It’s common knowledge that William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur (’59) was shot in Camera 65, which when correctly projected (as well as scanned for DVD and Bluray) delivered an aspect ratio of 2.76:1. (Same a.r. with Ultra Panavision 70, which The Hateful Eight was shot and projected at.) All my adult life I’ve been looking to see the full-whack, 2.76:1 Ben-Hur in a first-rate theatrical venue.
My hopes were up when I attended last night’s 7:30 pm screening of Ben-Hur at the American Cinematheque Egyptian. I was encouraged by the fact that the AC was showing a DCP, or the same digitally remastered version that constitutes the current Bluray, which delivers the full 2.76:1. But they blew it all the same. The AC aspect ratio was, at most, 2.55:1, and it was probably closer to 2.4:1. And therefore each shot felt slightly cramped and wrong.
Robert Surtees‘ 2.76:1 images on the Ben-Hur Bluray are immaculate — the framings in each and every scene are exquisitely balanced. But whack those images down to 2.4:1 and everything looks fucked. If Surtees had been with me he would have been hooting and throwing soft-drink containers at the screen.
The same aspect ratio problems manifested when I caught Ben-Hur at the New York Film Festival in 2011, to wit:
Excerpt: “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. There’s a shot with Hugh Griffith 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.”