9.9 / 10
- Charleton Heston gives a command performance as Judah Ben-Hur, which gives off a larger than life feel that captures both the strength and vulnerability of the character.
- Cinematography work was excellent. Very well shot. I especially loved the camera work that was utilized in the chariot race scene.
- Direction was great
- Well developed characters, and nicely written script.
- The pacing for this film was amazing, as it flows at a great pace.
- Musical scoring was excellent.
- Unlike the original, the focus was kept purely on Judah Ben-Hur this time, so it never felt like he was ever pushed aside whenever the Jesus Christ portions of the story popped up.
- The choreography during the chariot race was outstanding, and still holds up well.
- The romance involving Judah's character felt a bit rushed.
"Ben-Hur" is arguably becoming one of cinemas greatest underrated classics, as time moves on.
Everything that the 1926 silent film version of "Ben-Hur" tried to be back in it's heyday, the 1959 version pulls off in spades. "Ben-Hur" is based on a novel called "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", which features the story of a young Palestinian Jew by the name of Judah Ben-Hur (played this time by Charleton Heston). In this story, Judah is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, and sentenced to slavery aboard a Roman ship by his childhood friend, Messala, who happens to be a high ranking official of the Roman empire.
Although Messala knows of Judah's innocence, he condemns him anyway to make an example out of him, which causes Judah to vow revenge. After serving three years aboard a Roman war ship, he inevitably escapes after it sinks in battle, and manages to save the captain of the ship along the way. Although the captain yearns for death because of his failure, Judah won't allow him to kill himself. Needless to say. Judah's kindness, and determination to be with his family again, impresses him so much that he ends up adopting Judah as his surrogate son.
Like the silent film version of this story, Judah also goes on to become a famous chariot racing champion across Rome. However, Judah yearns to leave his new lifestyle of privilege to find his family again. Although his new father does advise him to wait until the political structure changes in their favor, when Messala is replaced by a friend of theirs, Judah fears that it'll be too late by that point; hence he renounces his new Roman birthright to go back to find his mother and sister.
Of course, he meets his former servant, and daughter, whom he had something of a crush on, during his earlier years. The two get married, as he works to seek revenge against Messala in the grand chariot race.
And like the last movie, a huge bet is wagered that makes this contest an epic battle to the death both figuratively and literally, while having Judah's story coincide with Jesus Christ's story from his birth all the way up to his crucifixion.
If you've seen the original silent film of this story, then you should already know how this entire movie plays out, as it still follows the same story structure. However, the key difference here is that it's executed a lot better.
For starters. Unlike the 1926 silent film version, the story remembered to keep the focus on Judah. Even when the Jesus parts of the movie were brought up, it was still ultimately Judah Ben-Hur's story. The plot only moved along whenever he did, and it was told primarily from his point of view. When Jesus gets crucified on the cross, it was told from Judah's perspective the whole time, so it never felt like the story pushed him aside as a minor character whenever those parts showed up, which is exactly what the 1926 silent version did.
Another key difference here is the fact that a lot of corny moments were either toned down, or they were taken out of the film completely. Judah didn't form some massive army, to serve Jesus like it was in the 1926 movie. No, they had the crucifixion happen so fast, in context of when it took place within the story, that Judah really didn't have time form anything to try to help Jesus, which makes the scene a bit more realistic. And of course, there's no message from god speaking from the skies this time, as the religious aspects to this film were a bit more subtle this time; hence making it seem less corny and pretentious.
As for Charleton Heston himself, I have to say I was thoroughly impressed with his performance. Not only did he embody both the confidence and spirit of Judah, but I also loved how he was able to capture his vulnerability as well. For instance, when Judah found out his sister and mother were stricken with leprosy, it was heartbreaking, and Heston's performance conveyed the deep tragedy his character was going through knowing he was unable to help the ones that he loved, which makes his character all the more sympathetic.
Like most of his earlier work, his performance had something of a larger than life feel to it that sticks with you, after you see it. Sure, "Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ" had it's moments, but I felt like this film rounded out Judah more as a character.
One thing that did surprise me about this film was it's pacing. Unlike the original movie that felt bogged down because of too many pointless scenes, this one seems pretty straight forward. Because it does a better job meshing the story of Jesus with Judah Ben-Hur's adventure more cohesively, the film flows at a more decent pace; hence making what's actually a three and a half hour movie seem more like it was only ninety minutes long, without ever feeling rushed.
This was a huge improvement that the 1959 remake accomplished that makes the story a bit more easier to digest.
While I would hesitate to call this Charleton Heston's best movie, I will say that it features arguably one of his better performances. And even if you're not a religious person, the 1959 story of "Ben-Hur" still offers a surprisingly deep and engaging story about redemption and hope, in a cruel and unjust world. While this film may be getting lost in the sands of time, it's definitely worth checking out.
© 2016 Steven Escareno
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