It's hard to believe, I know, but in the '50s, ``Ben-Hur'' -- the film that cleared the way for such intimate epics as ``Spartacus'' and ``Gladiator'' -- was considered a bad idea. Movies were taking a drubbing at the time by television, and MGM, which held the rights to the Lew Wallace source novel, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
So as far as the industry was concerned, 1958 was the worst time possible to lavish a then-record $15 million on ``A Tale of the Christ'' (the book's subtitle), starring Charlton Heston, massive Judean sets and a real-time chariot race. But then, a year later, director William Wyler and producer Sam Zimbalist, who died during production, were vindicated: the almost-four-hour epic opened to raves, a then-record 11 Oscars (including best picture and best actor) and lines that wound around Times Square.
``Ben-Hur'' was, and remains, the quintessential Hollywood epic.
The new four-disc Collector's Edition does the biblical drama proud. It's in restored color and widescreen Panavision, with enough extras to accommodate a master's class in pre-CGI (computer-generated imagery) filmmaking. Discs 1 and 2 contain the movie, with separate-track commentary recorded years ago by the now-ailing Heston; Disc 3 holds the 1925 silent version with Ramon Novarro and pre-Code nudity; Disc 4 has both a new documentary on the film's legacy (``Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema'') and a superior 1994 documentary narrated by Christopher Plummer (``Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic'').
Also included on this disc: promotional ``newsreels'' of various openings (``Japan's Emperor Goes to the Movie''), original and re-release trailers, and highlights from the April 1960 Academy Awards, wherein Wyler keeps it brief and Heston bounds up onto the stage, three steps at a time.
The older documentary tells the story of the 1880 novel and subsequent stage play, the troubled silent adaptation (which may have cost more than one extra his life) and Wyler's decision to oversee his first ``Cecil B. DeMille picture.'' (His previous credits included ``Jezebel,'' ``The Big Country'' and ``The Best Years of Our Lives'' -- all Oscar winners.) It also includes comments from Gore Vidal, who was brought in to rewrite dialogue. Though Wyler would deny it to his dying day, Vidal says he was given the OK to make the pivotal scene between Ben-Hur and the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd) ``a lovers' quarrel.''
The new 60-minute documentary concentrates on the film's lasting influence on set design, movie music, costumes and action sequences, including the car chase in ``Bullitt.'' Ridley Scott and George Lucas make a solid case for the film as template for every modern screen epic from ``Malcolm X'' and ``Aviator'' to ``Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace.'' Indeed, Lucas, who would restage the chariot race with pods in ``Phantom Menace,'' recalls second unit director Andrew Marton visiting the University of Southern California and breaking down the chariot race, shot by shot.
Caleb Deschanel, cinematographer on Mel Gibson's ``The Passion of the Christ,'' also discusses the film's influence. He steers clear, however, of politics and church doctrine. Though ``Ben-Hur'' appears to end with the hero's conversion to Christianity, it was painstakingly meant, in Wyler's words, to be ``acceptable to people of all walks of life.'' Given the fallout that attended ``The Passion,'' this is a lesson that at least one of Wyler's heirs chose to ignore.