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Bucket List Movie #439: Ben-Hur (1959)

Updated on May 6, 2014
William Wyler
William Wyler | Source

I guess I’m a prude. It’s better to be honest, isn’t it? Oh, I’d like to believe I’m not a prude, but given the glut of complete and utter assholes that seem to permeate our everyday life, it gets rather exhausting, at least to me, that we don’t even get a reprieve in fiction. I had to stop watching Mad Men because I was so sick and tired of the writers begging me to understand and sympathize with drunken, womanizing, worthless misanthrope Don Draper. As much as I liked Breaking Bad, the thought of revisiting Walter White's moral decay is too depressing to contemplate. Every episode of Game of Thrones this season (at least so far) brings to mind this exchange from Blazing Saddles:


“Rape, murder, arson, and rape.”

“You said rape twice.”

“I like rape.”

For the record, I don’t normally have an issue with flawed, even loathsome protagonists, but we seem to have reached a point where we are suspicious, even disdainful, towards heroes. Not anti-heroes, but honest-to-goodness, genuine heroes. Not that I blame anyone for having this attitude, because I think I know the reason: no one knows how to write heroes anymore. There’s no denying that villains are inherently more interesting, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a protagonist worth rooting for. Unfortunately, heroes tend to wind up the same: limp, watery characters with no flaws (or just boring ones), no humor, no charisma, no worthwhile goals, nothing for us to cling to. I for one am sick to death of movies featuring Wolverine (sorry, but adamantium claws aren’t nearly as interesting a power as, say, Storm’s ability to control the freakin’ weather), but people understandably find him more interesting than that other X-Men hero, Cyclops. Cyclops is a clean-cut, no-nonsense, straight-arrow adult boy scout; in other words, dull as wood. What we need is a hero who is virtuous, brave and kind, but who also is human enough to feel fear, doubt, vengeance, and, yes, even hate. What we need is a hero like Judah Ben-Hur.


Ben-Hur is epic. No, not the lazy, slangy “epic” that is thrown around by people under the age of 35, but a legitimate epic. It was released in 1959, during the time when massive Biblical dramas were all the rage, and it’s easily the greatest big-budget religious epic Cecil B. DeMille had nothing to do with. It was directed by the wonderfully versatile William Wyler, who, despite his reputation for being difficult, had a knack for coaxing the very best from his actors. He directed Oscar-winning performances from numerous actors over the years, including Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl, and, of course, Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.


About Charlton Heston: it’s difficult to pinpoint when it stopped being cool to like him, but I’m willing to bet it was in the 1990s when he infamously defended the NRA with his line about prying his rifle from his “cold, dead hands”. His staunch conservatism made him an easy target for comedians and, of course, Michael Moore (the less said about Bowling for Columbine, the better). But even if we’re willing to forgive his politics, Heston’s occasional tendency towards overacting, preternaturally deep voice, and his trademark, measured way of speaking tend to make him an unintentional comic figure. I didn’t have too much of an opinion of him to start with, despite seeing three films of his in the past, but Ben-Hur made me a true believer. Heston gives a strong, straightforward, even beautiful performance that made me realize what a damn fine actor he was, and how, despite his Oscar win, he deserves more credit than he gets from modern critics. Reading the trivia section on his IMDb page made me even more of a fan; if it's to be believed, Laurence Olivier called him a great actor. When Laurence Olivier believes in your talent, feel free to ignore your detractors.


Based on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur takes place in Jerusalem during the time when the Romans were taking over the Middle East, and Jesus was still just a carpenter’s son finding his purpose. Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), an idealistic Jewish prince, lives a peaceful life with his beloved sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell, virtually unchanged since The Best Years of Our Lives 13 years earlier) and widowed mother Miriam (Martha Scott). He is reunited with his boyhood chum Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is a commanding officer for the Roman army. Their conflicting values cause the reunion to sour overnight, as Messala tries to coerce Judah into becoming an informant about any Jews who speak out against the Romans, which Judah angrily refuses to do. It’s made clear that Messala won’t take this slight lying down. When Tirzah accidentally injures a visiting Roman senator and Judah takes the blame, the thoroughly corrupt Messala has just the excuse he needs to stick it to his former friend by sending Judah to the galleys without so much as a trial, and imprisoning the innocent Tirzah and Miriam. While marching with a chain gang in the blazing heat, Judah is half-dead from dehydration when a stranger kindly gives him water. Judging from his shoulder-length hair, white robes, and ethereal Miklos Rosza score that swells on the soundtrack, it’s pretty easy to guess who Judah’s rescuer is.


Tiresome (or giggle-inducing) Trivia of the Day:

Gore Vidal, who lent a hand in screenplay, allegedly gave Judah and Messala's relationship a homosexual subtext, and he directed Stephen Boyd to act it accordingly, but not Charlton Heston. Apparently, we are supposed to read their relationship as Judah having spurned Messala's advances a long time ago, given his more reserved manner. I don't know what this says about me, but I didn't read it that way at all. Possibly because people were more subtle in the 1950s, or because we live in the age of the "bromance", I never read Judah and Messala's friendship as being anything else but a friendship.

Three years pass, and the only things that keep Judah sane as he toils in the galleys is thirst for vengeance against Messala, and his love for Esther (Haya Harareet), the daughter of his family’s slave Simonides (Sam Jaffe). A visiting Roman consul, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), is intrigued by Judah’s indomitable spirit, and when Judah saves his life after a surprise attack on their ship, he takes Judah on as a charioteer (yes, Judah is basically still a slave, but it’s best not to dwell on that). Already a natural with horses, Judah quickly becomes the toast of the Roman circus, and Arrius even unofficially adopts him, but Judah is determined to settle the score with Messala.


Upon his return, he meets the flamboyant Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith, who nabbed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role), who coaxes Judah into taking his revenge against Messala in a chariot race. "There is no law in the arena," he slyly purrs. What follows is a tender reunion with Esther, a horrifying revelation of Miriam and Tirzah’s fate, and, of course, a chariot race that has become one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.


Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to review this without mentioning that chariot scene! It is a rare thing, indeed, when something this famous lives up to the hype. Judah and Messala aren't just racing, but participating in an unspoken duel. Messala openly cheats with jagged spear tips on his wheels, while Judah is armed with only his wits and determination to bring down his enemy once and for all. What follows is 20 of the most exciting minutes I’ve ever seen in a classic film. Real horses, real chariots, and real people were used (save for dummies used when characters are thrown off), and the arena was constructed on an 18-acre set (a real set! No CGI!) Both Heston and Boyd had to learn to drive chariots despite having doubles and stand-ins, and it took over three months to film. It was a daunting, expensive gamble that pays off beautifully. The fact that we can see the dirt and sweat on the actor’s faces, the deafening hoofbeats of the horses, the chariots crash and splinter, makes this an exhilarating, heart-pounding experience. It is thankfully all but illegal for Ben-Hur’s chariot scene to be presented in anything but widescreen. I was actually holding my breath as the hissable Messala pulled every dirty trick in the book to throw his opponent, and my heart practically sang when Judah ultimately triumphed. There is no score, no dialogue, just tense action that holds up more than 55 years later.


One doesn’t have to be religious to embrace the themes of Ben-Hur: how vengeance will eat away at your soul since it will never be enough, and how forgiveness and compassion are more powerful than hate and anger. It’s a testament to love in all its forms, and how love can triumph over adversity. Above all, it’s about Judah, who is only truly heroic when he lets go of his rage and embrace virtue. Charlton Heston occasionally overdoes it, but it’s his more quiet moments where he is the most powerful, whether it’s his blue eyes shining with fury when he confronts Messala, or his grief when he discovers his mother and sister languishing in the Valley of Lepers. I was also touched in an early scene with Esther, when he grants her freedom when she is set in an arranged marriage. He takes off her slave ring and places it on his finger, and promises to wear it until he finds the woman he’ll marry. It is a beautiful declaration of his love for her, and though she is promised to someone else (albeit a stranger), it never feels tawdry or cheap, and their chemistry is palpable.


Heston is incredible, as is the supporting cast, especially Stephen Boyd, who relishes playing one of the most contemptible backstabbers this side of Fernand and Danglars from The Count of Monte Cristo. Messala takes rigid bureaucracy to nightmarish levels, and his misdeeds are actually much worse the more you think about it: he not only condemns his friend, but his friend's mother, who has embraced him like a son, and his friend's sister, who has harbored a crush on Messala since girlhood. Never is his conscience troubled by what he did, so it's hard to fault Judah for wanting to strike back at him. Once you get past the rather embarrassing brown face treatment, Hugh Griffith is great fun in his brief but memorable part as the Sheik. He is one of the all time great scene stealers. Jack Hawkins has the most difficult part as Arrius, who is basically a slave owner, but his decency and loyalty to Judah shine through, making him a richly complex character. Haya Harrareet brings strength and courage to what could have been a sattelite love interest part. Esther stands by her man, but she's no pushover.

Ben-Hur is a magnificent film about a man who is better than you or I, but is still a fallible human being. “I like playing great men,” Heston once said, “they’re more interesting than the rest of us.” To that, I say, amen.


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