Movie Collector's Guide # 2 - "Ben-Hur" - March, 2001

Brian Florian


"Ben-Hur", MGM, 1959, Color, Measured Aspect Ratio 2.76:1 (DVD), DD, 3 Hr 50 min, Rated PG-13; Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie.  Directed by William Wyler.  Written by Karl Tunberg.

The Story

"Ben-Hur" is the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman who, by a twist of fate, is made an example of by Massala, the Roman officer who was once his childhood friend. Massala sends Ben-Hur's mother and sister to prison while Judah gets condemned to slavery.  Sentenced to the oars of a military galley, he escapes during a battle and saves the life of the ship's commander.  Master and slave become father and son, earning Ben-Hur the freedom to return to his home to seek out his family and exact revenge on Massala.  En route, he encounters an Arabian horse owner, looking for a driver to lead his chariot team to victory in the Circus Maximus.  Since Massala is also racing, Ben-Hur takes the reins.  Through the tale, Ben-Hur has several brush encounters with the Christ, culminating in his conversion to Christianity at the cross, and the healing of his mother and sister of the leprosy they got in prison. 

benhur02.jpg (18848 bytes)The Legacy

"Ben-Hur" has the distinction of being the first film to earn 11 academy awards, an event which was unmatched for almost four decades (until James Cameron's 1997 Titanic).

Few other films in history are remembered with such reverence as "Ben-Hur".   The story itself was well known before the first frame of this film was shot:  The original book was published in 1880, a 15 minute silent film was made of it in 1907, then there was a long running stage play, and in 1925, Metro Goldwyn Mayer produced a more contemporary silent film costing a then outrageous 4 million dollars.  The film was poised to literally make or break the studio and indeed was very well received by audiences of the day.

With the challenge from television becoming very real in the 1950's, all studios were turning to extravagant wide gauge film systems with stereophonic sound to get people back into the theaters.  With the threat of going out of business on the horizon, MGM turned to its faithful "Ben-Hur" to save it, as the new company literally went for broke. No expense was spared as the cost of production rose to 50 million dollars, an absolutely unheard of sum for the day.  Fate paid it back as "Ben-Hur" took in 80 Million in its original run (or almost 500 million in today's dollars).

The story was already tried and true.  The challenge then was to write a screenplay worthy of it and get the right people to play the parts.  I will leave it up to the countless archives of critics' praise to tell you how perfect it all was.   It's quite humbling to think that the chariot race, an action sequence filmed 40 years ago, is still regarded by many as the most technically perfect action sequence in cinema history.  What I would like to expand on then, is the under-told story of what made the movie such a memorable experience for viewers of the day:  That enormous film format.

The Film

benhur01.jpg (22400 bytes)"Ben-Hur" was the second movie to be shot in the film format jointly known as MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision.

Like the Todd-AO system that preceded it, Ultra Panavision was filmed on 65mm stock, sideways.   The chief difference with the new system was the anamorphic lenses on the cameras.  Instead of a spherical process, a dual prism was used to achieve a 1.25:1 squeeze, giving much more uniform results than cylindrical systems. (Reports that the system featured a 1.33:1 ratio are incorrect.  The lenses are marked as such but were changed before they were put into use.)

On a 70mm release print, this process yielded a projected image with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 (that’s wide!).   Yet the primary goal when designing the system was for it to generate ultra high-quality 35mm CinemaScope reduction prints.  These release prints, with an anamophic squeeze of 2:1, gave a projected image with an aspect ratio of 2.5:1 at best.  The exceptionally wide 2.76:1 frame therefore was more a matter of breathing space than an actual projected image.  So although it was possible to show "Ben-Hur" at the full 2.76:1, nothing critical was shot outside of a 2.5:1 space so that cinemas would not be forced to get wider screens or sacrifice height on the existing ones.

benhur04.jpg (18192 bytes)The cameras were huge, weighing around 300 pounds and costing in excess of $100,000 each (or over $600,000 in today's money).

Why all this emphasis on such a cumbersome system?  Some quick math to put this in perspective Today's 35mm Panavision release print has over 11,000,000 pixels per frame.  The 70mm release print had approximately 35,000,000 (or about a hundred times more resolution than your DVD player).  Humbling isn't it?

The soundtrack for these road show prints were six track magnetics, conforming to the standard layout of the day:  5 channels across the screen and 1 surround channel.   Because the multi-channel sound was such a big part of the presentation, the general release 35mm prints contained a downmixed 4 channel magnetic soundtrack (3 screen channels and 1 surround) as well as a mono optical soundtrack.  This last was to be used only as a 'last resort'.

The presentation  

These 70mm 'road show' prints as they were called, embodied an art of presentation long lost.  Accompanying the film were detailed instructions, to the theater manager, on how it was to be presented, reproduced here in part (copyright 1959 by Loew's Inc.)

Only once or twice in a decade does a motion picture of the stature and importance of "Ben-Hur" come along and stimulate the interest and imagination of everyone in and out of the industry. It, therefore, deserves all the fine showmanship and care in its presentation that has been devoted to its preparation and production.
"Ben-Hur" has a total running time of 3 hours and 50 minutes, including the overture and intermission. It is broken down into six distinct components as follows:

1. The Overture .............................. 6 minutes

To start promptly at the advertised time.

2. The Nativity or Prologue ............. 7 minutes

No one is to be seated during this sequence.

3. The First Part ................ 2 hours, 7 minutes
4. The Intermission ....................... 15 minutes

After 11 minutes of intermission, signal booth to start sound track intermission music and signal patrons to return to their seats.

5. The Second Part .......... 1 hour, 15 minutes
6. The Close-in.


THE OVERTURE SHOULD BEGIN PROMPTLY AT THE ADVERTISED TIME OF YOUR PERFORMANCE. Do not inconvenience the great majority of your patrons who arrived on time for the few that failed to do so. During the Overture your traveler or scrim should be closed and your house lights full up.

As the Overture draws to a close, your house lights should be dimmed gradually and be out as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer trademark hits the traveler. At this moment, your traveler is opened to the beauty of the Nativity Sequence.

NO ONE SHOULD BE SEATED DURING THE SHOWING OF THE NATIVITY SEQUENCE. Latecomers should stand to the rear of the orchestra or be kept in the lobby. A staff member would advise these patrons that the Nativity Scene is on and that they will be seated in a few minutes.

The First Part begins with the title projected on the screen, followed by the credits. At this time, latecomers may be seated quietly and with as little disturbance as possible to those already seated.

Intermission takes place 2 hours and 7 minutes after the start of the First Part. The traveler closes on the word INTERMISSION and the house lights are brought up at a moderate speed. The Intermission should not exceed a total of fifteen minutes, or be less than ten.

Eleven minutes after the Intermission begins, your projectionist should start the Intermission Music with house lights full up and traveler closed. At the same time your staff will signal the patrons by gong, chimes, or bell and the flashing of the lobby and lounge lights. You will find these combinations will encourage most of your patrons to return to their seats in time to see the beginning of the Second Part.

The Second Part begins with the first projection hitting your traveler as the Intermission Music fades and the curtain is opened to a mosaic floor design scene and lifts to the action in a Roman Bath. The Second Part lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes.

The Close-in comes as the words THE END are projected on the screen and, as the traveler is slowly closed, the house lights are brought up at moderate speed.


"Ben-Hur" was epic in its making.   One can see in these instruction that care was taken such that all the emotion put into it came through in its presentation.  Going to see this film was not a casual Saturday afternoon activity:  It was an all evening affair, and patrons often dressed up for the occasion.


benhur07.jpg (26901 bytes)There was much anticipation leading up to this DVD release as to whether it would be presented in the full 2.76:1 aspect ratio (but as already noted, anything wider than 2.5:1 was not absolutely necessary).  Though I have seen contradictory reports, our measurements do indeed show that the 16:9 enhanced image is in fact 2.76:1, or just shy of it depending on your device's overscan or pixel cropping.  In practical terms, all of that glorious chariot race is yours to enjoy in widescreen splendor.  This faithfulness to the original 70mm release naturally yields an image which on screens smaller the 32" may be distractingly small, but there is no other ethical way to preserve this masterpiece.

The film has either been well preserved or well restored.  This DVD edition is for the most part free of age-indicating scratches and artifacts.  Colors are rich and consistent, while shadow detail is adequate.   Detail is very good, and the overall image has a nice film-like quality.  Flesh tones are faithful to the original Technicolor in that they are not poor, but you 'know' you are watching a 1959 film.  The only film artifact noted is the occasional frame weave, noticeable in particular during the credits.  Though edge enhancement may be noted, it is neither harsh nor distracting, and most other digital artifacts are at a perfectly acceptable minimum.

benhur11.jpg (25192 bytes)There is little hard information to indicate whether the remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is a direct descendant of either the 6-track or 4 track magnetic.  Quite frankly, I don't care:  It sounds great for a 40 year old film.  Dialogue, though hinting at its age, is still very intelligible and lively.  Music is spacious with more detail in the highs than we usually expect from such an old soundtrack.  The chariot race will have you mesmerized as all 5 main channels scream with the cheering of the crowd.  One element which feels lacking is in the bass.  The only time it really gets going is at the crucifixion (at which point it really gets rambunctious).  One interesting note which does suggest some relation to the 70mm 6-track is that frequently, dialogue comes from half-left or half-right, as if there were the 5 screen channels of the original soundtrack.  This creates some delicious pin-point imaging for people with enormous screens.

Extras include a Making of feature, stills, screen tests, and more. Believe it or not, Leslie Nielsen did a screen test for the part of Massala.


- Brian Florian -


All "Ben-Hur", titles, and artwork 1959 Turner Entertainment Co. and/or MGM

Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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