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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Walter Frith review follows ---
2.  Brian Koller read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review

Review by Walter Frith
No Rating Supplied

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 merit.

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 and sister.

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

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