Ben-Hur is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today. My take on the film hasn’t changed much since I wrote my review — if anything, I was even more struck by the casually anachronistic dialogue this time (“Wow,” “Oh my God,” “opinion-makers,” etc.) — but I did want to jot down a few quick notes about the Blu-Ray’s bonus features.
First, the bonus features that are available on both versions of the Blu-Ray (there is a regular disc and an “exclusive” disc just for Christian retailers) and on iTunes:
Ben-Hur: The Legacy (10:37). Carol Wallace, the great-great-granddaughter of Ben-Hur novelist Lew Wallace and a writer in her own right, talks about her ancestor’s personal history and how Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were encouraged to read a novel for the first time, and to see a play for the first time when the first major stage adaptation of Ben-Hur toured the country. The writers and producers of the new film also talk about how they were inspired by the original book (rather than the earlier films) and by the political legacy of Nelson Mandela.
The Epic Cast (12:10). The producers talk about how they hired actors from around the world and, notably, about how they made Ilderim (the Morgan Freeman character, who was an Arab in the original book) more integral to this version of Ben-Hur than he was to the earlier versions. Director Timur Bekmambetov says he wanted to make this film because if Freeman played the “mentor”, it would give the film “a sense”.
A Tale for Our Times (15:25). Bekmambetov says he tried to make the story more “modern” and “emotional”. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey talk about getting the ancient Italian city Matera to double for Jerusalem, as it has in a number of earlier films. Production designer Naomi Shohan says the Hur home was based on a house in Pompeii, but she kept red out of the set design because that’s a Roman colour; instead, she wanted the house to look more Hebrew. This featurette includes the clip about the shooting of the sea-galley sequence that I posted here.
The Chariot Race (10:37). The producers talk about designing chariots that were historically accurate but different from what we have seen before. Visual-effects supervisors Jim Rygiel and Kevin Scott also talk about using digital horses whenever the script called for something particularly dangerous. This featurette includes both of the clips about the shooting of the chariot-race sequence that I posted here.
Deleted scenes (11:03). There are seven scenes altogether here, and the bulk of this footage — seven minutes out of eleven — concerns the subplot in which Judah allows Esther to marry another man and then changes his mind at the last minute. (Needless to say, this version of that subplot doesn’t reach the emotional heights or depths of the equivalent scenes in the 1959 film.) We also learn that Drusus, the former Roman soldier, kills himself after showing Judah where his mother and sister are.
Music videos (13:23). Includes all three videos that were released prior to the film’s release — For King & Country’s ‘Ceasefire’, Mary Mary’s ‘Back to You’ and Andra Day’s ‘The Only Way Out’ — along with two brief behind-the-scenes featurettes.
And next, the three bonus features that are unique to the “Christian” Blu-Ray:
A Story of Christ (11:31). Carol Wallace talks about how her ancestor Lew Wallace wrote the novel as a way of exploring his own faith, while the filmmakers talk about embracing the faith aspects of the story. Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus, talks about practicing carpentry before shooting his scenes, and about receiving Pope Francis’s blessing while the film was still being shot. Burnett talks about the “emotional connection between Ben-Hur and Jesus”, which reminds me of how he often used the phrase “emotionally connective” while promoting his 2013 miniseries The Bible.
Executive Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey Discuss Ben-Hur with Pastor Rick Warren (28:31). This is one of two featurettes that are basically excerpted from the simulcast that was done to promote the film on July 10.
Ben-Hur Conversation with Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer (17:53). This is the other featurette taken from the simulcast. (The two featurettes combined come to about 46 minutes, whereas the full simulcast — which included a trailer, a music video and about 20 minutes of footage from the movie — ran to about 80 minutes.)