BEN-HUR

(1959)
With Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Hugh Griffith, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring
Directed by William Wyler
Reviewed by JB

My God, you do look like Jeffrey Hunter!

     Although based on a fictional novel, BEN-HUR is arguably the greatest Biblical epic ever made, winning 11 Oscars, a record it now shares with two other films, TITANIC and LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING.  It was a big film in every way, with its 15 million dollar budget the most expensive in film history at the time. 

     It's impossible to think of BEN-HUR without thinking of Charlton Heston. Yet Heston was a last-minute thought by director William Wyler, who had worked with the actor previously on THE BIG COUNTRY.  With a face and physique that could have been carved by Michaelangelo himself, an uncanny knack for composing his body inside of a film frame as carefully as a director would compose every other element, and an authoritative voice and vocal cadence that made every word from his mouth sound important, Heston was perhaps the only actor who could star in a film featuring over 300 sets and thousands of extras and not be dwarfed by all the spectacle. The character of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince whose heart is filled with hate and vengeance, is one of the signature roles for which the man will always be remembered.

     BEN-HUR is best known for its chariot race, believed by many to be the greatest action sequence of all time. Heston and co-star Stephen Boyd spent months learning how to drive chariots, thankfully doing away with the need for process work and back-projection.  The scene, nearly twenty minutes long, certainly set a new standard for action sequences, and features several heart-stopping stunts performed by almost undetectable doubles and dummies.  However, It should be noted that the 1959 chariot race owes a lot to the original 1925 film directed by Fred Niblo.

     Heston is supported by a superb cast, including Stephen Boyd as Messala, Judah's childhood friend who imprisons most of the Hur family on false charges, Hugh Griffith as gambling Arab Shiel Ilderim who backs Judah in the chariot race, and Haya Harareet as Esther, Judah's long-suffering yet ever-faithful wife.

     The film was made at a time when reverence for Jesus Christ was a given in Hollywood (times have changed), but the film tones down the element of Conversion found in the original book by General Lee Wallace, as well as in the earlier stage and film versions of the tale.  Yet the redeeming power of Christ is still an essential theme. The film begins with a pre-credit sequence depicting the birth of Christ, and throughout the film, Judah Ben-Hur has several contacts with Christ figure, whose face is never shown.

   At the same time, although the film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", Christ Himself appears only a handful of times in three and a half hours.  The main story is driven by the history and politics of the era in which Christ lived, and centers on Judah Ben-Hur's quest to remain alive long enough to exact vengeance on his boyhood friend Messala, now a Roman tribune.  It is Christ's crucifixion, however, and His dying words on the cross, that finally drive the hatred out of Judah Ben-Hur's heart.  

     Portentious in every sense of the word, occasionally stilted, and overtly reverent as all good Biblical epics should be (helped by an outstanding score by Miklos Rozsa), BEN-HUR remains a superb, impressive film and one of the screen's greatest epics. 4½ - JB

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ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON

"When the Romans were marching me to the galleys, thirst had nearly killed me. A man gave me water to drink, and I went on living. I should have done better if I'd poured it into the sand!... I'm thirsty still."


THE ACTOR'S BIBLE

     Several actors from BEN-HUR are associated with other classic Biblical epics.  Charlton Heston, of course, played Moses three years earlier in Cecille B. DeMille's overblown THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and would go on to play John the Baptist is 1965's THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD..  Martha Scott, who plays Judah Ben-Hur's mother in this film, also played Moses's mother in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.  And Frank Thring's portrayal of Pontius Pilate was merely a runup for his more memorable turn as King Herod in 1961's KING OF KINGS.

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