Review by MaceVindaloo
Original Book: Lew Wallace
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet
Rating: Death Star
In many ways, the 40's and 50's are the golden age of movies. The big movie studios almost ruled the country in terms of what Americans saw and how they thought. The studios pumped out movie after movie, some good, some lots bad, some were cheap. And some were fantastic grand productions that seemed to employ a whole country as a cast of extras. Several movies of this type have defined a generation of moviemaking. Movies like The King and I, Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur.
Ben Hur has the feel of an old epic tale that is not as old as most people would think. It is a story set in the time of Jesus Christ, but was actually written by Civil War veteran, General Lew Wallace. It was an extremely popular novel which was in print continually for over 80 years. It was made into a major motion picture for the first time as a silent picture in 1926 with a $4 million budget, which was astronomical at that time. I mean, to put it in perspective, Star Wars had a budget of $10.5 million, 50 years later! But the epic movie that everyone has come to know and love was released in 1959, and this review covers that color and sound version.
Although filming was done in 1958 and '59, two full years before cameras started to roll crews were in Italy starting work on the vast sets that were needed. The arena for the chariot race scene took 1,000 workers a year to carve it out of a quarry. A million feet of lumber, 1 million pounds of plaster, 250 miles of metal tubing, and 40 thousand tones of sand were trucked in from nearby Mediterranean beaches. Impressive ... (What they wouldn't have given for ILM to exist back then!)
The movie itself is a wonderful look into an easily digestible story of two childhood friends who ended up in opposition to one another. Messala went to Rome and returned as the Tribune, newly appointed by Rome to oversee Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur is the prince of a prominent Jewish merchant family. Messala destroys the Ben-Hur family, sending his childhood friend to a life of slavery among the warship galleys and having Judah's mother and sister thrown into prison. They are only known to be alive because the food the guards place at the cell door "keeps disappearing."
Judah, played by Charleton Heston, survives through sheer hatred and a desire for revenge. He loses everything by the whim of his former friend, except his anger and his will to find his mother and sister. The sparks do fly! After Ben-Hur saves the life of the fleet commander Quintus Attius, he was taken as a personal slave and taught the finer points of Roman sport, including gladiatorial and chariot handling skills. Eventually, he is adopted by Attius, and thus becomes heir to all properties and hereditary titles. He returns to Jerusalem in triumph after many years, and enters the famous chariot race against Messala and others. The evil man loses and is trampled by horses and run over by the other chariots, but Judah's anger remains unabated.
He at last discovers his mother and sister had been banished and are living outside the walls of the city in a leper colony. He does rescue them, even at the risk of contracting the fatal disease.
Judah Ben-Hur's anger finally disappates when he meets a Rabbi who's words cause Judah's sword to be "removed from his hand." Of course, this is the Rabbi who's birthday is celebrated annually by Christians everywhere to this day and beyond.
Knowledge of the bible and its historical contexts are not at all required to enjoy this film. The sheer spectacle immerses you in a way that is distinctive of this period's movies. The grand and bombastic musical score suits the scenery and script perfectly. Though the Romans spoke with British accents while the Jews spoke as Americans, and the Middle Eastern race is depicted as oddly Aryan, and there are anachronisms abound, you still find yourself lost in this great film. You lose track of time and place, so that you find yourself living and being the movie.
Of course, if you have done bible studies, you realize that Ben-Hur's story is the story of Jesus Christ's followers, and how one can fall from grace, but can have grace restored. It was an important time in human history, no matter what your religious faith; more importantly, it's a strong historical drama about how low a man can get, and how high he can climb which resonates with audiences.
This was recently released as a DVD set, which contains the 1907 unauthorized 15-minute short film (for which the producers were successfully sued), the full 1926 silent movie epic, and the 1959 color and sound versions, as well as an additional disc of commentary, including the 2005 Ben Hur: the Epic That Changed Cinema, and the 1994 documentary Ben-Hur: the Making of and Epic. It gives a feel of a "360" presentation. The poster design, of course, has been copied by everyone from Mel Brooks to Monty Python, etc. This movie was more than itself, because it managed to change completely how films were presented and made. Before this, there were very few on-location movies made, and cinematic technology was straightforward.
Ben-Hur is what every Cecil B. DeMille movie should have been; heck, it's what Gladiator should have been, but simply wasn't. After seeing this film, you wonder how anyone could have the chutzpah to re-write and re-film the story. How can perfection be further honed? And for being so perfect and for being my favorite movie of all time, it rates a Death Star (which I realize is an anachronism, but I bet Judah Ben-Hur could have kicked Anakin Skywalker's butt in the podraces!).
Move poster image from www.imdb.com
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