Made for 15 million dollars in 1959, 'Ben-Hur' stands the test of
time and is an example of how the screen epic must be presented. Lavish
in its presentation, it ranks highly as a favourite among fans of the
biblical genre while critics over the years have had mixed feelings
about it. 'Gone With the Wind' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' probably rival
it as the greatest spectacle of all time and 1997's 'Titanic' has won
the same number of Oscars, 11, giving these two films the distinction of
being the most honoured films of all time among their peers. Some
critics seem to regard 'Ben-Hur' as corny at times, with a phony
emotional tone throughout and I suppose that isn't entirely without
Nominated for 14 Oscars and winning 11, 'Titanic' lost in three
categories, Best Actress for Kate Winslet, Best Supporting Actress for
Gloria Stuart and Best Make-Up. Nominated for 12 Oscars, 'Ben-Hur'
didn't win an Oscar for its screen writer, Karl Tunberg but came away
victorious in every other field of achievement, including Best Picture,
Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith) and
Best Director (William Wyler).
Legendary filmmaker William Wyler had already won two Oscars for
his meticulous direction of such films as 1942's 'Mrs. Miniver' and
1946's 'The Best Years of Our Lives' when he received a third trophy for
handling the hectic panoramic scale of directing 'Ben-Hur'.
Historians will know that the Roman empire ruled the Earth at the
time Christ was born and that's how 'Ben-Hur' begins its story. I wish
ABC television would show this film every year at Easter instead of the
inferior 'The Ten Commandments' which has nothing to do with Christ
while 'Ben-Hur's' climax takes place on Good Friday during Christ's
crucifixion and ends with a triumphant re-birth of the human spirit for
the mortals in the film.
As the year's progress after the birth of the Jesus, Prince Judah
Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is re-united with his boyhood friend Messala
(Stephen Boyd) and the two of them would soon become mortal enemies.
The scene where they meet for the first time and embrace each other as
friends is a scene that director Wyler had them do over and over again
and a rumoured 140 takes is said to have been collected. The Roman
empire's persecution of the Jews leads the Jewish prince himself to
plead for freedom for his people, much to the resistance of Messala,
whose only goal is power and to end up at the side of Caesar.
There is a central theme of noble family love in 'Ben-Hur' as
Ben-Hur's mother and sister are the most important things in his life.
After breaking off his friendship with Messala, an accident occurs which
injures a high ranking Roman official and Ben-Hur and his family are
accused of attempted assassination and without a trial, the mother and
sister are imprisoned to an underground dungeon and eventually develop
leprosy while Ben-Hur is sentenced as a prisoner to serve as a slave on
the Roman galley ships, chained to the floor and forced to row the ship
with other slaves. During a fierce battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of a
Roman officer, played by Jack Hawkins who adopts him as a son and he
returns to his life of nobility and continues his search for his mother
In the time after his re-birth, Ben-Hur meets an Arab sheik (Hugh
Griffith) with a magnificent stable of four Arabian white horse that
will compete in the annual chariot race which Messala has won
consecutively for the past four years. Griffith is an example of how
actors can contribute a relatively small part to a film but still be
memorable and Griffith won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the film's
comic relief and ally to Ben-Hur. The scene where he negotiates a bet
with the Romans and a scene where he talks tenderly to his horses,
earned Griffith the well deserved honour he received. It is the chariot
race that makes 'Ben-Hur' the spectacular film that it is as errors
during the filming of it were left in as a convincing example of what
might have been and were appropriate for inclusion into the film's final
cut. There is, however, the continuity error of one of the cast
actually wearing a gold watch during this scene, giving away its 20th
century identity and the scene where Charlton Heston flies out of the
chariot and then climbs back in was said to be "unrehearsed".
The film's religious sub-text is tastefully presented as we see
Jesus only from the back, as no mortal knows what he truly looks like
and his two scenes of confrontation with Ben-Hur will bring a tear to
the eye of even the least sentimental movie fan.
At a running time of 212 minutes (3 hours and 32 minutes) 'Ben-Hur'
manages to tell a story without including too much of a romantic
sub-plot and it makes its mark as a film of epic proportions not only
with its scale of production but by the size of its historical
importance, a part of history not recognized by all, but for others, it
can be observed as a part of religious culture with debate among all.
Copyright © 1996 Walter Frith