#272) Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben_hur_1959_poster

#272) Ben-Hur (1959)

OR “Jews for Jesus: The Motion Picture”

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Karl Tunberg. Uncredited additional material by Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, and Christopher Fry. Based on the novel by General Lew Wallace.

Class of 2004

The Plot: Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a prince in ancient Jerusalem, and has recently come into conflict with his childhood friend/Roman tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd). Their differing views on religion and loyalty drive them apart, and following an incident involving Roman soldiers, Messala orders Judah’s arrest, even though Messala knows Judah is innocent. Over the next few years, Judah survives slavery on a Roman galley, participates in the greatest chariot race ever, and ultimately finds solace in the teachings of a man saying he is the Son of God.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives some background and trivia, but the only part of the film to get a superlative is the “breathtaking” chariot race. As always, William Wyler expert Gabriel Miller is on hand with an essay.

But Does It Really?: This is another one of those classic movies whose reputation has started to waver over time. “Ben-Hur” will always have the chariot race going for it, but the rest of the film can drag a bit. And it doesn’t help that there’s another version of this film on the Registry that’s an hour shorter. The 1925 version is the better overall version, but this “Ben-Hur” is also worthy of preservation, if just for that chariot race and its representation as one of the countless religious epics of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s.

Everybody Gets One: Actors Stephen Boyd and Hugh Griffith, and producer Sam Zimbalist, who died of a heart attack during production. And shoutout to opera star Claude Heater as Jesus. It’s a shame they don’t let him sing.

Wow, That’s Dated: This movie has a pretty severe BROWNFACE WARNING. Welsh actor Hugh Griffith plays the Arab Sheik Ilderim, and they layer on the makeup. It’s a “Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’” level of off-putting.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Ben-Hur” was the biggest hit of 1959 and led the Oscars with 12 nominations. The film won 11, a record that has been tied, but never surpassed. The only category “Ben-Hur” didn’t win was Adapted Screenplay, no doubt due to the controversy regarding who of the film’s many writers deserved the final screen credit. “Ben-Hur” is the kind of epic the Oscars loved voting for around that time, but is it really a better movie than fellow Best Picture nominee “Anatomy of a Murder”, or the unrecognized likes of “Some Like it Hot” and “North by Northwest”?

Other notes

  • This film’s production history is so enormously complex it has its own Wikipedia page. It’s definitely worth a perusal, but be warned: not everyone’s story matches up.
  • The opening credits take place over Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”. Did I accidentally start watching “The Agony and the Ecstasy”?
  • Stephen Boyd’s performance is a bit over-the-top. I guess his extra-hammy work in “The Oscar” has tainted his other films for me.
  • Sorry Gore Vidal, but I’m not picking up on the homosexual subtext you claim to have added to the Judah/Messala scenes. But hey, compared to “Rope” anything else is “North by Northwest”.
  • Judah refuses to name names to the Roman authorities. Nice allusion, Wyler.
  • All of the events in this movie could have been prevented if the house of Ben-Hur hadn’t settled on a shoddy roofing job.
  • It’s interesting to watch the evolution of obscuring Jesus’ face in these movies. He went from being shot like The Onceler to being shot like George Steinbrenner.
  • While a slave on the galley, Charlton Heston is dressed identically to how he will look in “Planet of the Apes”, complete with beard!
  • Okay, that galley attack sequence is awesome. From the model work to the fight choreography, it’s second only to the chariot race in terms of entertainment. Be on the lookout for extras with actual missing limbs adding realism to the melee.
  • Rome has more Brits than an Imperial Star Destroyer.
  • While dining with the Sheik, Judah manages a belch. There’s your Oscar-winning moment!
  • Finally we have an intermission! The act break is about 2 hours and 20 minutes into the film. By comparison, the 1925 version was almost over at this point.
  • A scene in a bathhouse with scantily clad men? Yeah, Gore Vidal wrote this.
  • But seriously, how did a nothing part like Hugh Griffith’s win Best Supporting Actor over George C. Scott’s in “Anatomy of a Murder”? No wonder he stopped showing up to these things.
  • And now for the climactic chariot race. It’s a classic for a reason. The amount of time and skill it took to pull this off is unfathomable, but completely justified by the final product. Several of those stunts left me speechless.
  • Speaking of: No one died. Moving on.
  • Oh the irony of watching Charlton Heston having to pry someone’s cold, dead hands off of him.
  • As with any adaptation of a 500-page novel, different versions of “Ben-Hur” emphasize different aspects of the book. The 1925 version focuses more on Judah’s spiritual awakening, while this version focuses on Judah’s relationship with Messala. The 1959 subtitle should be “A Tale in Which the Christ Shows Up Even Less Than Before”.
  • I realized during the crucifixion scene that I didn’t make a “Ben-Hur” joke in my “Intolerance” post. Can I belatedly try one? [Clear throat] “So where was Judah Ben-Hur during all of this?” Thank you!
  • If anyone wants to thank Jesus for curing their leprosy, just wait three days.

Legacy

  • “Ben-Hur” saved MGM from potential bankruptcy. The studio, however, decided to keep going with the business model of putting all their money into one epic every year, with such titles as “The King of Kings” (lukewarm reception), “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (flop), and “Mutiny on the Bounty” (big ol’ bomb). MGM started getting bought and sold in the late ‘60s and most of the ‘70s.
  • There have been several other film adaptations of “Ben-Hur” over the years. Most noteworthy is a 2003 animated version with Charlton Heston reprising the role of Judah, although it’s never explained why a man in his mid-20s sounds like he’s 80.
  • This film’s iconic chariot race has been referenced and spoofed many times over the years. But I will never forgive this sequence for being the inspiration for podracing.
  • “You truly are the King of Kings.” “Eeeeexcellent.”

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