Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Ben-Hur (1959)

There are big movies, there are really big movies and then there is Ben-Hur.

It is colossal.

As such it is one of those movies everybody will at least know off, simply due to its massive size. I watched it first time back in the nineties when the university film club screened it in a converted auditorium and I am grateful I got the chance to watch it on a big screen. This is the kind of film that deserves it, maybe even needs it.

Ben-Hur may well have been the most expensive movie ever made at the time. It is three and a half hours long, employs 350 talking characters and an insane number of extras. It is filmed on numerous locations around the world including purpose built sets of a magnificence to eclipse those used by Griffith for “Intolerance”. The only thing I can compare the hippodrome to is when Cameron built a copy of Titanic just to sink it. And every single character in every single scene had to be dressed and equipped in an era-fitting costume! It goes without saying that the filming is in crisp Technicolor cinemascope.


The one thing you have to worry about when presented with such a technical marvel as “Ben-Hur” is if there behind all this dazzle is a decent movie. It is okay, at least most of it is okay. Direction here is way better than DeMille’s silent movie tableau style in “The Ten Commandments”. Scenes here are dynamic and fluid, these are not just characters delivering lines to the camera, but actually to each other. But we are not entirely home either. The pathos is still heavy and at times more than the movie can carry. Especially Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur is prone to melodramatic acting to the extent that I got sincerely fed up with him. Whether it is the fault of Heston or Wyler I am not sure but man, that guy is totally over the top.

Things gets a lot better when action takes over. The chariot race is well known and for good reason. It has been referenced and copied, but never exceeded. It is simply exhilarating. But my favorite is the naval battle. In fact the entire sequence at sea is the part that works best for me. The filming, the cutting and the set, wauw! This is eye candy. And maybe best of all Heston keeps quiet and is reduced to stare in hatred. His best acting of the movie.

The story itself has an ambivalence. It is an adventure story about the exploits of Judah Ben-Hur and as such not so different from a typical swashbuckler movie. Great popcorn stuff and fitting for a big budget movie and it works. However the movie also wants to be about personal transformation. The hardship and injustice Judah suffers from Rome in general and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in particular makes him a bitter man that takes up the fight, but then learn mercy and is released from his anger. That story works less well, mainly because the movie spends three hours to make Judah an angry man and then he meets Jesus and everything is settled. That leads to the third theme, which is the movies intention of telling an alternate story about Christ. I am sure that religious people get a kick out of that theme, but it seems forced upon the adventure story and it does not entirely work. Sure, those are powerful scenes with Jesus on the cross or walking down Via Dolorosa, but I cannot help that this part is a Deux ex Machina that is there because of a religious intent.

I have always been fascinated by the Roman era, like so many people before me, and one of the things that strikes me is the very bad publicity the Empire always gets in Christian texts. It is quite understandable actually, the early Christians were persecuted by the Romans, but those texts also form our collective image of the Roman Empire. The more I look however, the more I see a level of benevolence in the empire completely at odds with the Christian texts. The Romans brought civilization to all corners of the Mediterranean world and beyond. It brought prosperity and peace and the first two centuries of the millennium was known as Pax Romana. Roman law protected its inhabitants against lawlessness and exploitation and the main thing the Romans demanded in the districts was for its residents to abide by the law and contribute to the defenses. Not so different from the EU today. Incidentally when Jesus was executed by the Romans it was at the request of the ruling class in Jerusalem, not because the Romans had anything particular against Jesus. In that light I find it a bit difficult to buy Judah’s hatred of the empire (though his personal hatred of Messala is completely reasonable) and I have some sympathy for Pilates speech to Judah.

Alas, all this does not change that “Ben-Hur” is a great movie to watch and enjoy, especially for the popcorn. The bigger the screen the better. It is one of the greatest spectacles ever made.


  1. I was slightly underwhelmed by this, but as you say, it was made for the big screen, and watching it on a TV just doesn't do it justice. I agree about the naval battle, and the inner battle of stares and whips going on in the galleys. I definitely sat up for that.

    Do you think that 1959 was a particularly good year for films, like 1939 was? I certainly do.

    1. Ben-Hur definitely needs a big screen, no doubt about that.
      I think 1959 is a mix of hots and misses, at least on the list. I watched some good one, but also touched the other end of the spectrum. If I were to select, say, the nest five years in cinema I am pretty certain 59 would not be one of them.

  2. Charleton Heston was born to stare in hatred. It is when he starts talking that he loses me! And yet this is one of the few Biblical epics I can tolerate ...

    1. Yes, He was born to stare. And be quiet!
      There is something about grandness of scale that trigger unbearable melodrama. I can manage without that.

  3. It's all about the chariot race for me. I think you can make the argument that it won Best Picture because of the chariot race and that it should have for the same reason.

    Of course, North by Northwest came out in 1959 as well, so I'd put my vote differently.

    1. Today it would be one of those movies who took all the technical awards, but none of the big ones. Of the two I know which one I would pick.