Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Film Review: BEN-HUR (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)


Director: William Wyler
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Story/Screenplay: Karl Tunberg; Christopher Fry (uncredited), Gore Vidal (uncredited), Maxwell Anderson (uncredited), S. N. Behrman (uncredited)
Basis: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace
Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees, A.S.C.
Editor: John D. Dunning, Ralph E. Winters
Music: Miklos Rosza
Cast: Charlton Heston, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Curray (narrator and Balthasar), Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Claude Heater (as Jesus)
MPAA Rating: G; original 1959 certificate: Approved

Run Time: 212 minutes

Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (theatrical), Warner Bros. (home video)

In November 1959, people were lining up to see the hot new movie that just came out. It was supposed to be the biggest and best epic of all time, not to mention the fact that it was shot in a super-wide ratio (2.76:1) using high-quality anamorphic lenses and top-notch 65mm film to capture these images. It was supposed to show both drama and action, particularly in the famed chariot race scene. The film was to beat Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments and others as the greatest epic movie of all time. The movie was Ben-Hur. Praised by moviegoers and critics of the day (and even of today), Ben-Hur does stand the test of time, and it is one of the greatest epics of all time. It set the stage for other epics such as Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart, and Gladiator. It was recognized both in 1998 and 2007 by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, as well as being one of the top ten epic movies of all time in AFI's 10 Top 10. It famously won 11 out of 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture (though it didn't win Best Screenplay due to issues over who should receive credit for it; it did receive a nomination, though).

Why is it so? Because it has character, drama, action, violence, redemption, hope, color, and intelligence in it; it is one of the best (and maybe THE best) of the biblical epics of Hollywood's Golden Age, in the vein of classic epic masterpieces such as The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart, and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece of the same name).

I figure that most people will know the general outline; however, I feel the need to refresh readers who might have forgotten about the plot. At its most basic level, the story is about two former friends who split up because of political and religious differences, with one betraying the other, laying the ground for future enmity that will result in one of the greatest cinematic sequences of American film history and film history in general.

Now, get back to the story: In first century (A.D., that is) Judea, the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) meets his former friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has now become a Roman tribute. At first, it seems that they will be friends again. However, when Messala demands that Judah reveal the names of militants who oppose the Roman Empire, Judah breaks with Messala, and vice versa. This event spills over when Judah is falsely accused of attempting to assassinate the Roman governor after a tile accidentally falls from the palace balcony, and he and his family are captured. Judah begs Messala to vindicate him and his family, but the hardened Roman refuses. Judah is condemned to the galleys, but not before he promises vengeance on Messala when he returns. At the galleys, he saves the life of the general Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and is rewarded by being named Arrius's son. However, Judah feels haunted by the memory of Judea, and returns, only to meet Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) and Balthasar (Finlay Currie), who happened to be one of the three wise men who saw the baby Jesus, and to enter into a chariot race in which he will compete with Messala in the arena. The ensuing events will make for an exciting, grand piece of cinema.

Did the movie deserve the glowing reputation it has received among esteemed film critics and cinephiles? Or is it just an average epic that is dated and insignificant? Or is it a really awful, bloated and overrated piece of fluff? I agree with the first opinion. It is an intelligent piece of filmmaking that keeps you in your seat for more than three and a half hours, even with the occasional flaws that may exist in the movie.

William Wyler does a wonderful job in directing the film, and the movie is guided by his skilled hand. Epic film producer Sam Zimbalist (King Solomon's Mines, Quo Vadis) did a great job in his production; however, he died in 1958 before it could be completed, making him the only posthumous person to win a Best Picture Oscar. Karl Tunberg's excellent script is helped with uncredited contributions from British playwright Christopher Fry, American playwrights Maxwell Anderson and S. N. Behrman, and the late great controversialist Gore Vidal, who also happened to write Broadway plays. The fact that the uncredited contributions come from playwrights clears things up a bit as to why this film is so grand, epic, and magnificent. The script should be studied by film buffs and aspiring filmmakers as an excellent example of epic filmmaking. And not only that, Lew Wallace's classic, on which the film is based, should be read also in conjunction with the film script. Miklos Rozsa's music, Robert Surtees's cinematography and Yakima Canutt's stunts all have their share in elevating this already wonderful film.

Charlton Heston plays his role as the Jewish prince with dignity, spectacularity, and humanity, even though he may have his occasions of stiltedness and woodenness. However, there is a difference from the book and the movie; whereas in the book Ben-Hur is shown to be joining a guerrilla force with the Galileans against the Roman government, and he even kills a Roman soldier in a duel, while the movie shows none of this. It does deal with Ben-Hur's hatred of the Roman government, though, and how it nearly blinds him to the need to love his enemies. Another difference is that in the book Ben-Hur is depicted to be much younger in the beginning, whereas in the movie he is a grown man. Stephen Boyd brilliantly portrays the villainous Messala, who is desirous of power, glory, and pomp. However, unlike the novel's character, Messala is not very cynical, though he is laden with hubris. The Israeli actress Haya Harareet fits well into the role of the beautiful Esther, and Hugh Griffith's portrayal as Sheik Ilderim provides us some comic relief throughout the epic tale. And Jack Hawkins's role as Arrius is compelling as well.

And let us not forget the brilliant and electric chariot race. The race is constructed entirely without CGi and without any phony trickery; it is all real. The sets are huge, magnificent and epic. And it entirely relies on the suspense of the event rather than Miklos Rozsa's music (which is wonderful in its own right). It not only focuses on epic-ness but rather the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala, and in this way it contributes to the story and doesn't detract from it.

The most important part of the epic, however, is the story of Christ, as the subtitle of the original book (and the movie) says it is "A Tale of the Christ." Claude Heater plays the role here. In the film, Christ's face is not shown, and yet His power infuses the whole movie both indirectly and directly, particularly in the famous scene where Jesus gives water to a thirsty Judah Ben-Hur, who is on his way to the galleys. When He faces a Roman soldier who commands that no water be given to Judah, Jesus' look has such strength that the soldier stops himself from whipping Jesus. The Christian core is shown throughout the film by contrasting the power of true love as exemplified by Christ Jesus and the hatred that Messala shows and that Judah succumbs to before his salvation. 

The late film critic Bosley Crowther, in his 1959 review of the movie, was right: this movie transcends its wonderful spectacle and presents a gripping and powerful human drama. Recommended to all film buffs, epic film fans, and Christians of all backgrounds. This film is epic, human, and wonderful. I give it five out of five stars.

Addendum Conclusion

I would like to note that there is a 1925 silent version of the movie directed by Fred Niblo (The Mask of Zorro), starring Ramon Novarro (The Arab, Scaramouche, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) as the title protagonist and Francis X. Bushman (His Friend's Wife, The Masked Bride, David and Bathsheba, The Bad and the Beautiful, Sabrina) as Messala. I haven't seen this movie, so I can't judge which version is superior: the 1925 Niblo version or the 1959 Wyler version.

This version of Ben-Hur would come out with the 2006 DVD edition of the 1959 film, as well as the 2011 DVD and Blu-ray editions.

And speaking of Blu-ray, I strongly recommend that you buy the Blu-ray edition of the movie, particularly the three-disc ultimate collector's edition, which contains a collectible 64-page book with rare images, as well as a replica of Charlton Heston's journal and sketches. It is expensive, but trust me, it is worth your time and money. The picture is restored majestically from the original 65mm camera negative (which was in not-really-that-good condition) at a stunning 8K resolution and mastered at a beautiful 1080p resolution.

There is beautiful contrast, and there are deep blacks, which is what every great film restorationist starts with, and rich colors that don't go too rich and still preserve the natural filmic nature of its source material.

And the folks at Warner Bros. used the original audio negatives to their advantage, as their 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is clean and powerful. As the review of the Blu-ray states, "M-G-M has obviously kept the original stems and mag tracks of this film in more or less pristine condition, and it shows throughout this stunning lossless presentation. From the first boisterous moments of Rózsa's incredible Overture, the difference, especially with regard to the low end frequencies, is instantly audible and incredibly fulsome. The 5.1 track is gorgeously spacious, with excellent use of side and rear channels, especially in some of the film's most famous set pieces, including the galley scenes and of course the iconic chariot race, which is awash in LFE and incredible panning effects."

Still not convinced? I would like to refer you to the review, the DVD Talk review, the WhatCulture review, the Sound and Vision Magazine review, the IGN review, and my own review on

No comments:

Post a Comment