Ben-Hur was made back when going to an epic movie was an international event. Great spectaculars were made with real people, mind-boggling sets and casts of thousands, long before digital special effects made them all obsolete.
Epics were shown on gigantic screens in palatial movie houses, often with overtures and intermissions, and a really big movie was a cultural experience that everybody knew about. There’s no better example of those bygone days than 1959’s Ben-Hur, a biblical sword-and-sandal epic that has it all, including a breathtaking, absolutely real chariot race.
After a prologue of the birth of Christ, the movie begins in Judea, where we meet the handsome Roman Messala, a childhood friend of Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) who is now determined to rule the conquered land of Judea with an iron hand. Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, is wealthy and influential, and Messala asks his help in persuading the locals against rebellion, but he resists.
As the new Roman governor arrives to take power, Ben-Hur and his sister are watching from their rooftop and accidentally dislodge a tile. The governor’s horse starts, he falls and is gravely injured. Ben-Hur, his mother and sister are arrested and unjustly condemned, and Ben-Hur swears vengeance against Messala.
Based on the novel by Lew Wallace, the story sweeps across the ancient world as Ben-Hur struggles as a Roman galley slave, survives an epic sea battle, rescues a high Roman official, wins his freedom, seeks his mother and sister and pursues Messala. His beloved Esther, a former slave, provides the moral centre as Ben-Hur’s life interweaves with that of Jesus Christ, whose story is told with reverence and passion.
The sea battle is gripping, despite effects that don’t quite measure up today (and despite the fact that there really weren’t any galley slaves at the time of Christ; that came later. Roman sailors at the time were actually paid).
The climactic chariot race, staged in a huge amphitheatre, is still thrilling as Ben-Hur and Messala face each other at last. See it on the biggest screen you can find, with a good sound system. Pounding hooves, terrifying stunt work and great direction make it one of the greatest sequences ever put on film. (There is long-standing urban myth that a stunt man died during the filming, but everyone connected with the movie denies it.)
The Cast of Ben-Hur
Heston was way down the list for the role (Paul Newman famously said he didn’t have the legs for it, and even Cary Grant was considered). Heston’s a little over the top, but he sure did have the bone structure for those close-ups. And he looks great in costumes ranging from elaborate robes to an almost non-existent loincloth.
In fact, in a movie where the women are quite modestly covered, gleaming male six-pack abs and strong, manly legs are everywhere in this film. Whether they’re Roman athletes getting oiled down at the gym, or half-naked slaves pulling galley oars, there’s plenty of eye candy, not to mention whips and chains.
How did all this homoerotic imagery get into a biblical epic, the first movie that was actually blessed by the Pope? Well, much of it is standard, sword-and-sandal fare. However, Gore Vidal was brought in as a script doctor, and wrote much of the script. He says he suggested to director William Wyler that there was no motive for the hatred between the two boyhood friends, unless it was Messala’s unrequited love for Ben Hur. Wyler said for years that the whole thing never happened; see what you think.
Stephen Boyd is fine as Messala, and Jack Hawkins delivers a workmanlike performance as Quintus Arrius, the Roman Ben-Hur saves. Hugh Griffith is a bit wince-worthy in heavy makeup as a stereotypical Arab sheik, and Haya Harareet is lovely as Esther.
The real stars of this film are the page-turning story with its improbable twists and the jaw-dropping sets, from the lavish Roman interiors to the stunning Circus Maximus.
The Bottom Line
Devout Christians may find special meaning in the movie, with its heart-rending re-telling of the crucifixion and message of hope, faith and redemption.
Movie lovers of all stripes will want to see it for its sweep, artistry, history and plain old movie magic. They really don’t make them like this any more.
Made in a special wide-screen format, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and every penny shows on the screen. Ben-Hur hoovered up eleven Oscars, a record that stood alone for forty years until Titanic came along and tied it.
Just the Facts:
Year: 1959, Colour
Director: William Wyler
Running Time: 212 minutes