Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jewish prince and merchant in 1st century Jerusalem. When his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives as the commanding officer of the resident Roman army, things change. To begin with, they are happy to be reacquainted after many years but they soon disagree on their politics. During the welcome parade, a tile from the Hur house falls and injures the governor. Messala knows they are not guilty and it was an accident, but he sends Judah to the galleys and Judah’s mother and sister to prison. Revenge is the name of the game and Judah swears he will have it.
Based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur is the most epic of epics. It’s the story of friendship and brotherhood between two young boys who eventually grow up to be enemies as men who hate each other, one being Jewish and the other Roman. This story could easily be seen as a story from the Bible because it feels like one. This is not from the Bible as it is a work of fiction, yet it’s one of the best stories ever told. This is the third of five tellings of the story, with the most recent being released in 2016, starring Jack Huston (Their Finest) as Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbell (Kong: Skull Island) as his long lost brother Messala.
Ben-Hur is full of drama, action, romance and political intrigue. Though, Jack Hawkins is rumoured to have played the role of Messala with homosexual-intentions, with Heston none the wiser. Their relationship in the film can be interpreted as a love-affair gone AWOL, but at the time, being gay was still a crime and frowned upon, so it was toned down by MGM. The interactions between the different characters are wonderful to watch. This also includes Ben-Hur, and Quintus Arrius played by Jack Hawkins (The Bridge on the River Kwai) who gives a subtly brilliant performance and I really think he was snubbed of an Oscar nomination.
Charlton Heston (Julius Caesar) and Stephen Boyd (Genghis Khan) are also excellent, with Boyd being snubbed of Oscar nomination. Did the Academy just not care for supporting performances? The rest of the cast are good. Cathy O’Donnell and Martha Scott as Tizrah and Miriam are really engaging. I really enjoyed their scenes together, as well as their scenes in the final hour when they’d been tainted with disease of Leprosy. They were lepers and the way they interact with Ben is great. Also, liked how the writers treated Jesus. He’s the messiah but he’s also man. We never see his face and that adds to some of the enigma of supposedly being the Son of God.
Along with Spartacus and Cleopatra, Ben-Hur is an epic film. It is epic in terms of quality but it is epic in terms of genre as well. Much alike how Lord of the Rings is considered an epic to my generation, the notorious nearly four-hour film Ben-Hur is considered an epic by my parents generation who’d watch it on TV as kids, as well as my grandparents generation who’d have watched this in the cinema when it was released. My envy has no bounds. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to watch something like Spartacus or Ben-Hur on a massive cinema screen. It defines the word ‘classic’ and has gone down into legend, and there it shall stay.
William Wyler (Mrs Miniver) made an epic film that is emotional, violent and exciting. It’s about friendship, perseverance and what’s more, faith. He has faith to keep going. “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live” says Quintus Arrius (Hawkins). The ultimate battle is the battle of the mind and Hur will need his mind in order to survive the Chariot race, let alone win it. And the chariot race sequence is a sight to behold, regardless of it being my least favourite part of the entire film. I much prefer the character development and the lead up to chariot race to the actual race, no matter how good it is.
Films like this will never get green lit today. If it did, they’d be bloated full of bad CGI and not enough of what Golden Age Hollywood was good at. From the sets to the cast to the direction to brilliant screenplay (Karl Tunberg), Ben-Hur is it. Pontius Pilate holding that handkerchief is one great shot, as he plays with the viewers and the racers. Hurry up and drop it I want to watch this race! He’s pompous, arrogant and smug. And Australian actor Frank Thring (The Vikings) plays him so well. In popular culture, Pilate has always been this caricature of pure evil. He is much the same here, but you low-key want to like him. Brilliant stuff.
Despite it being the home of the most famous chariot race of all time, it is my least favourite part of the film. I love the race but I’m all about the acting, shot choices, sets, costume design, script and direction before the chariot race. All these little things that make up this film are far more enjoyable for me than a well-crafted and well-executed chariot race. The dialogue for example is brilliant and really hits home. “You can break a man’s skull, you can arrest him, you can throw him into a dungeon. But how do you control what’s up here? How do you fight an idea?” Lines like this really have a place in the today’s world, a place where civil unrest and rebellion is on people’s minds.
Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) is an unfortunate casualty of injustice on his own persons and his family. His experiences across the world are filled with stories. Simultaneously, his meetings with the one they call Jesus adds to a wonderful fantastical element that enfolds. Released in 1959, a film like this had the ability to call people to action. Films are propaganda. That’s not a floating statement, it’s a fact. Whether we’re talking 1959 or 2017, popular culture is the most effective way of sending messages. And this film says no to injustice and racism. It shows that it goes to the very top, regardless of your social status, because one thing you can’t change is where you come from.
The same artful prowess that made movies like Gone with the Wind, Cleopatra, Spartacus and Lord of the Rings are present in this film. Though, the only one there I’d consider debating as being ‘as big as Ben-Hur‘ is Gone with the Wind. These epic tales or narratives span wider than the screens they are played on, no matter if that’s a fifteen-inch laptop screen, a forty two-inch LCD TV or a massive cinema screen. Despite all of this, some films are just too epic, and films like Gone with the Wind focus on characters and how they interact with historical events. If I could watch Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler on a massive screen, I’d be a happy chappy.
Winning eleven Academy Awards is no accident. I’m always criticising the Academy but Ben-Hur is one of the few times where I agree a film deserves to win that many awards. It deserved to win more. From the dialogue to the cinematography to the iconic chariot race, Ben-Hur is another one of those American Greats.