When you think about the '50s biblical epics, one of the prime examples is William Wyler's adaptation of Ben-Hur. The 1959 release includes sequences like the chariot race that are well-known by people who haven't seen them. I'd only caught bits and pieces of this movie, yet I know the big moments. Charlton Heston had starred in The Ten Commandments just three years earlier, so he was the obvious choice for the lead role of Judah Ben-Hur. This film won a remarkable 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. It appeared at #72 on the original AFI list but actually dropped 28 spots to #100 in the 2007 version. This downgrade shows that audiences might be losing interest in old-school epics like this 212-minute feature. With a budget of $15 million, the massive scale remains stunning even when viewed more than 50 years later.
Ben-Hur – Directed by William Wyler; Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, and Cathy O'Donnell
So, what's this story about?
Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a prince in Jerusalem in 26 A.D. His childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives as tribune to the new Roman governor Valerius Gratus. When an accident makes it appear that Judah tried to kill Gratus, he's sent into slavery, and his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell) are imprisoned. Messala does nothing to save his friend, so Judah vows to get revenge. During a sea battle, he saves the life of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). This brave action leads to his freedom, and Judah becomes the adopted son of Arrius. The determined guy returns to Jerusalem to find his family and gain vengeance against his former friend.
What are the key themes, particularly in terms of the American culture at the time?
Although the plot focuses on Judah's quest, it occurs at the same time as the life of Jesus Christ. The story begins with a highlight reel of the famous birth, with the three kings and shepherds making cameos. We never see his face, but Jesus' kind act of giving water to Judah saves his life at his lowest point as a slave. The story ends with the crucifixion, which helps him to regain his faith in God. This religious context to the movie falls into the background during most of the story, but it plays a key role. One of the stranger parts of the story is how quickly Messala turns his back on his friend. A possible explanation is the homosexual subtext that Writer Gore Vidal added to their relationship. When viewed from that perspective, Messala's anger when Judah rejects his offer to inform on his people makes sense. This refusal might be recalling the hurt of the end of their childhood romance. While this may feel like a stretch, it's been confirmed by most of the parties involved. Heston denies this claim, but that's expected due to his conservative politics.
Why has this film maintained its status while so many others have faded away?
This answer is simple. Ben-Hur remains well-known because of the iconic sequences. The most renowned is the chariot race, which has remarkable stunt work. This type of action would be all CGI today but wouldn't provide the same thrills. When we see a driver hanging from a horse while they speed around the track, that's a real person. The race lasts nine minutes and feels much longer as the tension grows with each subsequent lap. Believe the hype. The scale of the circus is incredible and sells the epic feeling of the contest. The fact that such tension remains well into the film's third hour shows our involvement in the story. The personal stakes for Judah are so high and go beyond just winning. The long ceremony prior to the race is a bit much, but it does help to increase the anticipation.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
We spend nearly the entire movie with Judah, which gives Heston plenty of time to build the character. He's nearly consumed by revenge near the end, but the sometimes-blusterous actor doesn't over play it. Heston receives great help from Jack Hawkins, who brings depth to Quintus Arrius in limited screen time. His caring for Judah makes sense, and the actors sell the emotions. Less exciting is the romance between Judah and Esther (Haya Harareet), which never feels developed. They seem to be in love because the script demands it. Harareet does her best with thin material, which is common for all the female characters. The story is focused on Judah and his quest against Mesala. While the fate of his mother and sister is important to him, it still pales in comparison to gaining revenge.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
While the chariot race was excellent, it wasn't my favorite scene in the movie. That was easily the galley sequence with Judah and many others rowing furiously during a sea battle. The score from Miklós Rózsa creates just the right energy for the brutal fight to survive. The shots of all the guys rowing in unison are something to see and convey the futility of their situation. Heston doesn't seem out of place alongside the grizzled muscle men. The set-up and execution of the battle is nearly pitch perfect and comes at just the right time to keep our interest. On the strange side, an odd scene takes place when Judah sits down with the Sheik Ilderim. The Arab seems to think Judah doesn't like his food because he hasn't burped. Once Judah realizes this affront and burps, everything is good once again. It's a rare light moment in a serious movie that pretty much comes out of nowhere.
Understanding that any list is subjective, does it deserve a spot on the AFI 100?
I'm skeptical when films cross the 200-minute mark and wonder if they need that length. While there is some baggage near the end, Ben-Hur has a large enough story to justify the time. The epic scale and classic scenes make it deserving of a spot on the AFI list. Given the drop in the 2007 edition, I have a feeling it may not appear in the next incarnation. I wasn't blown away by every part of this story, but it held my interest right until the end. That's pretty impressive especially since I wasn't as drawn into the Biblical elements. I grew up Catholic and am very familiar with the story of Jesus, and this film nicely fits within that tale. It's just not a plot line that I'm going to seek out. Regardless, I'm glad to finally catch up with this impressive movie, which exceeded my expectations.