A scene from the chariot race, before (top) and after the film’s restoration.
Let’s start with the video transfer. The artisans behind this release went back to the film’s original camera negative to do an 8K scan for this loving frame-by-frame restoration. Ben-Hur was shot in a process that MGM dubbed “Camera 65,” which was a 70mm format that devoted 65 to the image and 5 to the accompanying magnetic audio tracks. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is presented in its original 2.76:1 aspect ratio. The overall results are magnificent. The movie looks that good.
Image detail is stunning. Check out the wood grain in the slave ship where Judah is imprisoned or the grille work in the Romans’ armor. And colors are as lush and vibrant as I’ve ever seen them. Reds and purples are almost electric, but they don’t look “digital” or oversaturated. The palette was clearly pushed to the limit, but it never falls into blooming or screen-dooring. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single digital artifact — and I looked hard.
In films today, skin tones are usually rendered nearly perfectly. In movies of the late 1950s, that wasn’t always the case. Due to technical limitations, skin tones often had a distracting orange tint. With Ben-Hur on Blu-ray, however, Judah and his contemporaries look properly well tanned but natural.
Shadow detail and grayscale rendition also meet or exceed that of the best restorations I’ve seen. Every top restorer knows that you have to start with the blacks; when you get them deep enough, everything else tends to fall into place. In Ben-Hur, the dungeons, the candle-lit interiors, and the daytime battles all feature deep, rich blacks and correspondingly accurate gray tones.
All of this technological accuracy does have one drawback, though. Even the most passive viewer will probably notice the painted sets and models in several scenes. My advice: Roll with it. You’re seeing high-definition on Blu-ray at its finest.
You’re also hearing DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 at its most thrilling. The Blu-ray sound designers clearly respected the film’s original sonics; they didn’t employ center- and surround-channel effects everywhere. Largely keeping a forward-leaning presentation, the designers inserted subtle background and spatial cues only when appropriate — saving the big surround effects for the scenes where they would add the most. Which is to say, the epic set pieces, the sea battle, and, of course, the chariot race.
As Judah competes in the race, the sound envelops you in a beautifully rendered 360-degree arc, with intense realism and superior (but not overused) panning effects. The din of the spectators, the snorting of the horses, and the attack and decay of the chariots as they move in and out of the frame sound exactly as I imagined they should when I first saw Ben-Hur on a 13-inch black-and-white Zenith TV in the early 1970s.
Special recognition has to be given to the treatment of Miklós Rózsa’s legendary score. From the overture to the closing credits, the music swells dynamically, with intense low-frequency energy. At the same time, you can hear world-class separation, detail, and air between the instruments.
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