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Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Limited Edition - Blu-ray Disc Review

Warner Brothers Brings an Epic Film to Blu-ray

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Ben-Hur: Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc Package

Ben-Hur: Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc Package

Photo (c) Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com
Ben-Hur: Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc Package - Photo of Package Cover

Ben-Hur: Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc Package - Photo of Package Cover

Photo (c) Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com
Ben-Hur: Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc Package - Photo of Blu-ray Discs

Ben-Hur: Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc Package - Photo of Blu-ray Discs

Photo (c) Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com

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The famed historical epic 1959 film, Ben-Hur, arrives on Blu-ray in both a standard and limited edition package with a pristine transfer from an 8K resolution source. Although Ben-Hur comes in both a standard and limited edition release, the review presented here lists the contents of the limited edition package. However, comments made regarding the quality of the feature film part of the package is applicable to both release versions.

Blu-ray Package Description

Genre: Historical Drama, based on the novel by General Lew Wallace.

Main Cast: Charlton Heston, Stehphen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, and Martha Scott.

Director: William Wyler

Discs: Entire Film spread across two Blu-ray Discs (225 minutes total running time), Special features and supplements on third disc.

Video Specifications: Video codec used - MPEG-4 AVC, Video resolution - 1080p, Aspect ratio - 2.76:1 - Special features and supplements in various resolutions and aspect ratios.

Audio Specifications: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish), Dolby Digital Mono (Czech, Hungarian, and Portuguese)

Subtitles: English SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai.

Bonus Features and Supplements:

1. Audio Commentary

2. Music-Only Track

3. Theatrical Trailers

4. Ben-Hur (full 1925 silent version - with full orchestral soundtrack) - SD - 153 minutes - Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur.

5. Documentaries: Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (HD - 78 min), Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (SD - 47 min), Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (SD - 58 min), Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (SD - 5 min).

6. Screen Tests

7. Historical Newsreel Footage.

8. Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards TV Broadcast (SD - 10 min)

9. Hardcover Book: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Ben-Hur

10. Hardcover Book: Copy of Charlton Heston's on-set journal

The Story

For those not familiar with the story of Ben-Hur, it was originally written by U.S. Civil War General, Lew Wallace, which he titled: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The film version stays very close to the source material and begins with the birth of Jesus and then moves sometime later where Juda Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston) unexpectedly becomes accused of an assassination attempt on his Roman friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) who is high-up government official. As a result, Ben-Hur and his family are taken prisoner, Ben-Hur is placed into slavery, and Ben-Hur and Messala are now enemies.

What follows is a journey across the ancient world in which Ben-Hur becomes an unwilling participant, and survivor, in an epic sea battle as a galley oarsman, is adopted by a Roman nobleman, becomes a champion charioteer, and faces a showdown with his former-friend-now-foe Messala in a championship chariot race. The time period of the story also parallels the events involving the life of Jesus (snippets of the Jesus story are strategically placed throughout the film), and there is a point early in the film where Ben-Hur has a direct encounter with Christ (who's face is never shown), and is also later witness to his crucifixion.

The Blu-ray Disc Presentation

If you ever wondered how a classic film holds up on Blu-ray, Ben Hur will exceed your expectations. The films looks brand new, with vibrant color and excellent detail. When the film was made, it was one of the most expensive ever (about $15 million in 1950's dollars), and over $1 million was spent on the film-to-Blu-ray transfer process, which included scanning the film digitally in 8K, before downscaling to 1080p Blu-ray resolution. Just as almost every penny showed up on theatrical screens, you get the feeling that every penny of the restoration and transfer process is displayed on your TV or video projector.

However, there is a cautionary note: Ben-Hur is long (226 minutes - including the overture and intermission musical interlude) and was shot on 65mm film - referred to as Camera 65 - which has a very wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio. What this means is that no matter TV you have, you will see large black bars on the top and bottom of the image. Even if you are fortunate to have a 2.35:1 aspect ratio video projection system, the image will not entirely fill the screen. However, it is important that the film is viewed in its wide aspect ratio to fully appreciate William Wyler's intent to present the story of Ben-Hur in truly epic fashion. The wide aspect ratio works, and any attempt to crop the image to fill the screen destroys both the scope and dramatic impact of the film.

In addition to the film presentation, the Limited Edition Blu-ray Disc version also includes an abundance of excellent bonus and supplementary material, although much of is taken from a previous DVD release of the film. On the other hand, included are several gems, including the original 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, which is a ground-breaking film in its own right. The 1925 version is presented in its native 1.33:1 aspect ratio and contains both restored color-tinting and full color sequences.

Other bonuses include a new documentary for this Blu-ray release titled: Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey, two hardcover books: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Ben-Hur, which features excellent photos and visual highlights from the film, and a excellent hard-cover copy of Charlton Heston's actual on-set daily journal. All this comes in a numbered gift box. The total run is 125,000 - my copy is number 1,884.

Audio Presentation

OK, you are probably thinking that because this film was released theatrically in 1959, that while may still look good, it can't really sound that good, right? Wrong...The Blu-ray sounds excellent. The film was originally recorded in stereo, and there was enough information for the current generation of sound engineers to not only extract a full 5.1 audio soundtrack and preserve it in DTS-HD Master Audio, but just as the video has been pristinely restored, Warner Brothers has devoted the same scrutiny to the audio soundtrack, cleanly restoring it as if it had been newly recorded.

Obviously there isn't as much surround information as there is most of todays films, but the 5.1 channel mix provides enough ambience to immerse you, without the feeling that something is being overly manipulated. The same goes for the subwoofer effects, they are subtle, but there. My suggestion is to switch your subwoofer from Standby/Auto-Detect to ON and increase the gain by a couple of db. This will work especially well for the chariot race scene.

Also, the music portion of the soundtrack, written and conducted by Miklos Rozsa shines in DTS HD-Master Audio, and is perfect counter balance to both the dramatic and action screen moments. There are a lot of fanfares and brass, which sound clear and distinct, and the sting orchestra sequences sound thick and lush.

Proceed to Page 2: Pros, Cons, Final Comments, Equipment List

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