Blu-Ray Round-Up: Imperialists and their Semitic Subjects Embroiled in Deadly Struggle — That’s Entertainment!

Today we’re talking about three deluxe Blu-Ray releases of three highly notable films, each hugely important and influential in their own way. Coincidentally, each film also deals with what happens when European powers decide they’d really like to control a piece of the Islamic and/or Judaic world.

* “Ben Hur”— I finally caught up with this most popular of religious epics many moons ago at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, where it was introduced by it’s then elderly but still fairly hale star, Charlton Heston. Heston might have still been in good shape in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but the 35mm print that was shown on the giant screen, theoretically the best then available, was washed out and wan.

That disappointment is now a thing of the past with a restoration made frame-by-frame from the original 65mm negative that was so painstaking this “50th Anniversary” edition of the 1959 film actually arrives 52 years after the original “Ben Hur” release. At last, the spectacle looks as spectacular as a spectacle should, even if it’s now on relatively small home screens. (My 42 incher is by far the biggest TV I’ve ever had, but it’s obviously not the Cinerama Dome.)

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Beau Geste

William Wellman’s 1939 hit is the second and best-known version of the frequently filmed adventure novel by Percival Christopher Wren. This 1939 action not-quite-classic features superstar Gary Cooper (“High Noon”) and then-rising stars Ray Miland (“The Lost Weekend”) and Robert Preston (“The Music Man”) as three English brothers and best pals who flee their ancestral home in the wake of the mysterious theft of an extremely valuable emerald. Joining the infamously torturous French Foreign Legion, the brothers Geste encounter the brutal, greedy, thoroughly villainous but entirely courageous Sgt. Markoff (Brian Donleavy), who quickly hears of the stolen jewel and becomes determined to re-steal it for himself between attacks by Arab groups who’d prefer Frenchie goes home.

Unlike other classic-era tales of imperialist derring-do, “Beau Geste” doesn’t go out of its way to glamorize or morally justify the work of the Legion. At the same time, the mystery of the stolen jewel takes the focus away from the setting and becomes a kind of odd distraction. Ironically made in the same year as two similar but superior adventures, George Stevens’ comedic “Gunga Din” and Zoltan Korda’s wondrous, propagandistic “Four Feathers,” “Beau Geste” has been beautifully restored to its black and white glory and is worth seeing for its lucid direction, a moving finale, ans the outstanding cast. Character actor Brian Donleavy’s evil-but-admirable Markoff pretty much walks away with the film. It’s a savagely honest portrait of pure selfish survival instinct that makes this tale of brotherly love and sacrifice work, more or less.

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