Saturday, July 21, 2012

#705. Ben-Hur (1959)

Directed By: William Wyler

Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd

Tag line: "The World's Most Honored Motion Picture"

Trivia: For several sequences in the chariot race, some of the chariots had three horses instead of four. This enabled the camera car to move in closer

Made at a time when historical epics were commonplace, William Wyler's Ben-Hur nonetheless remains the greatest of them all. Along with its moments of spectacle (including a battle at sea and a fiercely exciting chariot race), Ben-Hur tells the gripping story of a man tortured by conflicting loyalties, searching for answers in a world that is equal parts splendor and barbarity.

What should have been a fond reunion between childhood friends proves anything but when Messala (Stephen Boyd), a newly appointed Roman Tribune, asks boyhood pal Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish nobleman, to help him squash a rebellion against Rome, which has been gaining strength in Judea. Unwilling to assist his people's conquerors, Ben-Hur refuses Messala's request, leading to a fissure between the two that results in Judah's imprisonment. 

Sentenced to serve in the galley of a Roman warship, Judah eventually saves the life of the vessel's commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who is so grateful that he adopts Judah as his own son. Now a free man, Judah returns home to confront Messala, and to learn the fate of his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell), both of whom were also imprisoned. 

Despite the pleas of his former servant, Esther (Haya Harareet), Judah cannot put aside his anger, going so far as to face off against Messala in a highly-dangerous chariot race. But times are changing in Judea, and the teachings of one man might just convince Judah Ben-Hur that it's time to quell the hatred in his heart.

The most famous sequence in Ben-Hur is undoubtedly the chariot race, in which Judah Ben-Hur and his team of four white horses challenges Messala, whose black steeds have guided him to victory on many occasions. Shot on location in Rome's Cinecetta Studios, the outdoor sets alone were, at the time, the largest ever constructed, and the sheer magnificence of this locale remains impressive even to this day. As for the race itself, I would easily rank it as one of the most thrilling moments in cinematic history. To even attempt to do it justice by way of a few measly words is an act of futility; the chariot race must be seen to be believed.

Just as strong as the film's larger-than-life sequences is the character of Ben-Hur, played so well by Charlton Heston. At the outset, Judah is a proud member of the Jewish nobility, a kind man who feels he has no choice but to turn his back on his closest friend. The scenes with Messala at the film's outset are a sharp contrast to what happens later on, when Judah saves Quintus Arrius, a man he initially despises, and becomes Arrius' adopted son. Having earlier refused his friend, Judah now embraces his enemy, and for a short time lives as if he were a Roman. Yet his journey is not finished; Judah Ben-Hur will face many more obstacles, ask many more questions in the search for his own identity.

Ben-Hur is a film that is impossible to overpraise. From the magnificent performances of its supporting cast to Miklos Rozaa's stirring score, it is the movie by which all other Hollywood epics are measured.

And as far as I'm concerned, none have come close to it.


kerry said...

My fave movie of all time.

DVD Infatuation said...

@kerry: It's not my all-time favorite, but I do love the movie!

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, and my apologies for the late reply

Unknown said...

Ben-Hur is one of those movies that are perfect and should NEVER be remade or rebooted (although it didn't stop some idiots from trying recently). As you mentioned, the chariot race is spectacular, it's my favorite scence in the film. I also liked Hugh Griffith as the comedy relief sheikh.