Ben-Hur 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector‘s Edition (1959, Warner, 3 Blu-ray discs, NR, 222 min.). “Ben-Hur” has always been one of my favorite all-time films, sparking my love for Biblical and Roman epics. I have had collector’s editions all through my life, even of the original motion picture soundtrack. Nothing, though, compares with this wonderful, lovingly put together set.

“Ben-Hur” used 100,000 costumes, 15,000 extras, 300 sets and a $15 million budget that made it, at the time, the most expensive film in MGM’s history. It was filmed in a process known as MGM Camera 65, one of the widest prints ever made, with its width almost three times its height. This is most telling in the climatic chariot race sequence. The film went on to win 11 Academy Awards, the most ever at the time and only matched later by “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” It still ranks 13th in all-time box office when adjusted for inflation.

Based on Gen. Lew Wallace’s novel, which is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” “Ben-Hur” is a deeply religious film. It tells the tale of two childhood friends who grow apart. Charlton Heston, who won an Oscar for his work here, plays Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the First Century. His childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns home as an ambitious commanding officer of the Roman Legions. An incident leads to Messala condemning the Ben-Hur family and Judah Ben-Hur becomes a galley slave (another top-notch sequence). Running parallel to Ben-Hur’s story is that of Jesus Christ, from the same area, of the same age and also involving betrayal, conviction and redemption. The two meet briefly, when the carpenter Jesus gives Ben-Hur some water at Nazareth.

For this edition, the film has been newly remastered and restored from original 65mm film elements. It has never looked better and, like the last release, is contained on two discs. Carried over from the previous release is audio commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with scene-specific comments by Heston, as well as a music-only track showcasing Miklos Rozsa’s Oscar-winning score (the other Oscars included Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler, Best Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Best Cinematography for Robert L. Surtees and Art Direction, Film Editing, Sound, Costume Design and Special Effects. Disc three contains a new 78-minute, high-definition documentary, “Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey,” a documentary hosted by Heston’s son, Fraser, that includes Heston family home movies, shot in Italy during the production. The remainder of disc three is are carried over from the previous 45th anniversary release, including the 1925 silent film “Ben-Hur” (143 min.) with an orchestral score by composer Carl David; the 2005 documentary “Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema” (58 min.); the 1994 documentary “Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic” (58 min.); 30 minutes of screen tests; vintage newsreels gallery; an audio-visual recreation of the film via stills, storyboards, sketches, music and dialogue; and highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony.

Reminiscent of last year’s “Wizard of Oz” reissue by Warner Home Video, the limited edition set (only 125,000 have been made) comes in a sturdy cardboard box with a raised version of the “Ben-Hur” bookends logo on the cover (the box slides out from a colorful cardboard sleeve; see accompanying illustration). There is a hardbound book with rare photography, production art, wardrobe stills and reproductions from the original theatrical press book. It has a wonderful shot of Heston in the chariot race, being pulled by four horses. And amazingly, there is even a reproduction of Heston’s own diary, daily notes kept during the production of the film. It goes from January 1958 through April 1960 and includes personal photos from the Heston family and Heston’s own sketches. There also is a five-disc standard DVD version of the set and a two-disc standard DVD version of just the film with commentary. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras and package 5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

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