Tuesday 28 December 2010

Movie Review: Ben Hur (1959)

A colossal film dwarfing most other epics, Ben Hur is a towering cinematic achievement with enduring power.

The fictional story of Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) takes place against the background of Jesus Christ emerging as a young man to spread his message of love among the Jews in Judea. Ben Hur is a wealthy and influential Jerusalem merchant, living with his mother and sister, and suppressing his desire for a relationship with his servant's daughter Esther (Haya Harareet).

Ben Hur's boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has fully accepted Rome's domination of the world, and after rising through the ranks of the Empire, Messala returns to command the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The two men soon have a falling out: Ben Hur refusing to help Messala identify influential Jews who may be plotting against Rome's rule in Judea. To establish his authority among the population, Messala takes the first opportunity to arrest Ben Hur, while his mother and sister are thrown into the dungeon and left to rot.

The prisoner Ben Hur is marched in the desert. Passing through Nazareth, he collapses but is revived when a stranger, who is actually Jesus, ignores the Roman guards and gives him water. The mysterious encounter galvanizes Ben Hur, but as he serves for years as a galley slave on a Roman ship, he is single-mindedly filled with hate for Messala.

During a horrific naval battle against a Macedonian fleet, the slave Ben Hur saves the life of the Roman commander Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Arrius frees Ben Hur and takes him to Rome, adopts him as his son, and trains him as an expert charioteer. Once again wealthy and powerful, Ben Hur travels back to Judea to learn the fate of his mother and sister and to seek revenge, but the spreading influence of Christ also awaits.

The glamorous MGM studio bet its entire future on Ben Hur. A staggering budget of $15 million was deployed to finance 300 sets (including the largest movie set of all time for the chariot race scene), 15,000 extras, new widescreen technology, and a running length of three and a half hours. The gamble paid off: the result was a massive achievement that garnered $90 million in revenue and a record eleven Academy Awards.

Working from a script by Karl Tunberg based on the best-selling novel by Lew Wallace, director William Wyler expertly keeps the movie in control, and maintains a good focus on the human scale. As grand events are unfolding, the personalities of Judah Ben Hur, Messala, Quintus Arrius, Esther, and Sheik Ilderim allow history to be experienced through the perspective of Christ's fictional contemporaries. Wyler is helped by a cast strong enough to shoulder the weight of the movie. While neither Heston and Boyd demonstrate too much emotional range, they both bring the necessary stoic strength to handle history's drama.

Despite the film's length, Wyler never allows interest to wane, using the time wisely to add texture to his characters and events. He steers Ben Hur to three shattering climaxes: the naval battle, the chariot race, and the crucifixion. The first two are gloriously enthralling action sequences, with the chariot race in particular unmatched in its captivating drama as two men wage an individual battle in the grandest arena ever put on the screen. The crucifixion scene packs a thunderous emotional punch as Ben Hur demonstrates the courage needed for man's less refined instincts to come to terms with humanity's spiritual potential.

Ben Hur is one of the brightest highlights in the history of the movies, an example of extraordinary storytelling through the prism of a remarkable character.

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