Ben-Hur 1959 - Movie Review
Bigger than Ben-Hur’ has been in the world’s vernacular for generations, and having just seen the film for the first time in 30 years, William Wyler’s epic quickly reminded this reviewer why.
For a film made in the 50s, the sheer scale of this production makes the eyes widen in awe. This is long before CGI, or any of the current crops of trickery we can use to create other worlds or worlds gone by, so every one of the thousands of people inhabiting Wyler’s enormous canvass, every dwarfing statue, cascading staircase, ship and vista—they’re all real or all accomplished old school.
This was the first biblical epic back then to make the focus of the story on character instead of events, and what a story it is. The third adaptation of Governor Lew Wallace’s novel tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince betrayed by a former friend who has risen to power within the Roman legions that oppress his people. Ben-Hur is imprisoned, and, through many years of hardship, swears by his one God to endure so he can seek vengeance and save his mother and sister.
Subtlety is not the order of the day in this film on any level. The story’s narrative is rather heavy handed and simplistic, especially when it comes to the presence of Jesus Christ and the parallels all but signposted between him and Heston’s titular hero; while Ben Hur is asserted to be a humble man of privilege, the continuing comparisons to Christ make the film over the top in its reverence. But this was a different era, and, in that great old tradition, the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad—and never the twain shall meet. It is a testament to its day and should be viewed as such. Judah Ben-Hur is put through the proverbial wringer, and when he does get his chance to right the wrongs, spectacularly, there isn’t a film, then or now, that delivers it with such spectacle. Your jaw will drop and you will cheer during the chariot race; it is still one of the most impressive action sequences ever committed to film.
The late Charlton Heston was not the pick of the bunch to play Ben-Hur, but the role that won him his Oscar is hard to imagine in the hands of anyone else (though this blu ray shows the screen tests of several other candidates.) This reviewer always found Heston’s acting to be passionate, unpretentious—the man gave himself over to every character—but, and please don’t think of this as a criticism, faintly hammy. Not William Shatner ham (whom I also love) but just inching toward melodrama, especially when it came to scenes of heightened emotions. His delivery has been parodied many times since (Homer doing Heston’s Apes shtick), such is the power of his performances, and it is a credit to him that, in the context of this story, you buy him completely.
We are spoiled in this age of green screens and computers, really, so absorbing the production design of this epic is a thing to behold. Besides some clever matte paintings, everything you see in front of you is real, and its scale is awe inspiring. This is the very definition of big budget production.
Ben-Hur was the first, and is only one of three films, to have collected 11 Oscars, and stood alone in that accomplishment for nearly 40 years. Do yourself a favour, and see why. There are few films then, or now, that have the impact of this classic.
by: Christopher Symonds