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aka - Ben-Hur
USA 1959
Directed by
William Wyler
217 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Ben Hur

Synopsis:  The story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Judean whose childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), becomes second-in-command of the occupying Roman army. The native population are rising up against the invaders and Messala wants Ben-Hur’s co-operation in suppressing them but the latter refuses. When an accident occurs during the welcome parade for the new governor, Messala ships Ben-Hur off as galley slave and imprisons his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell). We then follow our eponymous hero on his protracted journey that eventually leads him back to avenge himself on his enemy.

By the late 1950s Hollywood was struggling to survive in the face of the massive shift of allegiance by the movie-going public captivated by the living-room intimacy of  television.  Its answer was a shock-and-awe strategy of gargantuan screen productions.

With a running time of just over three-and-a-half hours, 350 speaking parts and over 50,000 extras, Ben-Hur certainly fitted the bill   It was a strategy that didn’t work, however.  It cost $US15m, in its day the most expensive movie ever made, and took out 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture but at the time didn’t make a profit for MGM which was then on the brink of bankruptcy.

Adapted from the best-selling novel by General Lew Wallace first published in 1880 and with a screenplay by a credited Karl Tunberg and an uncredited Christopher Fry and Gore Vidal, Ben-Hur is a film very much of its time, one in which Hollywood was coming to the end of its reign as the unquestioned arbiter of mass entertainment. Everything about the film, from the massive purpose-built sets to the heightened passions of the character’s relationships, is designed to enthrall a cinema audience. Today most people will watch it for nostalgia value whether they saw it its day or not.

It was lauded by critics of the day for its attention to detail and the sheer logistical achievement of the film remains impressive. Back then, with no CGI, the film required extensive model and matte work which looks pretty shoddy by today's standards. The sea battle scene looks like something that today we would accept in an episode of The Thunderbirds but on the other hand there is the film’s famous 15 minute chariot race, shot by 2nd unit director Andrew Marton, with ace stuntman Yakima Canutt standing in for Charlton Heston. This kind of extremely dangerous real-time stunt work is inconceivable today (you’ll see Canutt nearly thrown out of his chariot in one scene)

Wyler, who had worked on the 1926 silent version and was best known as a director of  sophisticated dramas, well manages the difficult task of balancing the large scale of historical events with the intimacies of his character's personal stories. He won the Best Director Oscar for what in his hands becomes a stately, almost Shakespearean, drama of betrayal, revenge and redemption. In perhaps the most striking scenes of the film, in which Ben-Hur’s path crosses that of Jesus, the director imbues the film with a reverential awe, cannily showing us the mythic power of The Redeemer only as it is written on other people’s faces. This co-opting of the Christ story helps to elevate that of Ben-Hur to epic status.

Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments in 1956 and went on to play John The Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965, won the Best Actor Oscar and he does a credible job in a role that Wyler originally wanted to go Marlon Brando, then Rock Hudson, whilst Welsh character actor Hugh Griffith won Best Supporting Actor for playing an Arab sheik!!.

Ben-Hur is by no means a great film but it is deservedly recognized as the most aesthetically-satisfying of the sword-and-sandal epics of the period.




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