Ben Hur

Charlton Heston in "Ben-Hur" (Warner Bros.)

NEW YORK - A little more than half a century ago, William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" won 11 Oscars and set the bar for the large-scale Hollywood costume epic. There's a reason Charlton Heston's chariot race finds its way into an Academy Awards montage every year - at the time, it was the most thrilling moment in cinema.

Now, some 52 years after the movie's illustrious debut, Warner Home Video brings it back into the cinematic conversation in a Blu-ray box set built around an extensive digital restoration. The restored movie is available on standard DVD as well, but you really need to see the high-definition version to appreciate how much cleaner and sharper the film looks; in fact, the complexity of the restoration job is the reason the 50th anniversary edition of "Ben-Hur" is arriving two years late.

"We do know how to count here at Warner Bros.," laughs Fraser C. Heston, son of Charlton and guardian of his family legacy. (He produced and appears in a documentary, "Charlton Heston & 'Ben-Hur:' A Personal Journey," that's included in the box.) "The film took two years to restore. It was begun on the 50th anniversary, and it soon became apparent that we couldn't possibly finish it in time. Both the documentary and the restoration of the film itself took a couple of years, and that's why it's coming out a little bit late."

Better late than never, right? But as Ned Price, Warner's vice-president of mastering, explains, "never" was a very real possibility, given the state of the materials.

"We had done a photochemical preservation of the negative of 'Ben-Hur' probably about 10 years ago or more," says Price, "and found that it had this coating that was problematic ... it was accelerating the decay of the negative, because it had basically sealed it off to air. It put the lid on the pot, so it was starting to boil."

Revisiting the negative in advance of the film's 50th anniversary, things looked even grimmer.

"The surprise was that this coating was synthetic, and we didn't know what it was," Price says. "If it was organic, we could have chemically treated it, but the substance had actually bonded into the emulsion. The coating ran into the centre of the film and created this sort of negative-density mottling all the way through the centre, through the entire feature. It looked like a combination of lightning and just this blob stuff coming through."

Price and his colleagues devised an algorithm to digitally erase the effects of the mottling from the new 8K master, which would have been enough of a challenge on its own. But then they had to figure out how to restore the film's colour palette, which was similarly in danger of being lost to history through decades of faded prints.

"No one source will tell you everything," Price says. "One source will tell you that the highlights should be like this, and then another source will tell you the shadow details should reveal just this much information. None of the 65 or 70mm prints survived with their colour [intact]."

The restoration's Rosetta stone turned out to be a 35mm print stored at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. "We were looking at the print and we'd say, 'that's turquoise!'" Price explains. "And they'd say, 'Turquoise?' 'Yeah, and that's supposed to be purple!' And you'd go, 'Oh, god - turquoise and purple, how did they do that?' Right next to each other. And then you'd basically have to backward-engineer your colour."

Was all the work worth it? Fraser Heston certainly thinks so.

"They showed it to me at the Warner Bros. lab after they'd already done some of it, and I was just amazed," he says. "Just amazed. Technologically speaking, I think it's the finest piece of restoration work that anyone's ever done. Now people have Blu-rays and widescreen TVs and better sound systems - it gives you a pretty close approximation of the big-screen experience that this film, frankly, deserved."