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'Ben-Hur' Back in Peak Form

A DVD edition of the restored biblical epic features commentary by star Charlton Heston.

March 15, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winner of 11 Oscars and considered by some to be the greatest biblical epic ever made, "Ben-Hur" arrives on DVD in a lovely special edition (Warner Bros., $25).

Directed by William Wyler, this 1959 extravaganza is based on Gen. Lew Wallace's "Tale of the Christ." Charlton Heston received an Oscar for his performance as the rich, honorable Jewish man Judah Ben-Hur. Stephen Boyd also excels as his Roman boyhood friend, Messala, who becomes Ben-Hur's bitter enemy.

The film, which also stars Hugh Griffith and Jack Hawkins, features some brilliant set pieces, including the breathtaking chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala (which was directed by Andrew Marton and staged by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt) and the galley-slave sequence. Miklos Rosza supplied the evocative music.

The DVD features a gorgeous wide-screen transfer of the restored, remastered film. An added plus is the inclusion of the rarely heard overture and entr'acte (intermission) music. Other goodies include a photo gallery, trailer, talent files and production notes.

Recently discovered screen tests of the near-final casting of the film are a treat. The tests find Italian actor Cesare Danova as Ben-Hur and a very serious Leslie Nielsen as Messala.

"Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic" is a well-researched documentary that traces the history of "Ben-Hur" from its inception as a novel to its incarnations on stage to the 1925 silent epic starring Ramon Novarro to the 1959 classic. The documentary is filled with footage, stills and interviews, including a very funny one with Gore Vidal, who was an uncredited writer on the film.

Heston supplies the intelligent, thoughtful audio commentary. Because "Ben-Hur" is longer than three hours, Heston doesn't talk throughout the entire movie. Just look for the icon that appears on the screen whenever he stops talking. Click on the icon, and the disc will skip to where his commentary track starts up again.

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Heston also participates in the digital edition of George Stevens' 1965 biblical epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (MGM, $27). This extremely long version of the life of Christ may not be one of the greatest movies ever made, but it certainly is one of the most beautifully shot.

The digital edition includes a wide-screen transfer of the film, which was originally shot in Ultra Panavision. Though most of the transfer looks crisp and beautiful, there are signs of age and dirt visible in some scenes.

The two-disc set features production stills, a deleted scene, a "making of" documentary that was produced in 1965 and a more recent documentary featuring interviews with Heston, who plays John the Baptist; Max Von Sydow, who stars as Christ; and several members of the production crew.

*

Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (DreamWorks, $27) was one of the best-reviewed films of 2000. Crowe has been nominated for an Oscar for his delightful original screenplay--a nostalgic, semiautobiographical coming-of-age comedy about a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in the early '70s.

Yet the digital edition is disappointing. The disc cries out for a commentary track from Crowe, but alas, one will have to wait for a "special edition" for the writer-director's insights.

Still, the "making-of" documentary that originally aired on HBO is better than average, and several of Crowe's cover stories from Rolling Stone can be read on the disc.

DreamWorks' DVD of Rod Lurie's taut political thriller "The Contender" ($27) is chock-full of goodies. Joan Allen is an Academy Award contender for her work as a senator with a "past" who is now a candidate for vice president. Jeff Bridges, also an Oscar nominee, plays the food-obsessed president, and an unrecognizable Gary Oldman is the Republican congressman intent on thwarting Allen's nomination.

The disc includes a wide-screen transfer, production notes, the trailer, talent files and a serviceable HBO "making of" documentary. Writer-director Lurie, a former film critic, supplies commentary on the plethora of deleted scenes. Featured in the excised footage is an entire subplot involving Allen's father, a former Republican governor (Philip Baker Hall), who tries to commit suicide in order not to embarrass his daughter over the fact that he was once involved in graft.

Lurie and Allen supply the funny, incisive commentary.

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An audio commentary track from director Curtis Hanson and star Michael Douglas would have added immeasurably to the DVD viewing experience of "Wonder Boys" (Paramount, $30). Douglas received the L.A. Film Critics Assn.'s best actor award for his warm, funny performance as a tenured professor and writer going through a midlife crisis.

Hanson does serve as a tour guide through the Pittsburgh locations where the film was shot, and, on a separate track, discusses how he chose each of the songs heard in the film and how Bob Dylan became involved in the project.

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