An epic tale of the Christ
Ben-Hur is a 1959 adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as well as a remake of the 1925 silent film of the same name. Charlton Heston stars as the titular Ben-Hur, with Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, and Stephen Boyd also starring.
The film centers on a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur, who lives with his mother (Martha Scott), his sister (Cathy O'Donnell), their loyal slave, Simonides (Sam Jaffe), and Simonides' daughter, Esther (Harareet). Judah has been lifelong friends with Roman tribune Messala (Boyd). Messala had left Jerusalem for many years, but returns as a new Roman commander. Judah and Messala grow divided when it is clear that Messala supports the glory of Rome, while Judah is devoted to his faith and the freedom of the Jewish people. One day, the new governor of Judea is holding a parade through Jerusalem, when a loose tile falls from the roof of Judah's house, throwing the governor off his horse, resulting in him being nearly killed. Messala is aware that the incident was an accident, but he condemns Judah to be a galley slave, while Judah's mother and sister are taken away and imprisoned. Judah swears to take revenge on Messala for his betrayal.
If you picked any kind of old-timey Biblical epic movie, I would bet at least $100 that the run time is absurdly long. If you also picked a relatively older Best Picture winner, I would bet at least $101 that the run-time would be very long. For whatever reason, Bible epics and Best Picture winners both suffer from overly lengthy run times. So what happens when you take a film that is a Biblical epic AND a Best Picture winner? You've got yourself the epic-scale and self-proclaimed entertainment experience of a lifetime that is William Wyler's Ben-Hur, and it clocks in at a whopping 222 minutes. This was back when movies actually felt like all-day events and not casual time-spending activities (unless your a professional critic or cinephile, in which your life does not feel complete without movies). I'll bet going to see Ben-Hur back in 1959 was like gearing up to watch the Super Bowl, with the overture being the pre-game routine and the intermission serving as halftime (which doesn't make sense for Ben-Hur because it's intermission takes place nearly 145 minutes in, well more than halfway). To keep the tagline in perspective, Ben-Hur was meant to be the experience of a lifetime, but that statement is sort of bereft of purpose nowadays because you could easily look up select scenes like the chariot race or sea battle, not having to sit through the whole film to feel the entertainment rush that was probably the ultimate high in the late 1950s. How someone might define entertainment now is bound to be vastly different from how someone in the 50s would define entertainment.
Say whatever one wishes about Ben-Hur, good or bad, but the type of epic-scope film-making that was involved in its production is, unfortunately, lost in today's films. Shooting for the film took between 12 and 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week. The 300-some sets built for the film took five years to research and over a full calendar year to actually build. I could go on and on about all of the production happenings (there are a LOT of them). The point being is that this process of having so many people working for so many hours should tell you how many people were dedicated to making Ben-Hur happen, and what a grandiose deal that the whole thing was. I suppose that I should feel bad for griping about the run-time given how much work went into making the film, but, on second thought, I don't. Any of my complaints about the run time aside (I will save that for the low points), I don't want to sound as if I think that nothing is good about the film. There is a lot of good in Ben-Hur. Charlton Heston is a perfect fit for the role of Judah, and there is enough action spectacles and dramatic heft to prevent the film from ever being boring. It's especially appealing to Christian audiences, but really anyone, regardless of faith background, can watch the film and consider it a pleasant viewing experience.
What's rather interesting about Ben-Hur is that it handles its Christian themes and plot details in a way that never seems preachy. Judah encounters Jesus several times throughout the film, yet we are never shown Jesus' full face. There is also not a single line of dialogue spoken by Jesus during the film. What matters is Judah's interpretation of events involving Jesus such as his trial before Pontius Pilate and his crucifixion. The last line of the film is Judah saying, "And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." Judah has been wielding a sword the entire film, a sword of vengeance and hatred that he wishes to swing in the direction of Messala and the Romans. Through Jesus' death and example, Judah can finally return to peace. There is no quoting Bible verses or trying to hammer you over the head with something along the lines of, "God is good! You must follow him or burn in hell!"
- The chariot race, no question. If there was ever a choice for best 50s action set-piece, the chariot race might take the cake. There was nearly a year of preparation, and the entire sequence took nearly 3 months to film. The race lasts around only 9 minutes, but it's 9 minutes of flawless editing and steady camera-work that uses well-balanced medium and close-up shots. No music plays during the race. It's all so absorbing, and the race from the 2016 remake can't hold a candle to it.
- The word epic gets thrown around a lot, and my sense is that people use the word epic nowadays when they are describing something as awesome or spectacular. When we're talking about the word epic in its appropriate connotation in cinema, we are referring to grand-scale and sweeping spectacle that attracts crowds from near and far to deliver an experience like no other. Ben-Hur is a perfect example of what is meant by the word epic in cinema. There are large, cheering crowds seen throughout various scenes such as the chariot race (duh) and the trial of Jesus. Extreme long-shots are used to convey just how massive that everything is, and we get a terrific viewing of the film's elaborate sets that are still quite a marvel to behold. It's hard to accurately describe how Ben-Hur successfully displays to us the elements of the epic genre. You have to see it to truly believe it.
- And now comes the time for me to let out all of my frustrations about the film's run time, which is, honestly, the only significant low point. The story of Ben-Hur is jam-packed with action and drama, and it has a speckle of romance to go with it too. I want to believe that the film goes by at a sluggish pace, which is usually the default reason for a movie to have an unreasonably long run time. The weird thing, though, is that the movie does not go by at a sluggish pace at all. So how in the world could it be too long? For starters, there are select scenes that are not necessary, such as the nativity scene right before we see the opening credits, as well as the chariot race participants circling the track several times before the actual race begins. But after thinking about it long enough, and after having seen the film in its entirety twice now, I think the main reason for the film being too long is in how it wants to flesh out as many details as possible from Lew Wallace's novel. I have not read the novel, but after reading a synopsis of the each of the book's eight parts, I was surprised to see that there were still a lot of details that were not present within the film. The film aims for a balance between examining Ben-Hur's relationships with the loved ones in his life (particularly his friendship with Messala), his quest for revenge, and, finally, his encounters with Jesus. There is only so much that we can endure of each of these three parts before our attention spans begin to really get tested. Ben-Hur is definitely a long story, but there is only so much that one person like myself can take in one sitting. This 1959 version is too long at 222 minutes, and the 2016 remake is too rushed at a shorter 125 minutes. I would bet that the main story of Ben-Hur could be effectively presented somewhere between 150 and 165 minutes.
My take on this movie was slightly altered after watching the 2016 Ben-Hur, which was a remake that nobody really wanted or asked for. It is clear to me, now, after watching the 2016 remake, that the story of Ben-Hur is a long and detailed one, but one that can be effectively portrayed in about two and a half hours. Still, we have a chariot race that is among the most famous action scenes in all of cinema and a sense of epic-scope that makes Ben-Hur a frequently astounding sight to behold. The whole thing remains an entertaining experience, with moving drama and spiritual enlightenment to boot. It is certainly deserving of all 11 of those Academy Awards it won.
Recommend? Yes, but if you hate sitting through 3+ hour movies, don't bother
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: