by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh
PLOT: After a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend in 1st-century Jerusalem, he regains his freedom and returns for revenge.
For my money, 1959’s record-setting production of Ben-Hur would be a better pick for an annual Easter flick over C.B. de Mille’s overblown The Ten Commandments. Certainly, Commandments shows the actual story of Passover and might lay claim to more special effects sequences, but Ben-Hur feels grander AND more intimate at the same time. Plus it actually shows Christ and the crucifixion at the end, and what better symbols could you ask for in an Easter film?
Then, of course, there’s that chariot race. Game, set, and match.
Ben-Hur was created in an era when Hollywood was watching its profits dwindle because of the advent of television, which was keeping more and more people glued to their sets at home instead of paying for a ticket at the box office. One way to get people back into theaters was to take the “bigger-is-better” approach: do things that were impossible on a TV budget.
Consider these statistics: Three hundred separate sets were built for Ben-Hur. The chariot race alone required 15,000 extras on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome and took 10 weeks to shoot. Over a million props were needed, and it took two years to amass them all before shooting. Approximately 1.25 million feet of expensive 65mm film was exposed and developed at a cost of roughly a dollar per foot. The budget for the film ballooned to nearly $15 million, equivalent to over $146 million in today’s dollars, an unthinkable amount in the late 1950s.
But when it was released, Ben-Hur made history by being the first film to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. It remains the only film to date to win Best Picture and Best Visual Effects. At the box office, it raked in $75 million ($731 million when adjusted for inflation), making it one of the most profitable films in Hollywood history at the time. It remains popular today, ranked in the IMDb’s top 250 most popular movies and listed as the #2 epic film of all time by the American Film Institute. (#1 is Lawrence of Arabia, naturally.)
How does a 63-year-old film, with a running time of 3 hours and 42 minutes, with a blatantly religious plotline culminating in the crucifixion of Christ and a shamelessly manipulative miracle, and featuring some of the hammiest acting this side of Bollywood, remain as popular as it is? Because despite its shortcomings, it does what every film should do, long or short, sacred or secular: it tells a rollicking good story, and it does it extremely well.
After a solemn prologue depicting the first Nativity, we jump forward 26 years and meet Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Judean prince who enjoys a reunion with his old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd). They grew up together but went their separate ways, and now Messala is a Roman tribune assigned to keep the peace in Judea. Poor Judah realizes just how far they’ve grown apart when an accident leads Messala to arrest Judah and his mother and sister, to demonstrate his power and loyalty to Rome. Judah vows vengeance and is sentenced to die as a galley slave. But fate intervenes in the form of Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a Roman general whose life Judah saves in battle. Arrius befriends Judah and officially adopts him as his own son, giving Judah the means to return to his homeland, wreak his vengeance upon Messala, and rescue his mother and sister from prison.
…and that’s just Act One. Act Two focuses heavily on Judah’s revenge in the form of one of the greatest set pieces in Hollywood history: the chariot race. Or, more properly, The Chariot Race. If you’ve never seen it, Google/YouTube it. Even viewed as a stand-alone scene, it is as breathtaking and thrilling as any car chase ever filmed. It’s so good that George Lucas cribbed many of its beats for the pod-race sequence in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. The crashes you see during the race were planned, but they were performed with real stuntmen in real danger. Note especially one sensational stunt where a 2-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses, at full gallop, approach a crashed chariot in their path. The horses leap the chariot, then the chariot dangerously rolls over the crash itself, hurling the stuntman so high into the air he nearly topples head over heels over the front of his own chariot. I am at a loss to imagine how they could possibly accomplish this same scene today without the use of visual effects.
Peppered throughout the story are brief scenes featuring Jesus of Nazareth, although we never hear Him speak, and we never see His face. In Act One, He offers water to Judah as he is being marched to the galleys, a compassionate act that will resonate through the years. Later He is glimpsed from a distance delivering the Sermon on the Mount. And later still, we see His trial, His journey to Golgotha, and His crucifixion. Everyone involved in those scenes show the appropriate and expected levels of awe and sadness, while the score plays a mournful dirge. It’s a little ham-handed by today’s standards, especially when compared to modern films like The Passion of the Christ, but it is still effective.
The movie’s highest level of filmmaking, apart from The Chariot Race, is on its best display in the first half of the movie. Nearly two-and-a-half hours fly by, thanks to superb editing. It’s never boring or soapy. (Well…ALMOST never soapy. The requisite love scenes between Judah and the slave girl Esther, played by the lovely Haya Harareet, are not as easy to watch as the rest of the film, but thankfully there aren’t that many of them.) Every event and every scene feels crucial to the story. There’s never a moment that drags. Like the best epic films, watching Ben-Hur makes me feel like I’m reading a richly detailed novel.
If the film has a major downfall, it’s the story that follows The Chariot Race. The movie doesn’t exactly grind to a halt, but it doesn’t offer the viewer any kind of climactic punches that can match the visceral effect of Judah’s capture, escape, and victory in the race. (Sorry if I spoiled that for you, but if you seriously thought he lost that race, seek help.) Sure, there’s the capture and crucifixion of Jesus and the miraculous aftermath, but while that satisfies the true arc of the story, I still, to this day, feel like the film deflates a little at the end. There’s simply nothing it can offer that could possibly follow up that damn Chariot Race. The race is the payoff. Everything that follows feels anti-climactic.
That quibble aside, Ben-Hur is still as captivating as it ever was, with “old” Hollywood’s full power brought to bear to bring audiences a cinematic experience unlike any other at that time. No matter where you might stand when it comes to its religious overtones, you can’t deny that the movie is exactly as respectful as it needs to be for this story. And ultimately, the message of the film isn’t “An eye for an eye.” It’s “Love thy enemy as thyself.” It takes Judah Ben-Hur a little while to get there. But he gets there.