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.)
This 1941 historical biopic from producer-director Alexander Korda about the illicit affair between the heroic nemesis of Napoleon, Admiral Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier), and the vivacious Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) benefits from the magnificent production design of Vincent Korda and some extra acting oomph drawn from a real-life adulterous affair between its two A-list stars. On the other hand, there’s an idea out there that it has been unjustly dismissed ever since its release as ponderous wartime propaganda and an overblown romance. I might say exactly the same thing, minus the “un.”
Essentially commissioned by wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who later proclaimed it his favorite movie, “That Hamilton Woman” suffers from some ham-fisted parallels between Hitler and Napoleon as well as a certain amount of hypocrisy on the question of empire. (English colonialism good! French colonialism bad!) Far worse for the movie’s entertainment value, however, is its tediously stolid hero, an awful lot of gassy romantic dialogue, ponderous pacing, and an excessive 125 minute running time. On the plus side, the young Vivien Leigh, fresh off “Gone With the Wind,” is allowed to show her powerfully sexy and funny sides, and the film’s relative frankness in dealing with an open adulterous affair is something of a miracle considering that this British production was shot in the U.S. and made under American censorship. Nevertheless, the extras on this typically crisp Criterion DVD make the case that the making-of story here is far more engaging than the actual movie.
In the spirit of the Harry Potter series, here’s a trailer for the classic 1940 version of the “The Thief of Baghdad” produced by Alexander Korda and with five, count ’em, five directors including Michael Powell. The print here is somewhat dicey, but check out those colors. And if this reminds you of a certain animated Disney hit from 1992, I don’t think you’re wrong.