most certainly the word for Ben-Hur, with its three and a half hours of running time filled with dramatic visual images and impressive spectacles, from marching Roman soldiers to sea battles to the famous chariot race. The film manages to be spectacular without the feel of self-indulgence gone mad that characterizes the later epic Cleopatra. Ben-Hur was also a success of epic proportions at the 1959 Academy Awards, taking home eleven awards in all: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith, as Sheik Ilderim), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Music Score, and Best Sound.

That’s not to say that the film is perfect. Ben-Hur carries the subtitle of  “A Tale of the Christ,” which in my view points to the main weakness in the film. The “Tale of the Christ” doesn’t fit comfortably as either a side element or a central element. The main story of the film is that of the eponymous Ben-Hur, and logically enough, it’s his character that the audience focuses on and is interested in. The story of Jesus, while not the central focus of the film, takes enough precedence during the last part of the movie to unbalance the adventure-drama story of Ben-Hur. The result is an oddly-structured movie that loses some of its impetus in the last hour or so, and whose ending seems thematically not quite right. On the other hand, I do have to give director William Wyler credit for some subtlety with the religious elements. The trick of never actually showing the face of the actor who plays Jesus is quite effective, for instance.

The DVD version of Ben-Hur is presented on one disc, with side A containing the first half of the movie, and side B containing the second half and the special features. The break between the two sides occurs at the intermission. While some people seem categorically opposed to “flipper” DVDs, I really don’t see this as problem with Ben-Hur. (I know I can’t go for three and a half hours of viewing without needing to visit the bathroom.) Getting up to flip over the DVD actually makes for a viewing experience that’s closer to the intended theatrical experience; at the intermission, you’d be expected to get up, stretch, move around, and so on.

It’s incredible to think that Ben-Hur is more than forty years old; the restoration job for DVD has ensured that it will be enjoyed by new audiences for many more years. The anamorphic transfer preserves the original aspect ratio of 2.76:1. Yes, it’s a very wide widescreen image indeed... and Wyler makes the most of it, with shots composed to make good use of every inch of width.

There’s almost no noise in the picture, making for a nice, clean image, though it could be a bit sharper. Browns and grays are used heavily in many scenes, but differences in shading and contrast make these scenes still visually interesting. Bright colors are handled well, with colors like the reds and golds of the Roman uniforms appearing vivid but not garish. The overall effect is visually more realistic, and less overpowering, than in the colors used in other lavish epics such as The Ten Commandments.

To be completely picky, I did notice that some print flaws popped up here and there in the image throughout the movie, but overall it’s a solid transfer.

Ben-Hur’s original mono soundtrack was remastered to Dolby 5.1 for the DVD. Given the source track, it’s not surprising that there isn’t much use of surround effects. However, the overall soundtrack, particularly the music score, is nicely balanced among the channels to create a satisfactorily immersive experience. The volume level is handled well, with the music never overpowering the dialogue.

In happy contrast to the dime-a-dozen DVDs whose “special features” consist of a skimpy promotional featurette and maybe a trailer or two, the Ben-Hur DVD’s modestly described list of special features is of outstanding quality.

The central special feature is a fantastic hour-long documentary titled “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic,” providing fascinating information on the history of Ben-Hur from the original novel, early stage productions, the silent film version, and a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes information about the 1959 remake.

The DVD also features an audio commentary by Charlton Heston, an extended screen test section with Leslie Nielsen trying out as a potential Ben-Hur, a photo gallery, cast and crew filmographies, and theatrical trailers.

Ben-Hur is deservedly considered a classic film, and Warner has given tribute to its quality with an excellent DVD edition. It’s an excellent transfer with superb extras on one modestly-priced disc.