In 1956, The Ten Commandments was released to a massive success around the world. It had such a worldwide appeal due to the story being well-known everywhere. Three years later, another wildly successful epic was released in the form of Ben-Hur. This movie seems like the first cousin of The Ten Commandments. Both are stories based off biblical events, and Charlton Heston plays the lead role in both films. Heston wasn’t nominated for any major awards with his 1956 film, but he was nominated and won an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, an influential man amongst his people.
If I had to choose what my favorite epic was from this era, I would have chosen Ben-Hur. It has such a fascinating story as it’s about a man who wants what is only right for his people. His people are conquered by the Romans, and he wants a better life for them. The movie goes into so much detail on the man Judah was. He was alive for the teachings of Jesus Christ, although he was not seen to be an ardent supporter. However, one of the best scenes in the movie was Judah and his family watching Jesus being marched with a cross on his back on his way to be crucified. That scene did admittedly tear me up.
Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a rich Jewish merchant whom resides in Jerusalem. An old childhood Roman friend of his named Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives to become commanding officer of Jerusalem. Both men are extremely happy to see each other at first, but their friendship becomes divided over political issues. When the governor arrives during a welcome parade, a tile falls off the roof accidentally injuring the governor. Messala takes advantage of the incident and the broken friendship with Judah to send Judah into slavery and his mother and sister into prison. Judah makes a name for himself in the galleys and becomes a Roman prince. Now Judah comes back home and he vows revenge on Messala for how he treated his family.
Charlton Heston had the fortune to appear in what are the two most famous epics of all time. He was able to convince me in his performance as Moses. Now in this film, he even more so convinces me as Judah Ben-Hur. Both men want to do what is right for their people, but they are two different men. Heston does an amazing job in this role and I believe he deserves his Oscar victory. Stephen Boyd does well as Messala. Both Heston and Boyd have excellent chemistry, which makes the broken friendship even more gut-wrenching. We also get strong supporting performances from Cathy O’Donnell and Martha Scott who portrayed Ben-Hur’s mother and sister respectively. They mostly spend their time in the film battling leprosy, which is a very gruesome disease. The makeup department did a very good job in accurately showing the symptoms of leprosy. I also liked Hugh Griffith’s performance as Sheik Ilderim, who turns out to be a useful ally for Ben-Hur. He provided some comedy, especially when it came to offering Ben-Hur his daughters to marry. Finally, Haya Harareet does a fine job as the love interest of Ben-Hur, Esther.
At the time of the film’s release, it had the largest budget of any film released. It had a price tag of around fifteen million dollars, or 123 million dollars when adjusted to today’s standards by inflation. I believe the budget was spent properly. The epic is beautiful and is home too many large, grand scenes. The most famous scene is the well-known chariot scene, which would hold up well in any movie released today. The race itself was epic and it features some hardcore chariot racing. The chariot race takes time to complete, and I’m glad it does. It’s my favorite sequence of the movie and it’s arguably the most action-packed scene of the 210-minute film. When one thinks of Ben-Hur, they will always bring up the chariot scene. It is a very influential scene on future movies.
There were some other scenes I loved to such as the scene in the galleys where Judah rescues a Roman general at sea during war and he becomes an adopted son of the general. Whenever Judah and Messala appear onscreen together is always worth watching. Judah’s search for his family is also a powerful section of the movie. The movie looks gorgeous and the production design is wonderful. Ancient Rome actually looked authentic, which is hard to say of movies released during this time period. Jerusalem also looked authentic too. I also loved the score by Miklos Rosza. It was a beautiful score to listen to and it works very well with the movie.
Overall, Ben-Hur is a flat-out great epic. The movie does run into pacing problems, but that can be expected at a movie clocked around three-and-a-half hours. Everything is consistent with the film ranging from the acting to the special effects (no CGI of course) to the wonderful direction of William Wyler. Without Wyler’s consistent tonal direction, who knew if this film would work. As a history film, this film may not always be accurate. But they did get the tone mostly right. A winner of 11 Oscars including Best Picture, this is one of my favorite epics to watch.
My Grade: A