Ben-Hur William Wyler

Ben-Hur has been encrusted by so many decades of popular reverence that it's probably tempting fate to say it's no big deal. Oh, there's entertainment to be had from Lew Wallace's once ubiquitous story, which pits Jewish firebrand Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) against Roman childhood friend Massala (Stephen Boyd), with the latter sacrificing the former to the conqueror's instinct and the whole thing ending up on Calvary Hill. It's hard not to be impressed by all that set design, all those costumes, all that fighting on the slave galleys and all that carnage on the chariot tracks. But it's a matter of quantity, not quality. William Wyler's technique is impassive, letting you see every damn thing in the Cinemascope lens without providing the texture and wit that marks his better films. It's manufacturing, not art, and after a while you just let the whole thing wash over you. That Heston is his constipated self should come as no surprise, but the rest of the cast seems flummoxed by the unspeakable dialogue and leaden blocking. I prefer the 1925 silent version, thoughtfully included in this four-disc special edition. Though it's no great shake itself, it's lighter on its feet, less pretentious and blessed with baroque set and costume design that shames what in the later film seems like a super-pricey drive-in restaurant. The feature offers a bright and informative commentary with Heston and scholar T. Gene Hatcher; disc four includes a new documentary in which directors like George Lucas and Ridley Scott make wild, unsubstantiated claims about the film's influence, a fascinating 1994 doc that details the cinematic progress of Wallace's novel, screen tests that include Leslie Nielsen in the role of Ben-Hur, a selection of hyperbolic newsreels, highlights from the no-nonsense 1960 Oscars, and a trailer gallery. (Warner)