William Wyler's epic "Ben-Hur," gets the deluxe treatment in Warner Bros.' 50th-anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition. It hits stores on DVD and Blu-ray today and it's our pick of the week.
Warners has gone all out with this release by giving the film a $1 million makeover (it's been restored from the original 65mm camera negative) and loading three discs with over four hours of extras. [Side note: The 49th New York Film Festival is screening the restored spectacle in its original 2.76 aspect ratio on Saturday, October 1. Go here for details.]
The set's best bonus feature is the new feature-length documentary "Charlton Heston: A Personal Journey," written and directed by Heston's son, Fraser C. Heston ("Alaska," "Needful Things"). The film offers a candid peek into the life of Heston while making the film that came to define his career; Heston won best actor (one of the film's 11 Oscars) for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur.
We caught up with Fraser Heston to talk about the release and his father's enduring legacy.
I've seen my fair share of Blu-ray sets, but this one takes the cake. The presentation is pretty spectacular.
The restoration’s amazing, isn’t it? I got Warners to show it to me. I went to the actual lab where they spent the last year and a half restoring it. I was just blown away. It looks better than the original. They did it not just a shot at a time, but a frame at a time. How do you judge how dark Wyler intended a scene to be? How blues are those blues meant to be? There’s very little reference. You can turn to other prints, but those have faded and degraded over the years. Even the negative was seriously degraded.
How were those judgments made?
What they do is they have a continual process of comparison, like a giant Sudoku puzzle. They compare the negative to a release print. It wasn’t shot in Technicolor, it was shot in MGM 65. And what Technicolor did is what they call reverse engineering, to give a Technicolor negative of some kind. That was done after the first release. So they had all these various materials to reference. They had to go back and find the closest approximation. Ultimately, they had to use their own artistic judgment. I think my dad would be just thrilled.
Seeing the film in this new refurbished light, what was the experience like for you personally? Did it bring you back to the first time you saw it?
Oh, sure. My reaction was that I wanted to step into the film and start talking to the characters. It looked like you could enter that world. It had a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” effect. Obviously, this particular film means a lot to me and my family. It was undeniably a watershed moment for my Dad. Not just in terms of his career as a star and winning the Academy Award, but his transformation as an actor, a serious actor, which is what he wanted to be.
If you read the excerpts of his journal, which are included in the DVD set, you can see he was very concerned with the craft and quality of the process of acting. That was kind of the drive, the force, that informed everything he did on that picture.
How old were you when your father started work on this film?
I was only four in 1959. My first memory was riding in the chariot. Another one: He used to sit in the fountain outside the villa we rented outside Rome because it was so damn hot. He was just exhausted this one Sunday, sitting out in his bathing suit with a cool drink... Just totally trashed after riding in the chariot all week.
Looking back, is at all surreal?
You know, it’s funny. I went to see the new “Planet of the Apes” the other day, which I liked a lot. I kept thinking, “Wow, I was here when they made the original.” So from “Ben-Hur” to “Planet of the Apes,” just about every film my Dad made, I was on set at least part of the time. Later I became a director and actually directed my dad in five or six films. My whole life is marked by a series of movie sets. It’s marvelous for me to be able to look back at all that.
What kind of footage can fans expect to see in the documentary you narrate?
It’s both a retrospective and a behind the scenes look at not just “Ben-Hur,” but at our family life in Rome and even back when we were building the house that my Mom still lives in in Coldwater Canyon here in Los Angeles.
How long did you spend in Rome during the shooting of "Ben-Hur"?
Oh, gosh. I think we were there for 10 or 11 months. It was a major undertaking and just exhausting. As my Dad said to Billy Wilder, “I knew this was going to be long haul, but I didn’t think I was going to have to roll a galley all the way to Los Angeles.”
To this day, is “Ben-Hur” one of your favorites from your father?
You know, it is. It stands up in a way that I think marks it as the first modern epic. Obviously, he was known for starring in epics like “The Ten Commandments” to “Planet of the Apes.” But I think “Ben-Hur” is a very different film from “The Ten Commandments,” which, by the way, is a wonderful film. But you look at the two films and I think “The Ten Commandments” is Cecil B. DeMille at his best. It’s unquestionably his best film. It’s a marvelous epic. But “Ben-Hur,” you could release it today and if you said it was directed by Ridley Scott or James Cameron, people would go, "Yeah, great, fabulous." It’s a much darker story. It really holds up.
So I think the whole experience is a richer, more complex modern experience. From the acting, the set design to the action. I mean, look what they did with that chariot race. It was just unprecedented.
About that chariot race, you were probably too young to realize the danger you father was in.
[Laughs] Oh, it drove my mom crazy. I think she finally kind of accepted this is what her husband did. I think I kind of believed my father was a professional chariot driver, which was fine.
Also on DVD/Blu-ray
Olivier Assayas' electrifying and epic take on notorious international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal. At over five hours it's quite the sit but well worth it, especially in this pristine transfer courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
This Canadian black comedy revolves around a group in Montreal who band together to discover the identity of a serial killer on the loose. Funnyman Jay Baruchel ("Knocked Up") stars alongside Canuck stars Scott Speedman ("Barney's Version") and Emily Hampshire ("Snow Cake").
Legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent gets a fitting tribute in this moving documentary that documents the 52-year relationship between Laurent and his business/life partner Pierre Bergé.