IMDB #156 Ben-Hur

Man, I've been trying to work up the energy to write about 1959's epic Ben-Hur for the countdown project, but it hasn't been coming.

What's to say about a film that won 11 Oscars and is somehow all about Jesus while barely featuring Jesus? Stay tuned to find out how I muddle through it!

The Key Players:

Director William Wyler returns for the hat trick, star Charlton Heston makes appearance number two. His jaw remains squarely set.

In support are Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Haya Harareet, and Jack Hawkins.

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The Story:

It's been a couple months since I watched it, so it'll be more fun to see what I can remember without leaning on wikipedia:

Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of the Jews (?), who returns home to Jerusalem. He's reunited with his sister, mother, and one faithful servant (who has a hot daughter named Esther).

He's also reunited with childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is a Roman primed to take over governorship of the area. Messala wants Ben-Hur to spy for the romans and turn in Jews who don't like being ruled over and opressed and suchlike- Ben-Hur respects his friend but refuses to turn on his own people. He promises to counsel the Jews to avoid violent revolt, but Messala is not pleased.

The entire plot of the film is then set in motion by a falling roof tile- yeah, a teeny little roof tile. As Ben-Hur and his sister watch some Roman bigwig parade by, she accidentally knocks a tile right onto the guy, and the police come storming in to arrest everybody. Clearly this is all part of some devious, under-handed Jewish roof-tile-based revolution!

Messala, as chief of the guard or what have you, is in position to put a stop to all this, but dramatically refuses. Ben-Hur (after a brief escape attempt) is sent to work row on a slave ship, his family's fate unknown to him.

What follows is an improbable run from shirtless rower to adoptive Roman citizen to charioteer, involving a benevolent Roman luminary, and a hilarious shiek played by a scene-stealing Hugh Griffith. All the while Ben-Hur struggles with his desire for revenge, ignoring the pacifist teachings of some offscreen fellow named "Jebus" or something.

The Artistry:

Man, I can't even begin to imagine the scope of Ben-Hur. The extras! Imagine getting that many people together before the AI CGI extras that were developed for Lord Of The Rings. Or even the matte painting stormtroopers in Star Wars.

The chariot race, of course, stands out as an unrivaled piece of action film-making. Actual horses, actual chariots, an actual crowd- it's very authentic, to say the least.

I can't say I maintain any impression of Miklós Rózsa's score, other than that it was loud when the film was loud and quiet when the film was quiet. But I hear it's one of the greatest?

Charlton Heston does an admirable job- he's great at selling Ben-Hur's genuine struggle to reconcile his friendship with Messala with his people's pride at the beginning, and he remains compelling in the fall and rise of the character as the film goes on (and on).

The ending, which we'll get to, is a little more troublesome as he has to be entirely converted into a believer by a Christ figure played by an extra whose face is never seen.

But in many ways that's the best aspect of Ben-Hur (I would assume this is true of Lew Wallace's novel as well). The focus allows the movie to deal with the large theme of vengeance and peace without getting too heavy-handed, because the story of Ben-Hur is personal instead of allegorical.

Which isn't to say it's subtle, at all. Or short. Here's my question- what was the last film to have an actual intermission? One where, like in Ben-Hur, the word "INTERMISSION" actually appears on the screen and people get up to stretch their legs?

It seems like sacriledge to say Ben-Hur could be shorter, but some of the interpersonal drama once Ben-Hur returns and sees what's become of everybody is pretty slow...


So once he finally returns to face down Messala in said badass chariot race, Ben-Hur discovers his former servant and his foxy daughter destitue but still devoted to him, and his mother and sister have supposedly died in prison.

In fact, they've both become lepers, which is apparently so shameful that they demand that Esther lie to him and say they've died.

In the race, Messala drives a chariot with spikes on the wheels and tries to destroy's Ben-Hur's chariot (he also has black horses to Ben-Hur's white horses). But he ends up crashing himself and is mortally trampled.

In a final act of douchery, he reveals to Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are lepers. Dun dun Dunnn! Enraged, he plans violent revolt at last, since Romans are as much responsible for their fate as Messala himself was.

Esther, however, tells him about the sermon on the mount, and convinces Ben-Hur that Jesus could heal his family. They're too late, however, and only arrive in time to see him carrying his own cross.

At this point, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus as a stranger that once offered him water in his slave days, saving his life. He poignantly returns the favor before guards pull him away.

The crucifixtion brings the film to its climax as Ben-Hur hears Jesus ask for the people's forgiveness even as they kill him and realizes he's been a little revenge-obessed, and then a miracle occurs in which the blood of Christ, seemingly washed down into their cave in the rainwater, heals Ben-Hur's mother and sister completely. Bonus!

So all's well that ends well. Presumably all of the Jews would recognize Jesus as their savior and king on this earth and in the next realm, and these new, so-called "Christians" would never persecute anyone themselves.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

We'll say it should stay right here, even though for all the production value I can't say I need to sit through it again.

The Legacy:

It won a record 11 Oscars, since tied by Titanic and The Return of the King- though it is the only one of the three to have any acting awards included, as Heston won Best Actor and the hilarious Hugh Griffith won Supporting Actor.

As such, it's on lists and in vaults and everything else required of a cultural touchstone- although the only homage to it I can think of is the car race from Grease with the spiked hubcaps.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Chariot time!

Leftover Thoughts:

-The nativity story is briefly acted out as a prologue. Forgot to mention this.

-I feel like this film really gets to have its cake and eat it, because it preaches pacifism but also has Messala get trampled and all. The other Roman villains are mainly offscreen, though I think Pontus Pilate is around for the washing of the hands bit.

Coming Up...

155. The Manchurian Candidate

154. Avatar

153. Scarface

1 Response to "IMDB #156 Ben-Hur"

  1. WeirdRash says:

    Nice post. I am a big fan of epic films. Ben Hur is definitely one of the best. Here is a top ten list of the best epic films

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