[Film Review] Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben Hur poster

Title: Ben-Hur
Year: 1959
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Karl Tunberg
based on the novel of Lew Wallace
Music: Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Charlton Heston
Stephen Boyd
Jack Hawkins
Haya Harareet
Hugh Griffith
Martha Scott
Cathy O’Donnell
Sam Jaffe
Frank Thring
Finlay Currie
André Morell
Marina Berti
Giuliano Gemma
Rating: 8.0/10

Ben Hur 1959

The newest iteration of BEN-HUR (2016) made by schlockmeister Timur Bekmambetov crashed and burned in the box-office front, which prompts my belated viewing of this grandiose historical epic under the supervision of William Wyler, the film won him a third Oscar for directing and swept with 11 wins out of its total 12 nominations (only Karl Tunberg lost BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY to Jack Clayton’s ROOM AT THE TOP).

Adapted from Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST, this Hollywood juggernaut opens with the birth of Jesus Christ, jand condones quite a chunk of time in padding out the Calvary crucification after the iconic chariot racing money shot (which partially explains its drawn-out length, running up to 212 minutes), vehemently gets its feet wet as a Christianity-moralizing tale by casting J.C. as the Messiah who literally saves our hero Judas Ben-Hur (Heston) from perishing during his trials and tribulations, and jumps the shark in its miraculous ending, gratifyingly throws humankind’s fate under the omnipresence’s whims, which gives a staid aftertaste.

The main plot is of course, about Judas, a wealthy Jewish prince in Jerusalem, AD 26, falls foul of his childhood friend, now a Roman tribune, Messala (Boyd), who swears allegiance to the Roman Empire, and fails to rope the freedom-advocating Judas into joining his side. Under Messala’s cunning malfeasance out of a mere accident, Judas is sentenced to toil in the galleys whilst his mother Miriam (Scott) and sister Tirzah (O’Connell) are cooped up in prison. Revenge is the mainspring behind Judas’ odyssey from a galley slave to an heir of the childless Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Hawkins), it is hatred that keeps his head above water against adversity, alert to a golden window to enact his exit strategy and he even magnanimously hatches a son-father rapport with the tyrannical Arrius. This is the thorny knot in the otherwise rather Manichaean racial feud depicted in the story, how far one can go to love your enemy? Which remains a quintessential challenge for those who endorse Christianity, and the film could have delved deeper into Judas’ psyche on that issue, yet, Arrius wholly disappears from the narrative after the mid-stream, and he merely functions as a springboard to Judas’ glorious homecoming with his rehabilitation, reunion and rediscovery. At the end of the day, justice belatedly prevails, but Judas still gets all shaken up in the aftermath, revenge might keep him alive but it is religion that gives him the ultimate peace.

For what it’s worth, BEN-HUR’s visual spectacle still holds water to an awe-inspiring amazement and thrill, it is a historic accomplishment not just because of its cutting-edge technicalities but also for the staggering manpower it strenuously deploys, the film itself is a panegyric of human’s creativity, which is something no dissenter can take away.

Romans are played by a crop of top-notch British thespians, whilst Jews are mostly impersonated by Americans, although how come Hugh Griffith’s ludicrously swarthy portrayal of the Arabic Sheik can walk off with that Oscar statute still eludes me, he is not even the top-pick among the supporting cast in the film, both Hawkins and Boyd can easily upstage him with their more engaging agent and emotive bravura, especially the latter, truly deserves at least an Oscar nomination which usurped by Griffith. That is not to say, Heston wins his Oscar all fair and square, but at least one can understand the logic, Heston has a dominating role wracked by an unimaginable baptism of fire, he is undeniably sympathetic and mostly affective with a very theatrical flair. An unsung heroine, is Israeli beauty Haya Harareet’s divine presence as Esther, the daughter of Judah’s former slave Simonides (Jaffe), and Judah’s sweetheart, who livens up the scenes whenever poignancy comes into play, a classic godsend.

When all is said and done, BEN-HUR is the apotheosis of mainstream studio production in Hollywood’s Golden Era, its phenomenal scale, its breathtaking grandeur and the imposingly plangent score by Miklós Rózsa can unnerve any redux project even tries to emulate its success, and furthermore, its “revenge is never the cure” message can earnestly transcend any religious persuasions and reach to a broader demography out of its faith-base home-turf.

Oscar 1959  Ben Hur


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