For my 100th review, I decided to do something big…
“Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength!”
There are epic movies, and then there are EPIC movies. Ben-Hur is the later. It is a movie that is not for the weak of heart. It is the ultimate action-adventure-drama. The quintessential sword and sandal flick. A fist-bump to Hollywood excess and extravagance. But to say that Ben-Hur is all about going big would be wrong. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Ben-Hur is all about the small. The focus and purpose of the story is not about the sheer excitement and thrill that comes from over-the-top action or extravagant locales (even though there plenty of instances of both). The focus of the story is on the relationships between its characters. The story line follows one character, one story. The result is the rare movie that does everything very well.
Credit goes to veteran film maker William Wyler at the helm. Despite the size and scope of the material, Wyler’s focus as director never waivers. Despite its excesses, the film feels remarkably intimate. Never does the audience feel like they are merely along for the ride. Instead, Wyler’s focus allows the audience to feel connected to the story. I think that this is the most important aspect of this film for two reasons. First, the film, above all, is about religion. If the film had been loose and unrestrained it would have felt like a glorified spectacle. Instead, the film treats its subject matter with a humility and honesty. Religion is not used as an excuse to show bloodshed and conflict. Religion is used to define the characters, and their interpretations of their beliefs is what in turn causes the bloodshed and conflict both internal and external. Second, the film’s story is what makes it exciting to watch. In today’s Hollywood we are so accustomed to roller coaster thrill ride plots that we have forgotten what an actual story is. Ben-Hur has its thrills. But it also has romance, adventure, drama, and most importantly; characters. Characters make a story. In Ben-Hur, they make an epic story.
Story: Judah Ben-Hur is a rich Jewish aristocrat who lives in 1st century Jerusalem. He is reunited with his old friend, Messala, who is a Roman army general, when Messala is assigned to lead the garrison of the Roman army that is stationed in Jerusalem. Messala’s hope is that Ben-Hur will chose to honor their friendship and help him quell the rebellious Jewish people. Bun-Hur however, refuses to betray his own kind, fueling Messala’s rage. Unluckily, a freak accident occurs, which gives Messala the chance he needs to arrest Ben-Hur and his family. Ben-Hur is sentenced to a life of slavery, and ultimately ends up as a rower on a Roman battleship. During a battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of a Roman General, and as a result is freed. The General adopts Ben-Hur as his own son, and now as a dignitary of Rome Ben-Hur decides that it is time to return to Jeruselem to get revenge against Messala…Good (23/25)
Acting: Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur makes this movie great. His sometimes over-the-top but always sincere performance is spot on. Charlton makes the character very complex. He’s not just your normal run-of-the-mill-always-doing-right hero. He has realistic connections to others and that makes him human. Stephen Boyd plays Messala, and is up to the task to counter Heston’s Ben-Hur. Boyd’s Messala is sincere in his motives, and that is what makes him a great adversary. Haya Harareet also turns in a surprisingly good performance. Her character is strong and likable, not just a pretty face for the love interest. The rest of the cast is just as good. They keep the dramatic tension high throughout, which keeps the audience interested in the movie despite its hefty themes and length. Good (24/25)
Direction: William Wyler’s signature as a director is that he doesn’t have a signature style. Each film he does is totally unique and he adapts his methods to best structure his film, rather than make the film adapt to what he is comfortable doing. This makes for a very technically proficient movie. Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of Wyler’s direction is the way in which everything is filmed up-close. There are only a few wide establishing shots, and even the action is pulled in. This method makes it easier for the set designers as they don’t have to make their sets as large, but it means that the area the camera is focused on will get more attention. Luckily the Wyler sweats the details. The well-known chariot chase sequence is one of the best 10 minute stretches of movie ever created. The detail, the artistry, and the ability to make it easy to follow is simply breathtaking. Wyler even uses camera movements that are strikingly modern. In short, Wyler is faced with a relentless and daunting task as director, and never falters. Great (25/25)
Special Effects/X-Factor: The sets and props used for this film are impeccable in their detail and very numerous. But I must go back to the chariot race sequence as the highlight of this film. It is simply amazing. Especially considering the large number of people, horses, and crew members needed to make it happen. What results is a sequence that despite being 53 years old is still a masterpiece of film making. The beauty, the action, the stunt work, and the realistic set all come together perfectly. The other highlight of this film is the score. It is powerful, emotional, and fitting for the setting and the themes. Its use of classical instruments, reoccurring recognizable themes, and tremendous spacing was influential for the next two decades. Finally, I must comment on the fact that the film won 11 academy awards, a fete that has only been equaled by two other films. This, above all, shows how well-rounded and enjoyable this movie really is. Good (24/25)
Rating: (96/100) = A (A Historical Achievement)
- What’s Good: William Wyler makes an epic film with disciplined focus. The characters are genuinely portrayed,which makes the story easier to get involved in. Add in heaps of adventure, detailed visuals, steady camera work, and a powerful score and you get a very well-rounded movie that bristles with entertainment.
- What’s Bad: The film is quite long, and its focus on religious themes may not interest everyone.
Summary: A fine example of classic Hollywood excellence.
My previous review: Rated: Chinatown (1974)
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