Screens Armchair cinephile

Titanic legacies

Most movie studios have at least one fancy-pants prestige line, an imprint they put on special editions of especially popular titles. Sometimes this designation is nothing more than marketing, but the honor seems appropriate for Universal's new "Legacy Series," which launched with two-disc editions of The Deer Hunter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Sting. If I were a movie mogul, this is the kind of testament I'd love to leave behind: high-caliber films with enduring appeal, ranging the gamut in subject matter and style.

If I were marketing this batch of gems, I'd call them "The Harrowing, the Heartwarming, and the Hilarious," and emphasize the 15 Oscars they won among them. I'd talk about performances such as Gregory Peck's iconic Atticus Finch, Newman & Redford's unbeatable duo, and Christopher Walken's career-making turn as a Pennsylvania steelworker. I'd tout all the bonus features I'd dreamed up, from audio commentaries to an intimate documentary about Peck made shortly before his death. And then I'd get to work on three more titles in this series.

Often in Tinseltown, the first movies that come to mind when speaking of legacies are the epics - the "cast of thousands, a decade in the making" features whose size alone ensures they'll stick in the cultural memory for a while. Warner Bros. delivers one such venture with their new four-disc edition of Ben-Hur, and they do it up right. There's a new transfer, naturally, from 65 mm instead of rinky-dink 35, and the requisite commentaries and docs. But where William Wyler's 1959 Charlton Heston epic is surely gi-normous enough to merit four discs, the studio decided to treat us to another movie as well: Disc Three offers a silent version of the same story, released in 1925 from director Fred Niblo.

As proof that such recent misfires as Alexander didn't kill off the sword-and-sandal genre spawned by Ben-Hur, Dreamworks recently celebrated Ridley Scott's Gladiator with an Extended Edition. While the theatrical cut wasn't exactly modest to begin with, this one boasts a nearly 3-hour running time and hours of new behind-the-scenes treats. Fortunately for purists, the theatrical cut is included as well.

Unlike Gladiator, which has expanded because it was a success at the box office, Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee began life bigger than it was when the public saw it. In the wake of such restorations as Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, Columbia/TriStar has restored this film (a big-budget Civil War yarn) to something approaching the intended version. This cut is 136 minutes long, and happily missing the goofy soundtrack (featuring a Mitch Miller tune, of all things) that was originally slapped on by the studio. Nobody's claiming this is Peckinpah's greatest work, but the film - boasting stars Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, and James Coburn - illustrates a crucial point in his evolution as a director.

Gladiator aside, one of the few contemporary films to match the lavish romance and grand scale (not to mention phenomenal success) of Hollywood's golden age has finally received the long-anticipated royal treatment on DVD: Titanic (Paramount) has pulled into port in a three-disc edition personally approved by renowned perfectionist James Cameron. Multiple commentaries are available, including one by the director and (a nice touch) a "historical commentary" by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall; 45 minutes of deleted scenes and (here's what you're waiting for) an alternate ending await viewers panting for more Kate & Leo; and (well, it couldn't all be good) Celine Dion returns in a music video to assure us that her heart will go on. Happily, that last bonus feature is not mandatory viewing.

Finally, fans wondering what James Cameron has been up to for the last eight years should check out Aliens of the Deep (Disney), one of a couple of undersea documentaries he has made for the jumbo IMAX format. As if to compensate for putting the film on tiny living-room screens, the editors have made it longer - you wouldn't call it an epic, but it's certainly in love with the vastness of the ocean and the otherworldly creatures who call it home.

John DeFore on DVD

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