“Ben-Hur” restored at New York Film Festival

Charlton Heston in "Ben-Hur."

The most exciting film that I have seen, so far, at the 49th New York Film Festival, is 52 years old.  On Saturday, October 1 the New York Film Festival presented a stunning, digitally restored and projected screening of director William Wyler’s 1959 wide screen epic “Ben-Hur,” starring Charlton Heston. The screening was at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.  

Wyler’s great grandchildren, not more than five or six years old, began the event by coming out on stage, in period dress, to big applause.  Wyler’s great grandson was dressed as a Roman soldier and his great grand daughter wore a gown very much like those worn by the women in the film.  Their costumes were made during the filming of “Ben-Hur” by the MGM wardrobe department, for Wyler’s then young children.

“Ben-Hur” was introduced by festival selection committee member, and film critic,Todd McCarthy.  “There’s no question in my mind that you are the luckiest cinema audience in the world at this moment, because you’re going to see something really special,” he announced to thunderous applause.  McCarthy went on to say that the restoration even exceeded his fantasy memories of how “Ben Hur” looked in 1959.  McCarthy then introduced Ned Price, from Warner Brothers, who engineered the film’s restoration.

Price joked that it took a group the size of half of the legions of Roman soldiers, seen in the “Ben-Hur” cast, to fix the film’s many restoration issues, including the film’s badly faded original 65 mm camera negative.  He said that the work took about a year and a half.

McCarthy then introduced Catherine Wyler, director Wyler’s daughter, and Fraser Heston, Heston’s son. “I know that my father would be so pleased that Warner Brothers had spent so much time and effort restoring the film,” Wyler said.  “It was quite an achievement for him and for the family watching him go through all this.  I think it’s wonderful that this type of tribute is still being paid,” she concluded.

Heston recalled that his family arrived in Rome, for the filming of “Ben-Hur,” in 1958.   He said the first thing his father had to do was learn how to drive a chariot for the movie’s famous chariot race sequence.  Heston recalled that his father trained for three months under the guidance of second unit director and stunt coordinator Yakima Cannut.  Prior to filming the sequence Heston said his father expressed concern about being able to keep up with the other chariot drivers, who were all professional stunt men.  Cannut replied, “Chuck, you just stay in the damn chariot.  I guarantee you’re gonna win the race.”

The screening was my third time seeing “Ben-Hur.”  Previously I had seen it in both 70mm and 35mm prints and, I will admit, was not a huge fan.  However, as I have observed before in regard to returning to movies over the course of my life, the movies do not change, but I do.  In this case, however, I have to say that the movie did, in fact, change, to some extent.  Seeing the sharpened picture and vivid colors of this restored “Ben-Hur” brought the picture home to me in a new light.  The tremendous artistry of the film’s larger than life set pieces, costumes and, of course, performances were more vivid than ever before.  What I appreciated most is that “Ben-Hur” is a personal story set against an epic background.  It is a story about friendship, politics, family, loyalty, religion, romance and the futility of resentment and the need for revenge.

Story-wise it sets up its conflict early and clearly.  There is a loathsome villain, a sea battle, a cast of thousands and of course that chariot race in the second half for which, during intermission, audience members moved up into seats closer to the screen.  In other words, what’s not to like?

It is inconceivable that a film of this scale, and clocking in at over three and a half hours, would even be produced today.  If it was it would no doubt be replete with CGI (computer graphics imaging) created extras and effects.  So how great it was to see modern, digital technology preserve, sharpen and revitalize, while not over stepping, an epic 52 years old.


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 3, 2011, in Classics, Feature Articles, New York Film Festival 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Natalia Willingham

    Will this movie be coming to the theaters?

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