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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Ben-Hur

Starring: Charlton Heston, Hugh Griffith
Director: William Wyler
Rated: G
RunTime: 212 Minutes
Release Date: November 1959
Genres: Action, Classic, Drama

*Also starring: Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Cathy O'Donnell, Martha Scott, Sam Jaffe

Review by Brian Koller
2½ stars out of 4

"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 "Ben-Hur" has.

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

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