Film Review: Ben-Hur
In 1959, William Wyler released Ben-Hur, a remake of the 1925 silent film of the same name and an adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring, Terence Longdon, George Relph, and Andre Morell, the film grossed $149.9 million at the box office. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and won the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction – Set Decoration (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Special Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) and Best Sound Recording as well as the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture. A remake is expected for 2016.
In AD 26, A Roman who grew up in Judea named Messala accepts the position of the new governor of Judea and is visited by his childhood friend Judah Ben-Hur, who is an influential Jew. Though the two try to pick up their old friendship, they find that the only thing they have in common is the past. Though Judah says he’ll get people to accept the Romans, he and Messala wind up becoming enemies and after a section of roof falls, knocking out Messala during a procession, Judah is imprisoned and eventually vows vengeance.
Interestingly happening in the background of the story found in the Gospels, Ben-Hur is a great film. One notable aspect to it is Judah Ben-Hur’s character, a hero that’s apparently quite different than the novel version of the character (where he’s actually the one to dislodge the tile and fights his way off the ship and taking the time to free all the slaves rather than just getting out), he does have a great story where he goes from prominence to nothing and back to being a somebody. What really makes the character is his defining moment that brings about the conflict between Judah and Messala. While he wants to help his friend out, his unwillingness to name names and betray the confidence of those who are unhappy with the Romans in Judea shows that his first and foremost duty is to his own people. It’s no wonder that when everything is stripped from the man and he finds out what happened to his family that he reacts the way he does.
Then there’s Judah’s foil, Messala, who reacts so negatively to Judah’s not naming names that he finds declaring the man to be his sworn enemy simply because he doesn’t want to betray confidence to be appropriate punishment. Similarly, he sees arresting Judah and his entire family for a crime that he’s certain was an accident and making him into a slave while sending his family into an infamous prison known as The Citadel as the correct response. Messala is the perfect example of someone who goes completely overboard in reacting to the fact that he and his once great friend have nothing in common anymore and that said person works to maintain trust. Then again, Boyd’s performance provide an entertaining take on things, as he was told to play Messala as if he and Judah were lovers in the past. Thus, the way he carries himself and all the actions Messala takes throughout the film gives interesting depth to the character.
However, what’s really great is the similarity between Judah and Messala, where Esther notes that the two aren’t so different from each other as Messala’s bitterness towards Judah is exactly the same as his hatred of Rome and their occupation.
Jesus’ role in the film is also pretty notable in how it affects Judah and his story. When Judah is a prisoner, Jesus takes the time to carry out his ideals and give the man water. The experience is shown to later have greatly touched Judah as he ends up giving Jesus some water as he’s taken to be crucified. The film also portrays Jesus very uniquely as it doesn’t give him a face at all. Though someone is standing there who is obviously physically taking actions, the actor’s face is never seen. It’s a great way to put all the focus on Judah and not have the audience end up arguing about whether or not that was a realistic depiction of Jesus.
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