'Ben-Hur,' 'Jackie Brown,' 'Pulp Fiction'

New extras including documentaries and critics' panels will make you want to get your hands on all three Blu-ray packages (which you can't do with digital).

How can movies on physical discs survive the digital era? By providing something digital doesn't, like the trove of extras in Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition (Warner Bros., $64.99, Sept. 27). It's a million-dollar restoration that sextuples the clarity of the 212-minute 1959 William Wyler biblical epic that saved MGM and hogged more Oscars (11) than any film in history.

The big new extra is the 78-minute documentary Charlton Heston by the star's son, Fraser Heston. It fills in the making-of story found in the other two docs in the package, made in 1994 and 2005, with charming family scenes like little Fraser surprising Charlton on set in a miniature centurion costume.

More exciting are the features revealing how director William Wyler got scenes like the famous chariot race, which almost killed a stuntman and did smash a huge 65-millimeter camera. Despite the persistent rumor, Heston's stunt double did not die, but the scene of him getting knocked over his chariot (followed by a shot of Heston climbing back in and finishing the race) helped make it legendary.

The scariest scene, according to Heston’s commentary and his 1958-59 diary (a replica of which is in this box), was the first one featuring Jewish prince Ben-Hur (Heston) and boyhood pal Messala (Stephen Boyd), grown up to be a Roman official. Wyler terrifyingly bawled Heston out, but refused to specify what he was doing wrong. Heston was freaked. Screenwriter Gore Vidal says he and Wyler were desperate to give an emotional motive for Messala’s bitter switch from Ben-Hur's oldest pal to vicious persecutor, not found in the crappy original script. Or rather, scripts -- the studio had multiple scripts for Ben-Hur on file, all bad.

On the making of doc, Vidal says he told Wyler to make sense of the scene by making it a lovers' quarrel. "I said, 'Could it be that the two boys had some kind of emotional relationship the first time around, and now the Roman wants to start up again and Ben-Hur doesn't -- and doesn't get the point?' Willy said, 'Gore, this is Ben-Hur. You can't do that to Ben-Hur!' I said, 'Well, if you don't do something like that you won't have Ben-Hur. You'll have an emotiveless mess on your hands.' And he said, 'Well...you can't be overt.' I said, 'I'm not gonna be overt, there won't be one line. But I can write it in such a way that the audience is going to feel that there is something emotional between these two that is not stated, but that blows a fuse in Messala. That he is spurned. So it's a love scene gone wrong.'"

Perhaps Wyler's savage, mystifyingly vague criticism of Heston was an attempt to scare him into deeper emotion without revealing the gay subtext. Anyway, the scene works as filmed. In his diary, Heston wrote, “Vidal has the inevitable coldness of his kind, though a very funny fellow.” Cold or not, Vidal may have saved Heston’s muscular butt by writing a gay in joke Heston didn’t get.

The sharp-looking, great-sounding Blu-rays of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (Miramax, $19.99 each, Oct. 4) are extras fests, too. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson dish revealingly in the "Not the Usual Mindless Boring Getting to Know You Chit Chat" cast interviews. Travolta marvels that Tarantino cast him at his most ice-cold career nadir instead of hot Daniel Day Lewis, and tells how Jackson’s steady preacherly style freed him to act loopier. Jackson mourns the diner massacre fantasy scene he almost talked Tarantino into filming. The older cast interviews are guardedly informative, but the new ones are candid, lively, revealing – a rarity overcautious studios would be smart to make commonplace.

On each disc, Elvis Mitchell skillfully hosts a critics' panel -- not a fanboy gush session but a sharp, articulate exchange of illuminating insights by Scott Foundas, Tim Lucas, Andy Klein and Stephanie Zacharek, who mostly loathes Pulp Fiction's smirky coldness but adores Jackie Brown, Tarantino's "Howard Hawks movie." Mitchell's brilliant panels make you wish he'd hurry up and do one for his new gig at LACMA.

Asked if Ben-Hur would ever wind up on TV, Wyler said, "I hope I never live to see the day." I wish he could have lived to watch his masterpiece and Tarantino's on a 52-inch Samsung, looking bigger and badder than ever.

 
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