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OBPC #32: Ben-Hur, 1959

March 13, 2013

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

Ben-Hur (1959): Dir. William Wyler.  Written by: Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, and Christopher Fry.  Based upon the novel of the same name by Lew Wallace.  Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, and Martha Scott.  Unrated.  Running time: 212 minutes.

Ben-HurIt might be a dead heat between this film and Gone with the Wind for the title of “Most Hollywood Movie of All Time,” but this one wins my vote.  MGM took quite a gamble by producing the big-budgeted sword-and-sandals epic, an update of the 1925 silent version.  But it paid off with 11 wins in 12 categories…not a bad gamble.

Set in early A.D. Judea, the film details the life of one Judah Ben-Hur, a prince and successful merchant.  Wrongly accused of attempting to kill the new governor, he is enslaved as a galley rower.  Vowing revenge on the Roman tribune who wronged him, he embarks on a quest for redemption that will mightily test his character and especially his human dignity.

Despite its length, the film barely ever stumbles, thanks to slick pacing from director William Wyler (his third on our countdown!).  The emotions and drama are larger than life, but the script and direction approach them with genuine care for the source material.  The rivalry between Ben-Hur and Messala drives the film precisely because we see the common bond between the two men before politics step in to sour it permanently.

Of course, the film delivers in terms of spectacle and action sequences.  The famous chariot race stands as the centerpiece, encapsulating the evolution of action filmmaking up to this pointHeston’s performance bristles with intensity, even if his range leaves something to be desired.

Even as the film reveals a groan-inducing deus ex machine toward the end, the sincerity and craft involved trumps any negatives.  How refreshing to see a hero who reaches redemption not through his brawn alone!  And it proves that spectacle works if there’s motivation behind it—something Around the World in 80 Days ought to have tried.

Next film: The Apartment, 1960

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