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Kevin Krock, editor
The MousePlanet Home Theater Video News - 12/22/00
One news item of interest this week... I received an interesting announcement from Warner Brothers about the release of of the classic movie "Ben-Hur" on DVD on March 13, and I thought I'd share it with you:


New to DVD are Heston Commentary, Recently Discovered Screen Tests & Outstanding New Dolby Digital 5.1 Remix Including Movie’s Overture

Burbank, Calif., December 18, 2000 -- On March 13, Warner Home Video (WHV) will introduce for the first time ever the long-awaited DVD of the Academy Award®-winning MGM film classic Ben-Hur. Starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler, Ben-Hur captured 12 nominations and received 11 Oscars®, including Best Picture. The DVD will sell at the suggested price of $24.98.

"We’re proud to be releasing this DVD of Ben-Hur," said Mark Horak, WHV’s senior vice president, marketing. "In addition to being digitally transferred and enhanced for widescreen TV, the disc has a new Dolby Digital soundtrack remix, and the results are spectacular. We are also especially pleased that Charlton Heston has recorded a new commentary relating his experiences on the production."

Ben-Hur is one of two films (the other, "Raintree County") originally photographed in MGM Camera 65, the widest aspect ratio (2.76:1) ever used theatrically. In a single frame, Camera 65 was able to yield an image that, while extremely wide, was still stunningly sharp and detailed. By the time Ben-Hur reached the television screen, more than half the image was lost due to cropping needed for TV's squarer screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio). Although later VHS and laserdisc widescreen versions restored the scope of the image, the limited resolution of those formats pales in comparison to the miracle of DVD.

benhur_wide.jpg (15713 bytes) benhur_scan.jpg (7006 bytes)

On the left, Ben-Hur in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2.76:1, meaning the screen is 2.76 times wider than its height. On the right is an example of television’s pan and scan version, with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 -- more than half the picture has been lost. In the new DVD version, the home viewer will be able to see the film in its original theatrical format aided by increased clarity and detail the DVD format’s resolution provides.

The Ben-Hur DVD features are: the Charlton Heston commentary, the new digitally re-mastered picture and soundtrack (Dolby Digital 5.1), newly- discovered screen tests of the final and near final cast, including Leslie Nielson, Cesare Danova and Haya Harareet, the addition of the seldom- heard Overture and Entr’acte music, the behind- the- scenes documentary, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, the original theatrical trailer and an on-the-set photo gallery featuring Wyler, producer Sam Zimbalist, cameraman Robert Surtees and others.

Charlton Heston stars in the title role of Ben-Hur as a Jewish nobleman in biblical Palestine who is drawn into a heroic odyssey. After being enslaved by the Romans, he wins his freedom by saving his master in a fierce sea battle and wreaks vengeance against his tormentors during a furious chariot race, ultimately becoming a man of peace after a fateful encounter with Jesus Christ. Based on the novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by General Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur also starred Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, along with Cathy O’Donnell and Sam Jaffe. The movie was produced by Sam Zimbalist.

MGM remade the quintessential motion picture epic from their own magnificent 1925 silent film of the same name which cost $4 million, and starred silent screen idols Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. Wyler’s version, which cost $15 million and was the most expensive Hollywood film at the time, ultimately achieved blockbuster status.

Ben-Hur’s Oscars® were for Best Picture, Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Music Score (Miklos Rozsa), Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Special Effects.

While Hollywood veteran Karl Tunberg received Ben-Hur’s sole screenplay credit, it’s widely known that others contributed to the final version of the script. They included then-MGM contract writer Gore Vidal and renowned Broadway and English playwrights Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman and Christopher Fry. Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, the second-unit directors, created the two outstanding action sequences --the sea battle and the chariot race.

Prior to the release of the DVD, Ben-Hur will be getting its own page on the Warner Home Video Web Site,

Ben-Hur Details
RUN TIME: 3 hours and 42 minutes.
DVD EXTRAS RUN TIME: 68 minutes.

Overall, it sounds like it ought to be worth a spin! However, I'll admit, the ultra-widescreen may be a bit of a problem for folks with smaller, standard TV sets, like those less than about 25 inches. If you've seen the widescreen DVD version of "A Bug's Life" on a standard TV, you have an idea of what I'm talking about. The image aspect ratio for "A Bug's Life" was 2.35:1, so "Ben-Hur" is even wider at 2.76:1!

So, what does that mean for your standard TV? Take a look at the figure I created from the pictures in the press release:

benhur_comparison.jpg (11770 bytes)

You can see that, to fit the widescreen image on a standard TV screen (like the lower picture), the picture must be made pretty small, but given the high resolution of DVD, it should still be pretty detailed (the widescreen version of "A Bug's Life" looks spectacular on a standard TV...). I'm sure it'll look even better on a widescreen TV!

Also, the new surround soundtrack, Heston commentary, and "Making of..." documentary should make great additions. It'll be interesting to see!

That's it for now, but stay tuned for more!

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