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"Ben-Hur" Collector's DVD Set Proves Collection Worthy

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2005 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
"Ben-Hur" Collector's DVD Set Proves Collection Worthy

Release Date:  September 2005
Genre:  Drama
Rated:   G
Run Time:  3 hrs. 32 min., plus 10+ hours of bonus footage
Publisher/Distributor:  Warner Home Video

It’s one of only three films to earn 11 Academy Awards – a feat which took almost 30 years to equal, and has since been accomplished by only two other films: “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” 

“Ben-Hur,” which was released in 1959, had the biggest budget in MGM’s history and was the most expensive film ever made until that time.  It boasted more crew and extras (extras alone numbered several thousand) than any other film before it.  Preparation for the film, or “pre-production,” took a full six years, with shooting, or “production,” taking place on location in Italy over more than six months.

The huge risk paid off for MGM, which was saved from bankruptcy by the film’s grosses.  Today, “Ben-Hur” (which is now owned by Warner Brothers) is widely considered to be one of the most accomplished biblical-era epics ever made.  And it’s been recently made available on in a collector’s DVD set that offers a slew of extra footage, including two documentaries and the 1925 silent version (which remains the most expensive silent film ever made) by the same name.

The story opens during the time of Jesus’ birth, with a brief montage of scenes that show the birth of the Christ child and the Magi’s visit.  In the following scenes, the newly-appointed Roman Tribune named Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives in his hometown of Jerusalem, where he soon receives Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), his childhood friend and an influential Jewish prince. 

The men embrace warmly, then engage in a friendly spear-throwing contest.  Soon, however, it becomes obvious that these boyhood friends have grown apart, as evidenced by their vastly differing opinions about Rome’s governance of Judea.  Ben-Hur is opposed to Roman domination and attempts to persuade Messala to withdraw.  Surprised, Messala, an experienced soldier, warns Ben-Hur that any rebellion will be harshly crushed.  Later he asks Ben-Hur to actually turn in any “traitors,” which the Jew soundly refutes, despite Messala’s promise of advancement for Ben-Hur under the Emperor Tiberius.  The two argue and become estranged.

Soon, the vindictive Messala has exacted his revenge by falsely imprisoning Ben-Hur and turning him into an exiled galley slave, without the benefit of a trial.  He also imprisons Ben-Hur’s family, and Ben-Hur angrily vows revenge. 

During the next few years, Ben-Hur is forced to endure a death march across the desert, chained to other prisoners, while enduring extreme thirst and hunger; unrelenting work and even torture.  Throughout it all, he stays alive, although it is his hatred which fuels him.  “Your eyes are full of hate,” observes a Roman officer.  “That’s good.  Hate keeps a man alive.  It gives him strength.”

During one interesting scene, however, the dehydrated hero cries out to God for help, and we see the hand of Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, reach forward to give him a drink of water.  This sets the stage for Ben-Hur’s ultimate conversion to the teachings of Jesus.  Before that, however, Ben-Hur accepts the offer of that Roman officer to train as a charioteer.  And, after saving his life during a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s future is sealed. 

The men arrive in Rome, driving a golden chariot and Ben-Hur is soon granted his freedom, as well as riches and power.  But he must eventually return to Jerusalem where much awaits, including a great chariot race against his old nemesis.

The new version of “Ben-Hur,” which is as fun to watch as the old one, has been digitally remastered from its original 65 mm film and is of excellent quality.  However, while the film is rated G, it probably won’t be of much interest to kids, who will tire out long before the end of the long run time – even if they manage to remain interested in a film that clearly comes from yesteryear.

It’s dramatic, even melodramatic at times.  But it still manages to eschew the overarching melodrama so common in many of the Bible epics made during that era, including Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” in which Heston also starred.  It’s also unique in the way that it deals with Jesus.  We never see his face, but we experience the profound changes that Jesus brings to those who encounter him.  The film’s central theme, of course, is forgiveness – and as such, it makes a great discussion piece for Christians and non-Christians alike.  At the time it was released, it actually bridged the gap between people of all faiths.  Given “Ben-Hur’s” strong Christian theme, this is a rare feat indeed.

More than 10 hours of bonus features include a new documentary about the film’s influence with leading filmmakers like Ridley Scott (“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Gladiator”) and George Lucas (“Star Wars”), as well as a 1994 documentary hosted by Christopher Plummer.  Those with an interest in filmmaking will particularly appreciate the conversations throughout the two documentaries, which describe the unparalleled filmmaking techniques used as well as the way that “Ben-Hur” influenced other filmmakers.  For example, as George Lucas describes how the film’s chariot race influenced him in some of the chase scenes he made in “Star Wars,” we are treated to a back-and-forth between the two.  It’s astonishing to observe just how much Lucas did, indeed, learn from “Ben-Hur.”

Viewers will also enjoy scene-specific commentary by Heston, the original theatrical trailer, rarely-scene screen tests for several of the actors in the film, an on-the-set photo gallery featuring director William Wyler, producer Sam Zimbalist and cameraman Robert Surtees, a reproduction of the original theatrical souvenir program and the 1925 silent version of the film. 

Additionally, Dr. Robert H. Schuller and his son, Dr. Robert A. Schuller, co-chairmen of Crystal Cathedral Ministries, have authored a Bible study guide that is included in the DVD set.  With a total of seven lessons to be shared between a leader and discussion group, topics of discussion include “God Humbles the Proud;” “God Cares for the Weak;” “God Works with the Imperfect” and “God Exalts the Humble,” among others.  Each focuses on a specific Bible verse and traces the plot of the film.  A participant’s guide is included at the end.

Overall, this collector’s edition is most definitely collection worthy.