English Title: Ben-Hur

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: MGM

Director: William Wyler

Producer(s): Sam Zimbalist

Screenplay: Karl Tunberg

Cinematographer: Robert Surtees

Art Director: Edward Carfagno , William A Horning

Editor: Margaret Booth, John Dunning , Ralph Winters

Runtime: 178 minutes

Genre: Historical

Starring/Cast: Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins , Charlton Heston

Year: 1959

Volume: American - Hollywood

Set during the life of Christ, the film tells the epic riches to rags and back to riches story of a wealthy young Jewish nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur, his search for his family and his feud with his erstwhile childhood friend, the ambitious Roman officer, Messala. Ben-Hur’s refusal to help Messala in reconciling the Jews to Roman rule enrages Messala and, using a near-fatal accident as an excuse, Messala has Ben-Hur arrested along with his sister and mother. Ben-Hur is sent to the galleys, where he slaves until his fortune eventually changes when he rescues a Roman Consul, during a battle. Ben-Hur is taken to Rome, where he becomes a charioteer and Roman nobleman, adopted by the grateful Consul. However, still longing for his family, he returns to Jerusalem to find them. There are rumours of their deaths, but Esther, a former slave girl who Ben-Hur is in love with, knows they are alive, though now lepers. Ben-Hur seeks to revenge himself on Messala in a great chariot race, which takes place before the new governor, Pontius Pilot. Messala, fatally injured in the race and on his death bed, tells Ben-Hur the truth about his family and their whereabouts. Reunited with his family, once more banished from Jerusalem by Pilot, Ben-Hur leaves, but not before witnessing the final act of Jesus’ life, a presence he has encountered on other occasions throughout the story.

Based on the novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur had already been given epic treatment in the Irving Thalberg’s silent film of 1925. This remake, directed by William Wyler who worked on the original epic as an Assistant Director, was a long and fraught production, with many rewrites, including substantial uncredited contributions from Christopher Fry and Gore Vidal.
The relatively simple fall-and-rise trajectory of the narrative is fleshed out with set pieces. Charlton Heston, fresh from portraying Moses in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), gives a solemn performance. In restraining the ham, he appears to be holding his breath. Although, ostensibly, a quest to be reunited with his mother and sister (and Esther, to some extent), the most compellingly drawn relationships in the film are those between the men. The most obvious example is the friendship-turned sour of Messala and Ben-Hur, with its homo-erotic intensity, besides which the love affair of Esther and Ben-Hur is a pallid afterthought. The emotional core of the film burns brightest in the scenes between the two men, and Messala’s death is an especially powerful climax, with both men in the grip of contending emotions of hate and disappointed affection. However, the film also features a range of more subtle and varied male relationships. The fatherless Ben-Hur encounters a number of possible replacements: most explicitly in the form of Jack Hawkins’ gruff Consul. Just as Messala challenges Ben-Hur’s love for Esther, so a series of male figures counterpoint his actual female family. This proxy male family is available via the avuncular Sheik Ilderim, who provides Ben-Hur with the horse team in the chariot race, and the wise man, Balthazar. Even Jesus, who appears elliptically throughout the film, offers a possible benign brotherhood set against the more dangerous fire of his Messala fixation. The fact that each of these men also represents an alternative ethnic and religious identity, the Muslim, the Roman, the Jewish and eventually the Christian, suggests that religion is elective rather than tribal and, although Ben-Hur rejects his Roman identity in favour of his Jewish, it is Christianity which is the implied victor.
Ultimately, the film is about spectacle. The painterly composition and colour scheme recall Renaissance treatments of Biblical themes by masters such as Tintoretto and Michelangelo. As in those paintings, in Ben-Hur the Italian countryside and the Italian light stand in for the Holy Land. The Chariot race is justly remembered as not only the highlight of the film, but as a highlight in the history of American cinema. It is a rare occasion when a fictional sporting event manages to reproduce the excitement of a genuine race. The genius is in the details: Pilot’s delay in beginning the race, the bronze fish which mark the laps, the business of the stretcher bearers and Messala’s murderous wheel blades. The actors and their stunt doubles seamlessly blend in the action with the special effects to the extent that a rumour persists that Messala’s stunt double was killed during the filming. The dynamism and pacing of the sequence is emphasized by the merciful absence of the otherwise-omnipresent Miklos Rosza score, replaced with the thundering of hooves and the crack of the whip. If there is one criticism of the scene, it is that it breaks the back of the movie. With Messala dead and Rome definitively rejected, Wyler does his best to maintain interest with what are the less dynamic aspects of the story: the leprous women and the solemn hocus-pocus of the last act.  

Author of this review: John Bleasdale