Ben-Hur (1959)

"Ben-Hur" is one of the big three movies of all time, at least according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy gives honors (Oscars) each year to the "best" movie that has come out. Before "Ben-Hur" the previous big winner at the Academy Awards was "Gone With the Wind" which had won eight Oscars. "On the Waterfront" tied the record and then the most heralded movie went to a curious film named "Gigi". The classiness of "Gigi" is undeniable, but does it really deserve nine Academy Awards? Anyways, I digress...
It was the year after "Gigi" impressed at the Oscars that "Ben-Hur" blew everything else out of the water earning a record eleven statues. It was over thirty-five years later that a movie tied "Ben-Hur"'s record—James Cameron's "Titanic".
The last of the triage of big movies went to fantasy land when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" swept the Academy Awards in every category it was nominated.
If you had to pick just three movies, what would they be? Would any of the Academy's big three be on the list? I know this, if I just had three movies to pick as the best, "Ben-Hur" would certainly not be on the list.
Based on Lew Wallace's book of the same name, "Ben-Hur" is more a story of Christ than it is a story of Judah Ben-Hur. This was the era when Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean were dominating the "epic" genre. Yet William Wyler snuck in and made his mark.
Ben-Hur  (Charlton Heston in an Oscar winning role) is a man of some importance. He enjoys the company of his mother and sister in a small palace-type home. This is the time of the Roman Empire's power, before they would eventually fall and crumble. The land is in a stand of revolt, and the people are noticing changes happening.
Messala (Stephen Boyd) is the Tribune and a childhood friend of Ben-Hur. But not anymore.
After asking Ben-Hur's help in stemming the rebellions and not receiving it, Messala is not too happy with his ex-friend. When a chance occurrence affects the new governor, Messala seizes the opportunity to blame everything of Ben-Hur and his family. They will be made an example of, if not for the crime they supposedly committed then for their lack of allegiance to the Empire.
Judah Ben-Hur is sentenced to a slave ship. It's here that he will be beaten and he will desire revenge...the emotion that drives him to return and fight with Messala.
All this builds to a surprisingly Christian comes on unexpectedly. Jesus Christ is a character in "Ben-Hur" and he appears on screen several times, though only with his back turned. It's kind of clever the way the script has Ben-Hur happening upon situations that involve Christ.
Eventually comes the scene that made "Ben-Hur" famous, the chariot race scene. To be perfectly fair, this scene is quite great...plain and simple.
Rivalry, family, Christ, and revenge are all parts of "Ben-Hur" and it would be easy to brush off the movie for its preachy and sometimes manipulative method of telling the story.
"Ben-Hur" is actually quite similar to "The Lion King 1½" when you think about it...though much more dramatic and unintentionally just as funny in parts.
Boiling it down—this movie is long. I don't think that it merits the almost four-hour running time that it has. The story drags and drags and drags until I didn't care about Judah Ben-Hur anymore. Charlton Heston's overdramatic and screamy performance doesn't help either.
The movie was a disaster to make—the script got thrown around from writer to writer who added a little bit and then passed it on. What you're actually seeing is a mosaic of different writer's interpretations. But it would all come down to Gore Vidal to land the final blow—homosexuality. That's right, he suggested to Wyler that Messala was gay and in love with Judah. When they were kids, it was innocent and now Ben-Hur has grown up and cast away that lifestyle.
Wyler agreed about the motive and they told Boyd, but not Heston because they were afraid of the reaction he might have.
This is all rumored and hypothesized though Vidal claims it as fact. If you watch Boyd and are searching for his hidden love, you will most certainly find it. It's all a matter of bias. I'm not entirely convinced, but it is extremely intriguing.
"Ben-Hur" was also one of the first movies to use product placement, which helped it gain back some of the huge amounts of money it blew making the film.
Yet for all its secrets, its epic scope, its awards; the movie cannot escape the fact that it is entirely and sensationally boring.
If you like this movie, good for you. I found it to be a snooze fest of the worst proportions.
Most people watch the movie for the chariot race, too bad it takes so long to get to that scene.
"Ben-Hur" is classic, tiresome, and definitely not one of my top three movies of all time.

Score: 2 out of 4 stars

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