Whoever was hired to screen the digitally restored Ben-Hur this morning at a New York Film Festival screening messed up big-time. It wasn’t the fault of the Warner Home Video guys, who have reportedly produced a stunningly exquisite Bluray. (Every Bluray reviewer has said this.) But I do know the following:
(a) The sound this morning was ridiculously out of synch, and it got worse and worse until someone finally found the projectionist (who had left the booth and was out having coffee or something) and told him to stop the film and re-synch it. It was obvious to me after ten or fifteen minutes that the sound was “late”, but nobody did anything about it for the longest time. The bottom line is that we were shown an out-of-synch film for about 90 minutes, or until Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins are floating on the raft after the sea battle.
(b) The detail didn’t seem all that sharp to me. It was fine but not that great, and for a film shot in Camera 65, I expected great. Every now and then you’d notice a handsome shot and go “oh, that’s striking” or you’d notice how blue Heston’s eyes were, but I was never blown away by it. It looked to me like they were showing a perfectly fine, very clean 35mm print. Okay, maybe a bit better than that, but it never looked drop-your-pants magnificent. And I have a pretty good eye for these things.
(c) To me the colors seemed a teeny bit brownish, and the overall color scheme was on the slightly under-nourished, fine-but-no-cigar side. The bright red Roman capes and tunics were okay as far as they went, but they didn’t melt me down and my eyes didn’t pop out of my sockets.
(d) The house of Hur scenes shot in shadow and/or relative darkness seemed overly murky and lacking in intrigue. You just couldn’t see very much during these scenes, and that told me something was off.
(e) The fabled 2.76 to 1 aspect ratio was not delivered. It looked to me like we were seeing roughly a 2.55 to 1 image, at best. I’ve seen the 2.76 to 1 version on DVD two or three times on an unmasked monitor, and I know we didn’t see that kind of super-duper width this morning. There’s a shot with Hugh Griffiths and the four white horses when Heston enters from the left and says “What magnificent animals” or words to that effect. I knew right away what I saw wasn’t right because Heston was slightly cropped off as he said this line — he didn’t have any breathing room — and you NEVER crop a star. And I don’t want to hear any arguments because I know my friggin’ widescreen aspect ratios. I know what 70mm Vittorio Storaro 2.21 to 1 looks like. I know what 2.35 or 2.39 looks like. And I know what 2.55 to 1 (i.e., mid ’50s FoxScope) looks like. The image I saw today might have been a tad wider than 2.55 but only by a nose hair.
I’m sorry but comically flawed sound synch, decent but not exactly mind-blowing sharpness, slightly brownish colors, a murky feeling in scenes intended to shadowy or nocturnal, and an image that wasn’t a full 2.76 to 1 adds up to “projection fail.”
I’m sure the Ben-Hur Bluray will be fine. I’ll catch it when I return to LA on 10.8.
Video caption: Director Fraser Heston (son of Chuck) and producer Catherine Wyler (daughter of William) offer remarks prior to this morning’s screening.