My Two Cents

Retro Release Day: Ben-Hur on DVD (2001)

March 28, 2019 - 6:58 pm   |   by
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For today’s Retro Release Day here at The Bits, we’re looking at a 65 mm epic from director William Wyler: MGM’s Ben-Hur (1959), first released on DVD on March 13, 2001 by Warner Home Video.

Winner of 11 Academy Awards, the film stars Charlton Heston in the title role, with cinematography by Robert L. Surtees (Camera 65 process), music by Miklós Rózsa, and a supporting cast that includes Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, and Sam Jaffe.

The film is renowned for its chariot race sequence, which takes full advantage of the 2.66:1 widescreen frame (70 mm prints featured 2.76:1).

Today, Ben-Hur is often considered the second greatest American epic film behind Lawrence of Arabia. [Read on here...]

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Warner’s original DVD release was once again a “flipper” disc, in cardboard and plastic Snapper packaging, and it was one of the early DVD-18 format discs (dual-sided and RSDL “reverse spiral dual-layered” with a layer switch on Side One).

Unlike many other flipper releases on DVD, only an anamorphic widescreen version was included – each of the film’s two parts was contained on its own side of the disc – with an intermission at the end of Part One, along with Overture and Entr’Acte music. Audio was remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1.

Extras included an audio commentary with actor Charlton Heston, the hour-long Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic documentary, a gallery of production photographs, screen test footage, cast and crew bios, an awards listing, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a teaser trailer.

Ben-Hur (DVD)

Warner Home Video pulled out all the stops for this release. They even held a small press event at the studio with Charlton Heston on hand. He was stooped over and slow-moving with age, but his mind was still quite sharp.

I was fortunate enough to attend this event, sitting right next to Heston at the table, along with Pete Bracke from DVD File, Guido Henkel from DVD Review, and a small group of national press and industry trade reporters, among others.

The event was interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this was just two years after the tragedy at Columbine High School, and a year after Heston’s “cold dead hands” NRA speech, which was getting a great deal of play in the media at the time. As you might imagine, and somewhat understandably, the national press wanted only to ask Heston about guns. Unfortunately, some of them were real dicks about it.

Meanwhile, Pete, Guido, and I were there to talk about Ben-Hur. So after a few uncomfortable minutes of being bombarded by gun questions he refused to engage on, Heston simply ignored the others and focused all his attention on the three of us. The Warner reps were getting visibly nervous, until we began asking film-related questions and Heston proceeded to regale us with stories about the production and his wider acting career.

At one point, Heston turned to me, smiled, and pointed his finger directly in my face. Then he proceeded to quote lines from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in character, his voice thundering around the room.

The event continued like this for an hour or so. It was one of the stranger and more extraordinary PR events I’ve experienced in this business.

Ben-Hur (DVD)

After the event, possibly as a thank you for helping to make the best out of a potentially very uncomfortable situation, I received a copy of the DVD in the mail… the very copy pictured here. It was signed by Heston himself.

Fascinating times.

Ben-Hur (DVD)

Ben-Hur appeared again on DVD as a Collector’s Edition (on March 9, 2004) and eventually on Blu-ray (on March 29, 2011). 2019 marks the film’s 60th anniversary. We’ve heard not plans yet for a 4K Ultra HD release from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, but I wouldn’t count one out.

That’s it for today’s Retro Release Day! Check back Tuesday for the next installment, and if you share links to this column on social media, be sure to use tag #RetroReleaseDay.

Stay tuned...

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