Ben Hur (1959)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 4/22/06
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: William Wyler
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Charleton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith

They certainly don't make movies like this anymore, and nor could they. The cost and risk would be far too great. William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" is certainly the most famous and spectacular telling of General Lew Wallace's story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jew who is sentenced to death by an old friend turned Roman officer. Through his hatred, faith, and blind luck, Judah miraculously survives his sentence as a galley slave, is adopted by a high ranking Roman general, becomes the greatest charioteer in the Roman Empire, gets revenge on his former tormentor, and witnesses the death of Christ. All in all, a pretty remarkable life.

The film is about as epic as they come, and the scope is HUGE. Shot in anamorphic 65mm, the panoramic vistas are larger than life and breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, everything about the movie is larger than life, including a brilliant musical score by Miklos Rozsa which stands as possibly the best score ever created for a motion picture. Ever. The set design is fabulous and the sets themselves are enormous. Charleton Heston gives an excellent performance, although he still just gives me the creeps.

The two most notable scenes are the sea battle between Roman and Macedonian forces, and the incomparable chariot race in the Circus Maximus between Judah and Messala (Stephen Boyd). The sea battle was all shot in miniature and suffers from the usual problems, which is a bit distracting to these old and jaded eyes. I think the worst aspect of it is the projectile weapons, which totally give away the scale and look embarrassingly tacky. Still, the battle sequences are well constructed and dramatically tense. The chariot race is breathtaking, and made all the more impressive by the fact that everything is real and tangible, and the actors themselves are driving the chariots most of the time. The cinematography and editing lend a real sense of excitement and danger, and the stuntwork is jaw dropping. The film also features some shockingly brutal violence and gore, which even by today's standards comes as a surprise. Especially considering when the film was made and the political and cultural climate of the time.

Unfortunately, the film has several problems which make it fall out of favor with me. One is the extremely tedious running time, which falls just short of four hours. It's a serious chore to watch, and it took me a whole week to get through the entire thing. And then there's the religious angle, which leaves a bad taste. The writing is heavy handed and overwrought through much of the film, but the drama and action helps to balance it out. The Christian imagery is impressively strong and majestic, and the portrayal of the Christ character is exceedingly effective. Unfortunately, the film overstays its welcome by about thirty minutes, as the devotional propaganda machine shifts into high gear and the film takes on a completely different tone. It's disappointing to see the film end on such a distasteful note, but "The Ten Commandments" (1956) also ended in a similar fashion. Still, despite the religious subject matter, you cannot deny the grandeur, craftsmanship, and spectacle of it all, which makes "Ben-Hur" one of the finest films ever made.