Two decades b.l.s.-Before Lucas and Spielberg-you had to look not to sci-fi or fantasy flicks for a dose of spiritual uplift, but to biblical epics. They were the only movies that told you to trust your feelings and surrender to some higher power, and none piled on the Force-be-with-you feeling like Ben- hur (1959, MGM/UA, G, wide-screen or cropped, $39.98), reissued in a deluxe 35th-anniversary package. Jesus comes off here as the ultimate benevolent being from the heavens, appearing around the story’s edges until he takes it over completely. The actor playing him never shows his face or speaks-you just see awed Roman soldiers crumbling in his presence, or lingering close-ups of the Rome-hating Jewish rebel Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), struck dumb by the man’s divinity. Whatever you make of Ben-Hur as theology, as wondrous sentiment it’s right up there with E.T. Unfortunately, Ben-Hur is fundamentally incompatible with TV sets. The movie’s stunning ”Camera 65” images are nearly three times wider than they are high. MGM/UA deals with the conversion two ways. In the letterboxed edition, you can see all the racing chariot teams, but the picture’s so small it’s unwatchable on screens smaller than 25 inches. A cropped edition blows the image up but hacks off nearly half the frame at the edges; you can see Judah clenching his cheek muscles when he tangles with enemy Messala (Stephen Boyd), but the big action scenes become a jumble of fragments. Whichever compromised edition you settle for, you get the same consolation prize at the end of the movie: a making-of documentary that presents new interviews. Stuntmen explain the accident behind one of Heston’s dramatic chariot spills, and script doctor Gore Vidal revels in elucidating the homoerotic slant he gave to Messala’s torment of Judah. Best clip: Leslie Nielsen auditioning for the role of Messala; he makes Heston look like Olivier. In a project so earnestly devoted to evoking the sublime, it’s refreshing to find a touch of the ridiculous. Both editions: B+
Genre: Drama, Historical, Epic; Starring: Stephen Boyd, Charlton Heston, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Sam Jaffe, Cathy O'Donnell, Martha Scott, Frank Thring; Director: William Wyler; Author: Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal, Lew Wallace; Producer (group): MGM; Runtime (in minutes): 212; MPAA Rating: G; Distributor: MGM
Posted March 4 1994 — 12:00 AM EST
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