NYFF Spotlight: Ben-Hur

Posted by Nicholas Kemp on 9.12.2011

Film: Ben-Hur
Director: William Wyler
Program: Masterworks
Tickets: Oct 1

Why you should see it:
Warner Home Video has spent a year meticulously restoring this piece of cinema history for its 50th anniversary Blu-ray release. The result is a truly gorgeous 8K digital print that restores the film to its original 2.76 : 1 aspect ratio. In addition, Miklós Rózsa’s Academy Award-winning score will be presented in full 6.0 stereo. All of this will be yours to savor in the incomparable Alice Tully Hall. If these statistics mean nothing to you, trust us when we say that the classic chariot race has never looked or sounded this good. Ben-Hur is a great option for the whole family, too!

Track record:
A whopping 11 Academy Awards wins including: Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charlton Heston). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Motion Picture Director (William Wyler). Directors Guild of America Awards: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.

What the critics said:
Time Magazine (1959) on the sheer scope of the production: “Ben-Hur, 1959, by MGM's statistics, is adorned with more than 400 speaking parts, about 10,000 extras, 100,000 costumes, at least 300 sets. One of them, the circus built for the chariot race in Rome's Cinecitta, was the largest ever made for any movie. It covered 18 acres, held 10,000 people and 40,000 tons of sand, took a year to complete, and cost $1,000,000. The race itself, which runs only nine minutes on the screen, ran three months before the cameras and cost another million.”

Bosley Crowther for The New York Times (1959) on Ben-Hur’s transcendence of its genre: “Within the expansive format of the so-called "blockbuster" spectacle film… Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and William Wyler have managed to engineer a remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama in their new production of Ben-Hur. Without for one moment neglecting the tempting opportunities for thundering scenes of massive movement and mob excitement that are abundantly contained in the famous novel of Gen. Lew Wallace, upon which this picture is based, Mr. Wyler and his money-free producers have smartly and effectively laid stress on the powerful and meaningful personal conflicts that are strong in this old heroic tale.”

About the director:
William Wyler is one of the most accomplished and respected filmmakers in the history of American cinema. During his 45-year career he directed over 50 features, received 12 Academy Awards nominations and three wins for Best Director, and collected prizes from BAFTA, Cannes, the Directors Guild of America, and the Golden Globes to boot. A great indicator of the esteem for Wyler within the film world is the fact that he was the fourth-ever recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, after only John Ford, James Cagney and Orson Welles.

What the NYFF programmers say:
“This is really a special presentation. Ben-Hur has been restored by Warner Brothers in 8K. Now, usually when you go see a digital film it is projected in 2K. This is 8K so it’s four times that resolution. It’s really a new format for them. Plus it has 6.0 stereo sound. Beyond that it’s a film that was filmed in a distinct ratio, 2.76 : 1. Remember that in the 1950s they experimented with screen shape a lot. Most CinemaScope films that you see are 2.35 : 1 and, indeed, in earlier revivals of Ben-Hur they made prints in 2.35 : 1, meaning they cut off about a 10th of the movie, just chopped it off from the sides. This will be a really rare opportunity to see the film exactly as it was formatted when it first came out in 1959 for the roadshow version, which is when they did a brief tour around the country before the film actually opened.

“It's simply magnificently done. When you see thousands of people, they’re all there. There’s no CGI, nothing. A movie spectacular like they used to make them. And of course it has one of the most famous scenes, I would say, in American cinema of the era: the chariot race, which, again, totally was done without any kind of CGI or trick effects. It was actually filmed the way that you see it and it is really thrilling to watch even to this day.

“If you’ve never seen the film, you should really slot your Saturday, October 1 to see it because it is an absolutely extraordinary experience, a spectacle like you’ve hardly ever seen.” —Richard Peña, Program Director

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