- Directed by William Wyler
- November 18, 1959
A Jewish prince betrayed by a friend and sold into slavery where he regains his freedom and returns for revenge.
Ben-Hur is true in epic film. And who better to helm such an epic to star in such an epic then Charlton Heston himself as the title character. Not because he was the definitive Moses (which he was) but he controlled the screen when he came on. He made the moment and the film grandiose and larger than life.
This is just a well-done film. The narrative is set up early in the film with events leading to the conclusion. This is also a slow film but the conclusion of the story does not come out of left field. Judah Ben Hur’s friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns after being away for years now as the commander of the Fortress of Antonia and Judah’s old friend hopes to use that friendship to help quell the violence in the Province of Judea. The thing is that doesn’t happen in quite the way Ben-Hur thinks it will. After Messala used a simple accident to make Ben-Hur and his family an example, our hero becomes a slave and the film chronicles his journey and how his path intersects with the Christ.
For me the message of the film is that while one believes in God or just has faith in general it doesn’t prevent you from having difficulties in life. It instead does give you strength in those difficulties to make it through. There are moments when Ben-Hur connects with who he is and what is right and can continue on because of his faith. And if you have faith, at some point that faith will be rewarded. That’s a message not often seen in modern religious films of a significant budget of the rare instance those occur.
Ben Hur’s hardship and those of his family are severe. They lose everything because of an accident and an ambitious friend turned enemy. A tile falls and strikes a governor by accident and then they are turned into an example. He by being sold as a galley slave. His sister and mother are thrown in prison and the key is quite literally tossed away and because of the filthy conditions they live in they become lepers.
While they try to keep their situation secret from Judah Ben-Hur they also keep their faith and try to keep living as best of a life as possible. Ben-Hur’s faith as well as his fight is rewarded at the end of the film when Jesus, after having been crucified during the storm that erupts after Jesus‘s death and the water mixes with Jesus‘s blood, they are healed of their leprosy. Ben Hur’s faith in the new Messiah is rewarded as he was trying to get his sick family to Jesus for a healing blessing.
Judah Ben-Hur is driven by a good chunk of the film by a need for revenge of some type against Messala. His revenge is achieved in a chariot race with his old friend. While his friend cheats, Ben-Hur’s skill makes him the victorious competitor but the revenge is just not a cure-all for his problems.
That chariot race is one of the greatest in cinematic history. It is just adrenaline fueled and visually stunning. And the best part is that it was done all in real life. This came out in the days before CGI and everything you see had to be done on camera. And that’s why it works. Any CGI in that scene would have muted it in a way that’s hard to really quantify.
This is a very immersive world. What do you see in the foreground and the background is as involved as any science-fiction film you could find in theaters today. There is an extremely high level of detail. Made over 50+ years ago you need to wonder then how did they accomplish this? With good old practical effects and photographic trickery. And it is utterly beautiful.
This is not a short film. Don’t pop this in late at night. I know this is based off of a book and I’m pretty sure they packed in most of the book here. But you won’t feel as if it’s a long slog. While there isn’t nonstop action, there is always something happening. The story is advancing. The characters are growing. The story is being told. There is no stuff done solely for the ego of whoever is on screen.
The costuming is lavish. They are just beautiful and I need to say this but some of them look like they belong in the significantly later series Stargate SG1. Specifically they should’ve been on the Goa’uld. I’m curious if anybody on that production was enough of a fan of this movie to take their costuming cues from it. After all they did drop references to Wizard of Oz and The Simpsons during the run of the show. Anyway…
The special effects still largely hold up today. You could not build full size ships for sea battles so miniatures were your main go to method. And they are detailed to the point that while you’re swept up in the story you don’t initially notice what they are.
To be fair some of those shots that are on water appear to have been done in a water tank with the blue sky and cloudy background being some kind of picture. The only time where this really fails is after the big battle when Ben-Hur and his eventual Roman benefactor Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) are looking at the ship in the distance. It’s the only flaw in otherwise seamless work.
I’ve never read the book this is based on but the script we have here is fantastic. Maybe not exactly perfect but very close to it. This was a time when you could have a big production and people could put their egos aside when it came to what happened on screen to turn in a fantastic film. It is spectacle at its finest and most artistic.
Ben-Hur is a classic of old Hollywood. It’s about faith and its power to help you endure. If you have not checked this out please do but set aside plenty of time because this is not a short film.