The most famous of all the Roman epics is this lengthy, extravagant, most grandiose of films. It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince in Jerusalem during the time of Christ. His old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), arrives in the city to command the Roman army there. Initially they try to rekindle their old friendship, but their political differences come between them, and when Ben-Hur refuses to tell him the names of Jews who oppose the Roman rule, he is sent as a slave and his family sent to prison. This sets the scene for a film based on the revenge of the Jewish prince.
It is a mammoth production. Everything about the film is huge. From the sweeping vistas to the soaring musical score, it never fails to show the audience that they are watching a giant of a film. A few words need to be said about the cinematography: I cannot think of a film before ‘Ben-Hur’ that reached that stage in production. I can imagine the impact of watching this film in 1959 and being blown away by it. I cannot to this day think of a scene as big as the infamous chariot scene. The speed of the horses and the heat of the sun are really brought to life by the production team.
Heston is a likable hero. This is not a film that one would necessarily watch for great acting performances, but he puts on a good show as the hero of the film. I find Boyd more captivating as the rival to the hero. His character develops over the beginning of the film from believable friend to desperate and treacherous nemisis.
It’s not really a film about the story either. The film is essentially a series of events following the arrival of Messala in Jerusalem and there are scenes/sections of the film that could have been cut without losing the overall impact. This film was made solely for the production values, and it does at time show.
I was surprised to find that in length ‘Ben-Hur’ actually is only the third longest Best Picture winner: both ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ are longer, but ‘Ben-Hur’ does feel at times never ending. At times I wanted the film to move at a much slicker pace.
What does elevate this film above many other epics is how it treats religion. There is a wonderful section of the film where the prince is offered a drink of water by a carpenter (Jesus). Later in the film when Jesus is being led to death, Ben-Hur then offers him a drink. It is a powerful moment, and although this section of the film is very dark, it gives Ben-Hur hope and new found faith.
It is not a perfect film, but it is extremely impressive and a film that anyone who loves grand epics should embrace and enjoy immensely.