This leads to the extras. Rózsa’s score is so powerful and important, it’s also available on the main discs as a standalone music-only track. Alas, it’s presented in plain-vanilla Dolby Digital 2.0, but the sections I listened to sounded great on my very sophisticated and very high-end audio system. I can think of worse ways to spend an afternoon than reveling in what is arguably the finest work of one of the most respected film composers of his era. And from there, you can dive into the rest of the extras.
Full disclosure concerning The Charlton Factor: I came of age in the era of Heston’s Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973). Sure, the guy also played Moses, Michelangelo, and John the Baptist as well as Judah Ben-Hur and many other characters. But I was never a fan. There was the lack of subtlety. Indeed, there was the tendency toward full-tilt scene-chewing, occasionally to the point of self-parody. Heston fares well in Ben-Hur, his star-making role. His intensity and his ability to convey suffering on a visceral level certainly fit the part. Still, I’d say that the movie achieved what it did in spite of him rather than because of him. And Heston is all over the extras.
That said, the physical materials inside this box include On the Set of Ben-Hur, a leather-bound replica of Heston’s personal journal, with a foreword by his son, Fraser. The reproduction is so faithful, it even has taped-in photos and tickets to promotional events for the movie. And it’s a real kick to read. Furthermore, Heston’s musings feel genuine, ranging from worries about his weight to thoughts on the creative process.
Delving further into the man behind the actor is a new 80-minute high-def documentary on the bonus disc. In exploring all things Charlton, it gathers reminiscences by family, friends, and colleagues (including, truth be told, an odd remembrance by Tom Selleck that feels out of place) as well as 16mm home-movie clips.
Then there’s the previously released commentary by T. Gene Hatcher, with remarks from Heston that were edited in after the fact. Together, the film historian and the movie star serve up some meaty production info and background.
Returning to the bonus disc, you get two making-of featurettes (shot in standard-def) from 1994 and 2005, each running about an hour. They present even more factoids and insight, including some salient observations from director George Lucas and film critic Elvis Mitchell. You also learn a lot about novelist Wallace.
The jewel of the extras may well be the inclusion of the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. After you watch the 1959 main event, wait a few days and then look in on its daddy, all 2 hours and 22 minutes of it. Wyler clearly drew more than just inspiration from director Fred Niblo’s silent movie. The basic narrative and several key scenes (including the chariot race) were laid out by Niblo, whose version stands on its own as a serious piece of early filmmaking. Fascinating.
But that’s not all. There’s another physical extra inside the box: a handsomely made hardcover book, with mini-profiles of all the key cast and crew members and loads of photos. And rounding out the disc extras are various trailers, a screen-test reel (where you can look for some familiar faces who didn’t make it into the movie), a collection of stills and storyboards set to Rózsa’s score, and newsreel footage chronicling the movie’s multiple premieres. You also get highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards telecast, when Ben-Hur owned the night in a way that wouldn’t be equaled until James Cameron’s Titanic sailed into town 40 years later.
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