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Like all seminal works, 1959’s Ben-Hur elicits some strong opinions. Is it one of the best films ever made? Or is it simply an overhyped sword-and-sandals flick? And how does it compare with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Quo Vadis, Spartacus, or even the Lord of the Rings trilogy?
That stuff is fun to argue over, but I’m not sure it’s relevant. From where I sit, Ben-Hur is one of the most entertaining movies of all time. It’s impeccably crafted. It’s morally ambitious and intellectually nuanced enough for most movie mavens to take seriously. And it’s one of those rare films that define the zeitgeist of the decade in which they were made.
A brief backstory: The best-selling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Civil War Major General Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. A staged version ran for more than 20 years in various cities. The first attempt at a film adaptation, in 1907, was just a 15-minute one-reeler, but 18 years later the story became one of the first cinematic epics. Yes, Virginia, the first full version of Ben-Hur was a silent movie, which also did smashingly well at the box office.
When MGM began shooting its remake, the studio was facing the very real possibility of bankruptcy. But it was confident enough in the project to invest the then-staggering sum of almost $15 million to get the movie made. The 9-minute chariot race alone, among the most iconic sequences ever committed to the screen, cost a million bucks to shoot. Put that investment into context: In 1959, the average American male made about $5,000 a year, and you could drive home a new Buick LeSabre for $1,500. Movie tickets were a dollar apiece.
Written for the screen by Karl Tunberg (with uncredited help from Gore Vidal and others) and directed by the great William Wyler (Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress, Roman Holiday), Ben-Hur went on to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Special Effects. (Tunberg was nominated but lost to Neil Paterson for Room at the Top.)
The Best Actor Oscar went to Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince in Roman-occupied Jerusalem in the year A.D. 26. As the story unfolds, Judah is saved by and then continually crosses paths with a charismatic figure who is never seen in full face. That figure is Jesus Christ, whose presence here, paralleling the struggles and redemption of Judah, is the moral axis upon which the movie revolves. Wyler’s masterful imagery and storytelling in the moments that depict Christ are at least as important in elevating Ben-Hur to its place in the film canon as are any of the director’s grand spectacles here.
Now comes the 52-year-old movie’s debut on Blu-ray in a slightly delayed 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition, with the 3-hour, 42-minute film on two discs and a wealth of compelling extras on a third disc. I’m not gonna quibble: From the quality of the printed packaging to the discs themselves, this box set is one of the finest, most painstaking presentations I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing.
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