‘Ben-Hur’ 1959 & 1925 on DVD: Charlton Heston & Ramon Novarro movies
Ben-Hur, both the 1959 and 1925 versions starring, respectively, Charlton Heston and Ramon Novarro, are part of a four-disc set via Warner Home Video. The 1959 epic nearly broke MGM during its production, but perhaps it was worth the pain. Directed by William Wyler, Ben-Hur ended up breaking box office and Academy Award records – winning a total of 11 out of its 12 Oscar nominations. (Image: Charlton Heston Ben-Hur 1959.)
Among the golden statuettes the 1959 Ben-Hur took home were those for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), and Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith). Undeservedly so, in my humble opinion.
Based on Lew Wallace’s pious semi-historical novel, Wyler’s Ben-Hur is a ponderous, badly written (Karl Tunberg received sole screen credit, though there were other contributors including Christopher Fry and Gore Vidal), and mostly poorly acted melodrama that comes to life only during the chariot race sequence – which, by the way, was handled not by Wyler, but by stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt and second unit director Andrew Marton. Also worth noting is that the 1959 chariot race was a near shot-by-shot restaging of the even more electrifying race found in the much superior 1925 silent version of the same story.
Of course, it’s no big surprise that Charlton Heston is a wooden Ben-Hur and that hammy Hugh Griffith chews on the cardboard-looking scenery as if he hadn’t eaten for years. But that William Wyler would sleepwalk through his directorial chores is a major letdown, for Wyler could be a brilliant filmmaker – e.g., The Letter, The Little Foxes. As it stands, Ben-Hur remains not only Wyler’s biggest commercial success, but also his worst film since becoming an A-list director in the mid-’30s.
And you can decide for yourself whether or not Stephen Boyd’s Messala feels more than fraternal love for Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur.
Note: The 1959 Ben-Hur DVD features a newly remastered and restored print from original 65mm film elements.
Directed by Fred Niblo, the still impressive 1925 Ben-Hur, a.k.a. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, stars heartthrob Ramon Novarro in the title role, 1910s matinee idol Francis X. Bushman as Messala, and, as Novarro / Ben-Hur’s love interest, May McAvoy – Al Jolson’s leading lady in the first part-talkie feature film, The Jazz Singer. Another troubled MGM production that received wide acclaim upon its release, Ben-Hur went on to become the highest-grossing movie worldwide, and would remain so until Gone with the Wind 14 years later.
Restored by Thames Television in the late ’80s, Ben-Hur 1925 comes with Carl Davis’ excellent musical accompaniment. Others in the cast: Carmel Myers, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, and popular teen star Betty Bronson as the Virgin Mary.
‘Ben-Hur’ DVD extras
Besides both Ben-Hur movies, Warner’s four-disc set also offers ten hours worth of extras, including the feature-length documentaries Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, in which the likes of Ridley Scott and George Lucas discuss the importance and influence of Wyler’s multiple Oscar winner; Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, hosted by Christopher Plummer; and Directed by William Wyler, a 1986 Emmy-nominated documentary featuring Wyler’s last interview. Those may well be considerably more interesting than the (1959) main attraction.
Charlton Heston Ben-Hur 1959 image: MGM.