Ben-Hur is one of those sword and sandal epics that, like The Ten Commandments or Spartacus, is a good film, well acted, well directed, but ultimately, is just a good excuse to eat junk food, for there’s nothing of any real depth to it. In many ways, it is sort of Part Two of Charlton Heston’s three part ‘religious epic’, which started with The Ten Commandments and ended with El Cid(a bit better of a film than the two others). The difference is that this is the least religious of the trio, despite its subtitle being A Story Of The Christ.
Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) is a Jewish prince in old Judea, at the time of the mythic Jesus Christ’s birth. The film opens with a prologue on the Nativity, then quickly switches gears to the reacquaintance of two old friends, Roman tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Hur, in 26 AD. The two clash over the politics of the region, with Hur wanting to help his friend, but not to the point of betraying his people. When Hur’s sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), accidentally knocks off a roof tile, when the new governor of Judea arrives, she and his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), are thrown in jail, and Hur sent off to be a galley slave in a Roman ship. Messala revels in getting ‘revenge’ on his friend, whom he sees as having betrayed him for not giving up the names of possible Jewish rebels.
After three years of bondage in a slave galley, Hur catches the fancy of a Roman consul named Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). When their ship is sunk in a sea battle (the phoniest moment in the film, for water does not scale, and the ships are clearly models), with Macedonian raiders, Hur saves Arrius, and the two are rescued. He then becomes Arrius’s slave and chariot driver, becoming a star at the Circus Maximus in Rome. After many months, Arrius decides to adopt Hur as his son, for he had a son who had been killed in battle, and wants an heir. With his new title as Arrius the Younger, Hur sets out to get vengeance on Messala, demanding him to find out what happened to his mother and sister. It turns out they were jailed and became lepers. But they refuse to let Hur see them, and upon release they make it to the valley of the lepers, known only to Hur’s former servant girl, Esther (Haya Harareet).
Hur, meanwhile, after being told by Esther that they are dead, revows vengeance against Messala, and via the interlocutions of an Arab horse trader, Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), ends up riding against his old friend in the famed chariot race sequence, where Messala has specially designed wheels that can grind up opposing chariots’ wheels. He thus dispatches a number of rivals, but cannot do so to Hur. Frustrated, Messala whips Hur, who grabs the whip, and causes Messala’s chariot to overturn. Messala is mortally injured, and Hur wins the race. On his deathbed, Messala taunts Hur that his mother and sister are still alive, and lepers. He eventually saves them, and with Esther, they go to see the trial of Jesus Christ (Claude Heater, who is never shown frontally, nor speaks, in the few scenes he appears in). They watch the crucifixion, and the film ends with Hur’s mother and sister being cured of leprosy and Hur embracing a more magnanimous view of the world, while not formally becoming a Christian.
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers (despite it being an MGM film), shows the film on two sides of a single disk, with intermittent commentary by Heston, that one can flip through. The commentary’s not much, mostly Heston claiming all his co-workers did fine jobs, and it runs about a third of the film’s length. The most notable thing in the whole commentary, to me, is the fact that Heston acknowledges that Ben-Hur is a fictive character, but not that Jesus Christ is. The film, made in 1959, runs for 212 minutes, and is in color Panavision, in a 2.76:1 aspect ratio. Other special features include a 1993 hour long making of documentary, Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic, which is informative about both this film, and earlier films based upon the source novel by General Lew Wallace. Other features include Screen Tests, with clips of Cesare Denova as Ben-Hur, and Leslie Nielsen as Messala; a make-up test for Haya Harareet, the theatrical trailer and teaser, and a photo gallery. The film was directed by one of Hollywood’s most well known directors, William Wyler, who won an Oscar, but, as Wyler was the quintessential studio director, and did the project simply because he’d never done an epic before, there is nothing distinct about the film, despite being shot in Italy, and at Cinecitta Studios, outside of Rome. Even its screenplay, officially penned by Karl Tunberg, with help from Gore Vidal, Christopher Fry, and others, is merely competent, although Vidal rightly claims credit for the homoerotic subtext between Hur and Messala. The cinematography, by Robert L. Surtees, is likewise competent, but not super, and the musical scoring, by Miklós Rózsa, is also good, but not great. That the film claimed 11 Oscars is more of a testament to Hollywood penchant than anything truly earned. Heston’s acting is fine, but he was better in a number of other films, later in his career.
The film has a few standout scenes, excluding the justly famed chariot sequence (which includes the accidental flip of Hur over the chariot- done by a stuntman, of course), including the two exchanges of water between Christ and Hur, and the dialogue between Hur and Arrius, before their connection is formed, wherein both men counter-taunt each other with words; Heston seeming to make a career over ironic taunts, which would reach its apogee in The Planet Of The Apes. But, mostly, Ben-Hur is good old fashioned moviemaking; an epic that has few weaknesses and a number of strengths, even if it is barren of anything of depth. Believe me, there are many worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching Charlton Heston kick ass on the past.
©2011 Dan Schneider
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