They really don’t make movies like Ben-Hur anymore. In some ways that’s the biggest takeaway from this movie; the look, feel, and sound of the movie is just so fundamentally different than today’s films that I found myself not paying attention to the story and just marveling at the movie making that was laid out before me.
The story is simple really; Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy, powerful and successful Jewish businessman, has his whole life turned upside down by the actions of his old friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) who is the new commander of the local Roman garrison. Forced into slavery, Ben-Hur becomes an oarsman on a war ship where he saves an important Roman statesmen and becomes his adopted son. Returning to Judea with wealth and power behind him, he seeks to find his missing family members and have his revenge on Messala, which he does in the famous chariot race that is the climax of the movie only to realize that maybe revenge was not worth it. He also meets Jesus twice and witnesses his crucifixion.
The performances, as almost always, are vital to the rest of the movie so lets talk about them first. I did not like Charlton Heston in this movie almost at all. He is by far the weakest of the main characters and feels really out of place next to Stephen Boyd, who is on fire every time he is on screen. Whereas Heston is stiff as can be and feels, looks and acts nothing like a Middle Eastern patriarch, Boyd inhabits his role as a up and coming Roman soldier with vim and vigor that overpowers whatever it is that Heston is trying to do. I did some research and if the film studio had gotten one of the other actors they were looking at, such as Paul Newman or Marlon Brando, I think this movie improves dramatically. There is a charisma and strength to what Heston does in this film, to be sure, but it never quite works for me; I never fully connect with him and as a result, I don’t care quite enough about him or what happens to him. His journey is viewed at a distance when I should be fully connected with it. After all, a man seeking revenge and the rescue of his family is a pretty universal and human story. He also plays it strangely emotional; I swear he looks like he is about to cry in almost every scene, which only makes his character look strangely unstable. The rest of the cast is strong though none of them are that memorable to me nor do many of them stick around to make much of an impression. Haya Harareet as Esther is good, but her role is pretty limited in my opinion; she mainly just pines for Ben-Hur and worries about him. Somehow Hugh Griffith won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Role, which is baffling. He’s fine but not award worthy.
The story has an odd feel to it and part of that oddness comes from the structure of the movie. This movie is long, over three hours in fact and that allows some scenes to go on seemingly forever. The scenes on the warship and the crucifixion of Jesus feel like they will not end. This isn’t always a bad thing though; other scenes are allowed to breath in a way that would not feel possible otherwise. The build up to the chariot race especially grows nicely; we get to see the pageantry and crush of humanity go wild until the race finally starts and the crowd explodes with excitement. A shorter, tighter scene with CGI crowds would have had much less impact. The film has a Forrest Gump quality to it that makes it feel like we are travelling the Roman world simply to see different parts of it; here we see Ben-Hur in Judea, here we see him on the Mediterranean, here he is in Rome, now back to Judea… the movie in many ways feels like a selection of vignettes tied together for the sake of a movie. A better actor could have maybe held all the different locations and groups of characters together better, but Heston is not up to the task.
I’m unsure as to why Jesus is included in this film. I read a version of the book as a kid in which his inclusion made more sense, Ben-Hur wants to lead an actual rebellion in his name if I remember right, but he feels out of place in the movie. First off, they never show his face, which is confusing and kind of off-putting, and he doesn’t do much. The movie tries to build this small moment where Jesus gives Ben-Hur a drink of water when he really needs it and later in the movie Ben-Hur does the same, but it just doesn’t work for me. Jesus, and especially the way he is portrayed is simply a distraction to the movie and especially the end of the movie, which is the weakest part of the story. The movie doesn’t really end. There is little or no resolution to anything and I’m unsure where we are leaving the characters. Yes, Ben-Hur is reunited with his family, that is something, but the end still feels really incomplete to me. The emotional payoff is simply not there.
There is an interesting rumor about the screenplay and writing of the movie that I found fascinating. Gore Vidal was brought on to help write the script and he allegedly viewed Messala as a spurned lover of Ben-Hur and that is why he turns so quickly on Ben-Hur in the film and destroys every aspect of his life. Who knows if it’s true but it actually kind of works for film in that it gives the characters a better emotional resonance. It explains a lot of the early interactions between the two and how quick to anger Messala is. Historically speaking, it’s not out of the question by any means, though by the time the men are reunited, they would have both been married. I knew that bit of information before I watched the film so it colored their interactions in a way that makes it hard for me to watch the film in any other way.
Visually, the movie is a marvel. Every scene hums with life in a way that modern, CGI assisted movies simply don’t. Watching a crowd of real people cheer has an effect that modern special effects simply don’t have. I didn’t always believe this, but after seeing this film and a couple other older ones, it’s undeniable. The same thing is said for the action scenes. Part of what makes the chariot race so gripping is that it’s real people and real horses that amplify the danger and excitement beyond what computer aided horses and people could ever bring to the screen. And while the navy battle is mostly shot with miniatures, even that forgotten art adds a visual flourish that modern films simply don’t have. I don’t know if I want movies to go back these techniques, they probably can’t for financial concerns, but it would be really cool if modern directors took direct inspiration from films like this one and did something with it. The cinematography is great and the scenery is really beautiful to look at as well; I don’t know where the movie was shot, but whoever chose the locations did an excellent job.
There is a lot to like about this film, and as an artifact from a different time and era of Hollywood, I can’t recommend it enough. A lot of it doesn’t work for me, but so much of it is fascinating and fun to think about from a more modern point of view that I still found myself enjoying the movie. Ben-Hur is a classic example of cinema from another time and place that holds up pretty well. If you like films and the history of films, check it out. And seriously, Stephen Boyd kills it in this film; I’d never heard of him before but I can’t get over how good he is in this film.
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