You’ll need a very big home screen to get the full gee-whiz impact of this exercise in extreme letterboxing. That’s because Ben-Hur, the tale of a Jewish nobleman (Charlton Heston) bedeviled by a Roman commander (Stephen Boyd) circa the life of Christ, was shot in Camera 65, a short-lived format that was nearly three times wider than it was high. Gazing at a huge theater screen, audiences took in much of the image with their peripheral vision — and that made set pieces like the chariot race (still untopped by any digital trickery) feel as kinetic as a theme-park ride.
There’s no way to completely replicate that effect at home, but the DVD holds up to magnification better than earlier video versions. (One annoyance: At just over three and half hours, the movie can’t fit on a single-sided disc. But instead of spreading the film over two single-sided discs, Warner makes it a one-disc, double-sided affair — then makes the labeling so teensy-weensy that you can hardly tell which side is which.) The extras are a hoot too, from Heston’s commentary track (of the Method acting style, he says, ”It doesn’t accomplish a great deal”) to a one-hour making-of program (wherein script doctor Gore Vidal claims he gave a homoerotic slant to the story with director William Wyler’s consent). Better still is an extended screen test of Leslie Nielsen as the Roman villain Messala. He hits so many wrong notes, you’ll appreciate the finished movie far more after seeing him flounder.