In Our Opinion, Interviews

BEN-HUR BLU-RAY BONANZA

By • Oct 24th, 2011 •

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Warner Bros has released the much-awaited BEN-HUR BluRay Ultimate Collector’s Edition, having undergone a million dollar renovation by Ned Price and team, and a tasteful, impressive feat of packaging. Billed as the 50th Anniversary release, it’s a few years late, but one can assume it was in production for those extra years, and now it’s on our shelves.

If you want to see what the BluRay capabilities, plus the re-mastering, have done to the audio, you merely have to put on the disc and let the film start. You have the word “Overture” in front of you for six minutes, and all you have to do is listen to the embracing, enfolding score. I never knew there were such horns. The orchestra is articulated magnificently. I’ve mentioned, having seen THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR many times, that just listening to Bernard Hermann’s title music now can bring tears to my eyes. Add Rosza’s Overture to BEN-HUR to that rarified list, courtesy of the BluRay treatment.

The early scenes with Messala entering Judea are powerful and critical. Messala’s scene with Andre Morell is good exposition, if a bit obviously choreographed, whereas the several ensuing scenes with Messala and Judah are well written and grippingly underlain with tension. Much of this is informed by the now-notorious gay subtext inserted by Wyler and Boyd without Heston’s knowledge. Boyd’s sweaty, chiseled face says it all between the lines, although there is one overt line about unrequited love that lets the cat out of the bag. In fairness, there are so many opinions about whether that subtext is legitimate that, finally, it becomes the viewer’s decision. But I can’t think of a film with a more famous possible subtext, and there are certainly no better scenes in the film, except perhaps for the chariot race, which must be judged with a different set of standards.

Fraser Heston. Photo: Franco Frassetti

Back in the mid-90s I brought up that debate to Heston himself, and was amused at his response.

Roy Frumkes: There’s something I’ve heard over the years, which I’d love to hear confirmed or denied first hand. The story goes that William Wyler, at some point, decided that the real love story in BEN-HUR was not between Judah and Esther, but between Judah and Messala.

Charlton Heston: That’s bullshit.

RF: There’s no truth to that?

CH: That’s not bullshit, that’s Gore Vidal, which is more or less the same thing.

RF: Wyler never suggested that you and Stephen Boyd should play it as a homosexual relationship?

CH: (quietly disgusted) Of course not! This is Gore Vidal’s invention. He was in Rome on what was, in my view, a futile exercise. It was quite a while prior to shooting, and Willie was having problems with a certain scene between Judah and Messala. He was willing to take a shot at almost everybody, and Vidal wrote a version of the scene which Willie then had Stephen and I play with, but the scene was not workable.

I think Vidal got his idea from a story they tell about Olivier and Ralph Richardson in a production of Othello, directed by Tyrone Guthrie in the late thirties. I believe they were alternating the lead roles, which was not uncommon, and someone suggested to Olivier that it would be interesting, when he was playing Iago, to imply a homosexual…not relationship, but obsession, as the reason for Iago’s actions – an unrealized, unrequited obsession for Othello. So Olivier suggested to Guthrie that he try this during rehearsals, and Guthrie replied, “Oh, I suppose so, Larry. But for God’s sake, don’t tell Ralph.”

It’s a marvelous theater story, and I suspect that’s where Vidal got that idea. But in no way was it in any version of any scene in BEN-HUR.

I had the chance to bring this up with Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser, at the BEN-HUR BluRay junket, and he took the middle ground. Some think it true, some do not, and perhaps we’ll never know the truth. Fraser Heston is a big, bear of a guy, as tall as his father, and was very friendly and eager to discuss the BluRay release and his father’s legacy. I complemented him on the work he did with his father in films such as MOTHER LODE, and he singled out TREASURE ISLAND, which he directed and his father starred in, and which was both of their favorite books.

Roy Frumkes with Ned Price. Photo: Franco Frassetti

Included in the Ultimate box is a 64-page ‘Production Art’ souvenir book with a rectangular design reminding us of the widescreen format. It’s not as wide as the Camera 65 Aspect Ratio in which BEN-HUR was shot, though the shots on the inside front and inside back of the book, each stretching over the width of two pages, are at least that wide. 52 years ago I went to BEN-HUR at the Loew’s State theater on Broadway with my folks, who’d bought reserved seats for the show, and my father purchased the hard-cover souvenir book for me, which I treasured for decades afterwards. Later the thick-box LP album came out, and there was a duplicate souvenir book nestled in a space behind the record. Now I had two. There was a color fold-out picture of the massive Roman chariot-race arena, lots of color pix, info on the production, on Miklos Rosza, etc. I have to say, the new souvenir book in the BluRay box is better, and in the words of Charlton Heston in THE BIG COUNTRY when Gregory Peck challenges him to a fight, and Heston’s already miserable opinion of Peck as a man sinks to a new level, “…I didn’t think that was possible…” But it is. A great hard-cover evocation of the production.

Also included: a 128-page book of page reprints from Charlton Heston’s diary over the two years of BEN-HUR’s production and release, called ‘On the Set of BEN-HUR, The Personal Journal of Charlton Heston.’ The diary speaks of such things as Cecil B. De Mille’s death, Wyler’s grueling work schedule, and it is peppered with artifacts from the time – a ticket stub from the premiere of the film, etc. This memento was lovingly assembled by Fraser Heston. It’s a terrific volume. In fact, the emphasis in the box’s entire contents is clearly on Charlton Heston, and I’m glad about it. At the time many felt him stiff and wooden. Now the tide has turned. He has some of that in his persona, but much more – dignity, vulnerability, awe. And I always look forward to watching a film with him in it, for his willingness to take chances (the sci-fi films of the late 60s and 70s) and for his sincerity. He’s definitely the best one in THE BIG COUNTRY today, particularly when compared with Peck. Don’t remember if I felt that way back then. But time often changes the way things are perceived on celluloid, and it has clearly made a gift of Heston’s contributions to cinema.

At the press junket for BEN-HUR’s BluRay release, FIR got to chat with VP of Mastering, Warner Bros. Technical Operations, Ned Price, as well as William Wyler’s daughter Catherine.

Ned Price. Photo: Franco Frassetti

I asked Price about the difficulties of getting this film in proper shape to master to BluRay. There were about a dozen answers, all of them costly and time-consuming, and very delicate. One such procedure follows, and it indicates the extent of work that remains invisible to the home theater viewer:

Ned Price: The 70mm negative is very fragile, because you have a machine clawing at the stuff, and what happens is that when you have a splice for a scene change, the cement that they put in doesn’t change at the same rate that the film around it does, so when you come up to a splice, the film will briefly expand and then go down again. When you see tears in a print in the theater, they’re usually at the point of a cut. Over the years, people put backups on the splices, or repairs, and it makes them thicker. Usually when we have a negative like that, the first thing we have to do is strip off all the repairs and all of the ‘fixes’ and then make them more uniform. You can’t just put it in a machine and scan it. So a lot of time is spent in prep.

Ms. Wyler was happy to talk about her renowned father, setting a few fascinating records straight:

Franco Frassetti: What kind of man was your dad? He did BEN-HUR; was he a religious man? A spiritual man? How would you define him?

Catherine Wyler: I wouldn’t characterize him in those ways, no. I think what attracted him to BEN-HUR was the challenge of making an epic – an epic where the characters are really three dimensional – and the fact that he was going to have the biggest budget of all time at his command. He was a serious guy, but he also had a very playful side. So, I just think that there were so many things about it that attracted him. At the same time, even though he wasn’t religious, he used to say – once the movie came out and it was so successful – that it took a good Jew to make a good movie about Christ. But, also, the challenge of depicting the Nativity, and depicting the Crucifixion, when brilliant minds across the centuries had thought about how to pictorially recreate them. Now, he was doing it in moving pictures as opposed to paintings.

FF: I guess you were about 19 at that time, did you go to Rome for the filming?

CW: I was in college, but I definitely went. My family was there for the whole experience, but I was only there for the summer and vacations. The fact that he was making that movie, and everything about it was so enormous and so spectacular, it was really fun to be on the set. It can get boring on the set of most movies, but here the horses, the camels, the size of everything …it was pretty fun.

Catherine Wyler. Photo: Franco Frassetti

FF: At home, was it always movies, movies, movies?

CW: No. The great thing about him in my childhood was that there were these special phases. Pre-production was kind of 9 to 5. We had dinner together and we always talked about whatever the problems were. Script problems mostly – plot, character, and that stuff. I learned a lot from that. He always listened to us. He never paid attention, really, but he listened. Then there would be production, and we’d never see him. He would go into this tunnel and the movie was everything. Post-production, kind of 9 to 5 again. A more normal life, and with some of the films he would screen the rushes at home, so I’d get to see the whole movie built up before my eyes. It was so interesting to sit with him and see everything look so great, but he would be unsatisfied with it, you know, and I learned a lot from that, too. And then, when the picture was over, it would be vacation time. Hopefully, it would be the summer, and he would take us on a trip. Or, we’d go skiing. ‘Cause he was a quite a family man and he liked taking his family here and there. He was a fun guy to be with. He liked thrills and sports and he had a really good sense of humor.

FF: During the chariot race scene, when that person died, did you ever speak to him about that?

CW: Nobody died. When you see the chariot race – his name is Joe Canutt and he’s the son of Yakima Canutt, who dealt with all the horses and the stunts. Joe was doubling for Heston. He flipped out of the chariot…it was a mistake, but they wanted to use it because it looked so great. So they had to get a close shot of Heston crawling back into the chariot, but nobody was killed. That would have been horrible.

FF: Did he speak to you about Barbara Streisand and FUNNY GIRL? He did so many takes; I wonder how she dealt with it.

CW: She actually didn’t want him because she thought he was too old at the time. He was in his sixties. But then, a couple of days on the set with him and she totally fell in love with him. I think he became a real father figure. I remember going to visit him on the set, and they were holding hands. He loved her because she was so full of ideas and he loved actors with ideas. He wanted them to come with their ideas and he would use them, or not. He thought she was fabulous because she was so full of ideas. He told her she should be a director.

FF: Well, she took his advice.

CW: Yeah, yeah, right.

FF: When he forged relationships with people, were they carried on indefinitely?

CW: Some people didn’t like working with him because he was tough. The people who did like it became really good friends. I would say that his closest friends were writers and directors, not so much actors. But, certain actors like Barbara, like Audrey Hepburn, they were lifelong friends.

FF: With ROMAN HOLIDAY, your father basically started what they called ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ in Italy. Were you in Rome for that?

CW: Oh, sure. He got an award from the Italian government because they were so thrilled that somebody came along and showed Rome in all its glory. After all those Italian Neorealist films that made it look so sad. But he loved shooting in Rome.

FF: Any particular places that you enjoyed during that shoot?

CW: Well, if you ever see the movie again, I have my three deathless words in ROMAN HOLIDAY. There is a scene at the Fountain of Trevi where Audrey is getting her hair cut and Peck doesn’t have a camera, so he tries to grab a camera from a bunch of schoolgirls at the fountain . One of the girls is my sister. She gets the close-up and I’m in the background calling out to the teacher, “Hey, Miss Weber!” He never used me again.

FF: Even with all his Oscars, was there something that he wanted to do that he never accomplished or a project that never got off the ground?

CW: There were certain projects along the way. I remember one called PRECIOUS BANE. It was a lesbian story and I guess it was hard to make lesbian stories at that time. He and John Huston had one called, NATURE BOY in the ’30’s or ’40. Yeah, he usually had some book that he carried around with him everywhere and nobody would let him make the film.

FF: What drove him to continue in the business?

CW: Working with the writers, that was his favorite. Sometimes, critics would say that he had too much respect for the writers. If it wasn’t in the script, you were not going to get it on the screen.

FF: Was he friends with Dalton Trumbo?

CW: Oh, yeah, but I never knew . There was never a word spoken, even in the house or anywhere, that Trumbo worked on ROMAN HOLIDAY. I never knew it until it came out a few years ago.

FF: Did that affect his career afterwards?

CW: No, because it was secret. In fact, I remember on ROMAN HOLIDAY there were other people who had already fled who were living abroad and worked on it using pseudonyms.

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