Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Friday May 22, 2020 

BEN-HUR [1959]: DVD

Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is persecuted by Imperial Rome and stripped of his possessions, falling out with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) in the process. Made a slave and forced to row in a Roman galley, Ben-Hur saves the ship’s commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), when the vessel is sunk in battle. Adopted by Quintus, Ben-Hur returns to Rome to confront Messala and is deeply affected by a meeting with Jesus Christ.

Six years before The Sound Of Music saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy, Ben-Hur performed the same task for MGM. The Lion sank US$12.5 million into this do-or-die epic that roared at the box office to the tune of US$40 million and picked up 11 Oscars—the outright record until Titanic equalled the feat in 1997.

So how well does it stack up today? Very well indeed. Gladiator might be more impressive with its digitally created vistas of ancient Rome but knowing that the chariot race arena in Ben-Hur was built by 1,000 tradesmen, who laboured for a year on an 18 acre site, and then populated with 8,000 real extras gives this spectacle something no amount of electronic trickery can create: reality. Some of the effects are a little wobbly by modern standards and the storyline at times feels like a Sunday school lesson, but all is forgivable as we watch Charlton Heston smack his lips and chew up the sizeable scenery arranged by director William Wyler. Up there with Spartacus and The Fall of The Roman Empire in the ancient Rome extravaganza stakes, Ben-Hur is also a very kinky film if you want to look a little closer. The homo-erotic charge between Heston and Stephen Boyd is barely concealed and the manner in which ship’s captain Jack Hawkins adopts Heston after the sea battle goes way beyond mere gratitude. Miles of leather, bare chests and phallic set design add to the fun, making us wonder how much of it was deliberate.

Campiness aside, this is a stunning spectacle and looks magnificent in the 2.70:1 transfer. This was the first film shot in MGM Camera 65 super-widescreen format and has been lovingly transferred to disc here. There are some great bonuses included—the best of which is Charlton Heston’s commentary track. Chuck might be a gun-loving spokesman for all things right wing and Republican but he’s got a great memory and imparts an enormous amount of detail during the three and a half hour running time. A neat addition is a skip function allowing you to jump to Heston’s next comment. The hour-long documentary about the making of this version and the trouble-plagued 1925 silent production is also outstanding—it’s a real documentary, not an extended promo film. Finally there are original screen tests with MGM contract player Leslie Nielsen trying out the togs. Makes you wonder if MGM would have survived if Heston hadn’t been cast—a bit like imagining Casablanca with original star Ronald Reagan as Rick. This is a first-class release and one all serious collectors should own.
Richard Kuipers

Published September 20, 2001

Email this article

You can buy it HERE - next day delivery within Australia

US (1959)

CAST: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Frank Thring, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Sam Jaffe

DIRECTOR: William Wyler

RUNNING TIME: 214 minutes

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: August 15, 2001

SPECIAL FEATURES: Widescreen 2.70:1; Audio Commentary by Charlton Heston; Documentary “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic”; Photo Gallery; Screen Tests. Languages: English, Italian. Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Italian for the hard of hearing

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020