The cover of the new 50th Anniversary Edition of Ben-Hur [Warner] boasts no less than 11 Academy Awards. That's a whole lot of Oscars, isn't it? Maybe a record, or something? Regardless, is this 1959 Biblical spectacle really that good?
A look at the record books informs us that "Ben-Hur" was indeed the first movie to win 11 Oscars, breaking the record of nine set the year before by "Gigi." This unprecedented achievement went unequaled for almost 40 years, when "Ben-Hur" was finally matched by "Titanic" (and, subsequently, "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King"). So yes, 11 remains the record after eighty-three years of Oscar.
As to the related question, I dutifully sat before my widescreen to watch the 222-minute epic blockbuster. 222 minutes is a shade less than four hours, if you don't want to do the math; I trimmed off six minutes by skipping through the overture and entr'acte. (Three-hour-plus road show attractions in those days included the trimmings of a real Broadway show, including a full intermission.)
This cinematic epic, from director William Wyler, is truly epic; one of the most lavish and expensive films of its time, and it sure looks it. (The climactic chariot race, set in a vast arena, is said to have used a full 15,000 extras. Plus 78 horses.) M-G-M went and reconstructed the whole Roman Forum, for beginners, plus vast Judean villages. The whole thing looks more than vibrant, in Blu-ray. Colors virtually burst out at you: the reds of the costumes, the blues of the Mediterranean, and more. The film itself is impressive. This is a story of the people and times of The Christ, as it says in the ads. (While Jesus is a character who plays a small but critically important role, Wyler coyly keeps his face from view.) Source material was "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace.
Wallace was a general during the Civil War, having played an important and nearly disastrous role at the Battle of Shiloh. (Grant accused Major General Wallace of incompetence, resulting in heavy Union casualties. Or maybe Grant was just looking for a scapegoat?) Wallace's literary efforts paid off, as his book quickly knocked Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" off its perch as the best-selling novel in United States history. "Ben-Hur," in turn, was surpassed by Margaret Mitchell's 1936 opus "Gone with the Wind."
Ben-Hur took to the stage in 1899, where it was a bigger hit than — well, Uncle Tom's Cabin, with a continual presence until World War I. The sixth and final Broadway visit came in 1916. Then Hollywood called in 1925, with what is said to be the most expensive silent film of all time. A phenomenally successful one, too, starring Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. So it was not exactly a surprise when M-G-M, 30-some years later, broke the bank to budget a new "Ben-Hur." Which was once again a major commercial success, even though the almost-four hour running time restricted it to one showing per night. And an artistic success, garnering — what was it? — 11 Oscars.
Viewing "Ben-Hur" today, the success seems merited. Best Picture, Best Director and a slew of design awards make perfect sense, as do the nods to cinematographer Robert Surtees and composer Miklos Rozsa. (If Rozsa had been paid by the measure, his accountant would still be tallying the invoice.) Charlton Heston, as Ben, is admirable; yes, he does a good job with an unquestionably strenuous role. At this late date, though, I don't quite see how he took the Oscar over Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot." Now, that was a performance!
More surprising, I think, was the Best Featured Actor win by Hugh Griffith. The Welsh actor was at his peak, having left the 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit Look Homeward Angel to start filming. (Griffith was nominated for the Best Actor Tony along with Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Tony Perkins. They all lost to Ralph Bellamy for his performance as F.D.R. in "Sunrise in Campobello.")
Here, Griffith plays the Arab Sheik Ilderim, who owns the best horses in the Middle East, and 50 wives. Griffith does not seem authentic, to say the least; more like a musical comedy sheik. (In his big banquet scene, some shots seem to betray white skin below the wig line.) Stephen Boyd, as the villain, Messala, does a far more impressive job — but he was not nominated for the award, while Griffith was. Also on view, as Heston's mother, is Martha Scott; a mere 20 years earlier she had created the role of Emily Webb in the stage and screen versions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
This anniversary edition comes in a big (meaning oversized) box with a lavishly produced, richly illustrated, 64-page, 11-by-8-inch hardcover book. Also included is a 128-page replica of Heston's personal diary. This might not sound like much in passing, but I picked it up and couldn't stop reading. Heston is limited by the space of a daily journal book with detachable pages — he typed each day's entry — but he gives a fascinating and insightful account. The film itself is on two Blu-ray discs. The third includes the usual special features: in this case, a 1994 documetnary on the making of the film; the new documentary "Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey"; screen tests; clips from Oscar night and more. Most interesting is the Thames Television restoration of the 1925 silent version — a veritable short subject, at only two-and-a-half hours, complete with color sequences. This one is a major piece of filmmaking in its own right.
If four hours of your time sounds prohibitive, all I can tell you is that after sitting through the thing, I immediately went back and replayed the galley slave/sea battle sequence and that massive chariot race: two scenes that are — in a word — astounding.
The new Blu-ray edition is digital, with high definition sound and all sorts of interactive bonus features. New for 2011 are four never-before seen deleted scenes, plus some never-before-seen bloopers. The Blu-ray comes in a two-disc set, with the second disc being a DVD of the film. The Diamond Edition is also available in a four-disc combo pack, with the additional discs being a digital copy and a 3D Blu-ray. I suppose the 3D Blu-ray looks even better than the plain old 2D Blu-ray, but I don't yet have a 3D player. ("The Lion King 3D" is currently doing spectacular business in movie houses, having already surpassed $80 million at the domestic box office.) Speaking of Disney 3D, let us add that last October's "Beauty and the Beast Diamond Edition" has now been repackaged and released as a five-disc Diamond Edition 3D.
The disc is stacked with extras; many from the prior release but including such new items as a critical retrospective, "Here Are Some Facts on the Fiction," and a cast-interview piece called "Not the Usual Mindless Boring Getting to Know You Chit Chat." Which sounds like it comes from the guy who gave us "Pulp Fiction," doesn't it? Miramax/Lionsgate are simultaneously releasing a Blu-ray of Tarantino's 1997 follow-up to "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown." *
The second season of "Glee" enjoyed the high points of the first mixed with an uneasy proportion of low points, in the storyline and character development areas. This sophomore slump is apparent on the new six-disc set; some episodes don't seem to work, although "Glee" fans will no doubt ravenously watch them. Among the season's guest stars are such names as Kristin Chenoweth, Carol Burnett, John Stamos, Cheyenne Jackson, Patti LuPone, Jonathan Groff, Barry Bostwick, Britney Spears, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Special features include a music jukebox; "The Making of The Rocky Horror Glee Show," devoted to last year's Halloween episode; "Shooting Glee in New York"; and "Getting Waxed with Jane Lynch," which speaks for itself.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at [email protected])
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