Top 100 Movie Review: #72 – Ben-Hur (1959)

The Stock Dropped With Each Passing Moment.

Why didn’t the movie end shortly after the chariot race!!!

Charlton Heston with his team of horses: Altair, Antares, Aldebaran and Rigel.

American Film Institutes Ranking: #72/100
Awards: Nominated for 12 winning 11: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, and on and on and on…
My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

As television started to take away potential movie goers, Hollywood decided that they had to do stuff that television couldn’t: epics. The 1950s and early 60s produced a slew of these films (Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid, The Ten Commandments) and the style was defined by length, scale, scope, and production.

Ben-Hur encapsulates all of this. The sets, scenes, and clothing all beautifully intricate and worthy of the epic genre. Unfortunately, the movie runs way too long. The apex of this film is the chariot race, a scene that even upon recalling gives me goose bumps, but then there is still another hour and half left afterward. As I watched the clock tick away, my rating began to slip — all the way from a perfect five to a solid three.

ben hur 3.jpg
Judah Ben-Hur (far right) with his slaves and family.

[story/spoilers.] Based on Lew Wallace’s 19th century book (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), this film focuses on Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his previous childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). Judah is a Jew that is faithful to his religion and his people’s right to be free of Roman influence. Messala is now a Tribune of Rome and has returned after many years to help Rome curtail the Jewish people under Roman rule.

Expecting Judah to be willing to assist him, Messala is surprised to find him intransigent to the inevitable Roman takeover. He makes an example of Judah, banishing him to be a rower in the galleys and putting his family in prison. Judah spends three years as a galley slave, but escapes when a Roman Consul named Arrius (Jack Hawkins) unlocks his shackles, allowing him to flee during the middle of the battle. Judah returns the favor by saving Arrius’s life in battle. He then becomes the adopted son of Arrius, and with Judah now able to return to Jerusalem, fulfills his promise to  confront Messala.

Judah as a galley slave.

[analysis.] The purpose of Ben-Hur is to be a tangential story for a retelling of Christ’s life. As Judah progresses through the story, we learn of a new prophet that is the one foretold of in the old testament. Jesus makes a few appearances throughout the movie, such as giving water to Judah when he collapses on the way to the galley and maybe a depiction of his sermon on the mount.  The movie’s themes are what you expect with that backdrop: the power of faith; the absolution of sin; repentance of transgressions.

This two-tiered story makes for an interesting narrative. You get the very human Judah dealing with the problems of betrayal, loyalty, and spirit. This is then layered on the story of Christ giving it an otherworldly sense of importance. I think it was tastefully done, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t religious.

The climax of this story is the chariot race, and I hesitate to Youtube it here because it loses its impact when removed from the narrative. Simply put, this is one of my favorite scenes in all of film.

The problem is what happens after this. Messala loses and is on his death bed. Judah has victoriously returned after an entire two hours of suffering. We are at the height of our movie enjoyment. Now we just have to finish the story of Christ — which takes another hour and a half.

The loose ends at this point are Jesus’ sentence, crucifixion and rebirth that tie into his families contracted illness of leprosy. One of the main motivations for Judah’s return was to get his family out of the dungeon, and while originally told they had perished, he finds out they instead are living at a Leper’s hideaway, unable to ever return to society. These moments are uninteresting, especially since we know that with Jesus’ death he will forgive all people’s sin (the family’s leprosy), so it’s a matter of just getting to the end to see it happen.

I understand the story of Christ had to be finished, but length of time required to do so was painful, especially after the riveting chariot race.


[conclusion.] Ben-Hur deserves the accolades. It is a movie from a time far removed, where sets and clothing were meticulously detailed and hand crafted. This is a bold film, and the first 2.5 hours are perfect in pacing and style leading to the pinnacle chariot scene. After that, its a tough descent. What would have been an easy five-star, must see turns into a struggle. Don’t let that affect you too much though — this movie is still worth seeing.

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