BEN-HUR (1959)

  • Director: William Wyler
  • Writers: Karl Tunberg, based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
  • Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffee, Finlay Currie, and Andre Morrell
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#100), 11 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – William Wyler, Best Actor – Charlton Heston, Best Supporting Actor – Hugh Griffith, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Special Effects, Best Sound Recording), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Ben-Hur’s claim to fame at the time of its release was that it was the biggest movie ever made. In some ways it still is. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made (it cost over $130 million in today’s money). It won 11 Oscars, more than any other movie ever had (this total has since been tied twice, never bettered). The movie not only made the most money of the year, and the second most ever made up to that point (after Gone With the Wind), it was, in some ways, the first modern-style multiplatform blockbuster. Ben-Hur themed toys, candy, men’s neckties, tricycles in the shape of chariots, not to mention reprinted copies of the novel on which it was based with the movie poster on the cover, all flew off the shelves. There were two different lines of tie-in perfume, “Ben-Her” and “Ben-His.” And not least of all, the movie itself is a solid 212 minutes long.

All of this sort of overlooks what Ben-Hur is actually like as a movie, which is somewhere between flimsy New Testament fanfic and an enormous Roman epic in the style of Quo Vadis? or Spartacus. Even moreso than, say, Gone With the Wind, I can’t just sit there and watch it, though it’s perfectly enjoyable sort of in the background while I’m doing something else. It doesn’t help, in terms of my personal emotional involvement in the story, that the titular hero, Judah Ben-Hur, is played by Charlton Heston. This is connected not so much to Heston’s quality as an actor, which is pretty high, and more to his political endeavors toward the end of his life, which included serving for years as President of the National Rifle Association and possibly coining the term “Culture War.” I personally find that, even decades before all that happened, for me he is hard to root for.

For those who don’t know, Ben-Hur is the story of a Jewish prince in blblical-times Israel (Heston) who loses everything after his childhood best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is now working for the Romans and to whom Judah has refused to betray members of the local Jewish Rebels, betrays him in turn. Judah is sold into slavery (where Jesus shows up and gives him water), eventually spending years rowing on a Roman galley until it is sunk in battle. When he saves the life of his commander (Jack Hawkins), the man frees him and adopts him as his son. After the intermission, he becomes a champion chariot racer, discovers that his mother (Martha Scott) and little sister (Cathy O’Donnell) now have leprosy, and enters a big chariot race in front of Pontius Pilate to get revenge against Messala (who is also racing). Messala crashes, gets run over by the other chariots, and dies, while Judah goes on to win the race. After the race, he happens to run into Jesus during his crucifixion ordeal, returning the favor by giving him water, then finds that his family’s leprosy has been miraculously cured.

The best parts of Ben-Hur, the parts that everyone remembers, are certainly very, very good. The climactic chariot race, which it is almost impossible to believe does not involve any CGI, is deservedly seen as one of the movies’ great action sequences. Not quite as imitated to death, but probably my favorite bit, involves Ben-Hur’s enslavement on a Roman galley. It’s not only expensive, it’s an absolute editing master class. Rowing in and of itself, not super exciting, but this movie makes it that way.

I have been somewhat derisive about this movie’s actual merits as a story, but it’s a major feat that it’s as good as it is. A bit desperate, after the on-set of television and, more directly, after a consent decree with the US government that forced the movie studios to sell of the theaters they’d previously owned, MGM decided to make a big bet on a biblical epic after the success of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. After numerous other actors, including Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and even Leslie Nielsen turned down the role, they even hired the star of that movie, Heston, along with about 50,000 other actors. The script went through dozens of drafts from as many screenwriters (the fact that only Karl Tunberg, whose version of the script director William Wyler called “unshootable,” received credit remains a matter of controversy to this day). One of the screenwriters was novelist and general intellectual bon vivant Gore Vidal, who always claimed that he convinced Stephen Boyd to play Messala as a spurned lover, though others involved with the production have denied this.

Wyler shot the movie, at the request of the studio, in an extreme widescreen format meant to be played on gigantic movie screens. He said he hated it, because either you ended up with large empty spaces on the screen or the main characters end up walking around in large crowds of irrelevant extras. But he makes the most of it, using depth of field in huge, detailed spaces in a way it hadn’t been done before. He had more trouble with Heston, who he felt was not believable as a Jewish hero. Wyler infamously made Heston repeat the line, “I’m a Jew,” over a dozen times, because he didn’t “believe it” when Heston said it.

Other than its most famous scenes, I find Ben-Hur perfectly fine but too long, considering. In the end, I’m left wondering why its here, as a story. Jesus shows up a handful of times, though we never see his face. The Bible is happening off screen and we’re worried about the random dude who got screwed over and wants revenge. It’s like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but with the Bible. I find myself without particularly insightful things to say about it. There are memorable scenes, memorable images, but in the end I find the movie as a whole slipping out of my mind.

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