The first time I saw any footage from Ben-Hur was at a repertory theatre in Sacramento. This would have been back in the '80s. It was one of those grand old movie palaces that barely exist anymore. Ben-Hur was on their upcoming schedule, so they ran the trailer before the feature. I was amazed by the sheer size of the image. All at once, I understood the meaning of the word “epic.”
When I finally watched the movie a few years later, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. I saw it on VHS, a format that could never begin to reproduce a film of this magnitude. So I figured at least I’ve seen it now and promptly forgot all about it.
For the film’s 50th anniversary, Warner Home Video is pulling out all the stops. The feature has been given a meticulous, frame by frame restoration from an 8K scan of the original 65mm camera negative. Having seen some of the results of this work, I now feel like I’ve really never seen Ben-Hur at all.
In addition to the revelatory new restoration, Warner Home Video is releasing Ben-Hur in an appropriately oversized package. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition weighs in at over two pounds and includes a reproduction of Charlton Heston’s personal journal as well as a hardbound book with stills, production art and much more.
The set also includes a new documentary, Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey, produced by Fraser Heston. For years, it was believed that no behind-the-scenes footage from Ben-Hur existed. Fortunately, Fraser Heston found home movies taken by his mother, actress and photographer Lydia Clarke, while the family lived in Italy during the filming of Ben-Hur. This rare, candid footage forms the core of the new documentary.
Also included are a wealth of extras from the previous DVD edition, including the 1925 silent version of the film, additional documentaries, screen tests, highlights from the 1960 Oscar ceremony where Ben-Hur dominated with 11 wins, and more.
As wonderful as the extra features are, it really is the new restoration that’ll blow you away. It’s an extraordinary piece of film preservation and is as close as you’ll get to seeing Ben-Hur at home the way it was meant to be seen.
Of course, the film does demand to be seen on the big screen. Fortunately, New Yorkers will get that chance on October 1 when the restored Ben-Hur screens at the New York Film Festival as part of their Masterworks series. Let’s hope additional theatrical screenings are added in other cities in the near future. But in the meantime, the Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition can be yours on Blu-ray on September 27.