Ben-Hur: The Gospel of Judah


The kind of film that starts with a five-minute overture, Ben-Hur is about as classic a 1950s Hollywood blockbuster as they come. Burt Lancaster was allegedly offered the lead, but declined due to the fact that the movie promoted Christianity. Any atheist who ends up watching this film will share Lancaster’s sentiment. Still, if that person also happens to be a film buff who can’t resist this type of spectacle if they’re well made, he or she will find it hard to complain. Ben-Hur is a movie’s movie, one you won’t mind spending a Sunday afternoon with.

The year is AD 26. Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives in Jerusalem as the new commander of the city’s Roman garrison. There he reunites with the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a childhood friend he hasn’t seen for many years. Adulthood and the times they live in have changed them however; Messala needs Ben-Hur to stay loyal to Rome, but the Jewish people longs for freedom. Even though Ben-Hur advises his countrymen against rebellion, his and Messala’s friendship eventually ends in anger. As Ben-Hur falls in love with Esther (Haya Harareet), a former slave whom he has given freedom, an accident gives Messala the excuse to send Ben-Hur to the galleys and imprison his mother and sister; the idea is that if he can do that to someone who’s supposed to be his friend, then the Jews will be too afraid of him to rebel. Ben-Hur spends the next three years as a galley slave, but finds favor with the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Chance, or possibly God, will give Ben-Hur opportunities to save himself and others… but he will also witness much horror along the way.

Technical details are astounding
The ingenious part of Lew Wallace’s novel is having the balls to relegate “the greatest story ever told” to the sidelines and focusing on another tale that plays out parallel to that of the Christ. Jesus makes frequent appearances throughout the movie fulfilling the promise of the religion he started, as a divine figure (whose face we never see) helping Ben-Hur when he needs it the most and teaching the former slave, through his example, how to forgive enemies. I really have no opinion on the religious content of this film, but many others will, from atheists to people who might object to the idea of Jesus converting Jews. The only thing I care about is whether or not the filmmakers tell a good story and how they do it. This could have been a thouroughly corny experience, but everyone involved takes the movie seriously and delivers a drama that holds one’s attention for three and a half hours, with a little help from ingredients like love, faith, revenge, Roman power games, the grim threat of leprosy and the presence of a preacher about to create a church. Heston is an ideal hero, always charismatic as we follow his journey that is grand both physically speaking as well as intellectually; Boyd is also worth a look as the Roman who will always treasure power more than anything else. The technical details are astounding; Miklos Rosza’s rich score, Robert Surtees’s cinematography as well as Edward Carfagno and William Horning’s art direction all work in perfect harmony, evoking the powerful look of an era this movie helped shape in our minds.

The chariot race scene is possibly the greatest action sequence ever made, one that would have largely been spit out of a computer today. But this is the real deal; stuntmen (including the legendary Yakima Canutt), horses and real carriages enduring what looks every bit like a deadly race. At least one stuntman’s life was in danger during its filming, but no one was seriously hurt. One could perhaps say that MGM’s costly production had divine help…

Ben-Hur 1959-U.S. 212 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sam Zimbalist. Directed by William Wyler. Screenplay: Karl Tunberg. Novel: Lew Wallace (“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”). Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees. Music: Miklos Rosza. Editing: Ralph E. Winters, John D. Dunning. Art Direction: William A. Horning, Edward Carfagno. Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott… Sam Jaffe.

Trivia: Previously filmed as Ben-Hur (1925). Rock Hudson and Marlon Brando were allegedly considered for the part of Judah. Gore Vidal doctored Tunberg’s script and gave the first meeting between Judah and Messala a subtle homosexual undertone. Remade as Ben-Hur (2016).

Oscars: Best Picture, Directing, Actor (Heston), Supporting Actor (Griffith), Cinematography, Music, Film Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Special Effects, Sound. BAFTA: Best Film. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Supporting Actor (Boyd).

Quote: “By condemning without hesitation an old friend, I shall be feared.” (Boyd)

Last word: “I had ridden before, but handling four powerful horses while standing erect in a half-ton chariot was something entirely foreign to me. The toughest part was learning to skid around the turns and if you looked back there was always a horse at your shoulder. At first I couldn’t believe it when Bill Wyler, our director, told me it was impossible to overturn – that the chariots had been designed not to lift. But he knew what he was talking about and those that do flip in the picture had to be specially rigged with a powder charge.” (Heston, The Christian Science Monitor)


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