"Ben-Hur" is a massive, sprawling MGM epic set in
the first century AD, during the life of Christ.
Directed by William Wyler, the film plods along
for most of its 212 minutes, marginally good but
lacking in humor, action, or spark. There are
solemn religious overtones and the usual stereotypes
in Roman epics (The bad, corrupt Romans; The good,
oppressed Jews). The famed chariot race sequence
delivers the goods, and is much better than the rest
of the film, but is hardly sufficient to bring the
entire film to a higher grade.
Charlton Heston stars as the title character.
Ben-Hur begins the film as a wealthy Judean prince.
He is the childhood friend of the new Roman precept
Messala (Stephen Boyd), but politics soon makes them
enemies. Boyd finds a good excuse to imprison
Ben-Hur's family, making Ben-Hur a galley slave.
After Ben-Hur saves the life of moody Roman general
Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Arrius adopts Ben-Hur, who
becomes a champion chariot racer. But soon Ben-Hur
leaves Rome for Judea, to find his family and get
revenge on Messala, who co-incidentally is a great
chariot racer. On his way, he just happens to meet
Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) who has great horses
but no jockey.
The viewer must wait over two hours before seeing
the film's centerpiece, the Chariot race sequence.
This was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt
and is excellent. Messala's dirty tricks, especially
the spiked probe, adds much dramatic tension to an
already exciting sequence. The problem is that
the chariot race is about the only action that
I have no problems with Charlton Heston's performance.
He has screen charisma, and can project indignation well.
The film might have been more fun with offbeat casting
(Robert Mitchum? Gregory Peck?) but Heston does fit
the melodramatic bill.
Christ shows up in the story now and then, and his
crucifiction is depicted in the finale. We do not
see Christ's face or hear his voice. By film's
end, Ben-Hur has become religious propoganda. Anyone
who has seen a Hollywood film before is not surprised
when the leprosy of Miriam (Martha Scott) and Tirzah
(Cathy O'Donnell) is cured.
"Ben-Hur" won a mountain of Academy Awards, including
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Heston),
Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor (Griffith).
Copyright © 1996 Brian Koller