‘BEN-HUR’ (1959) Classic Review – The True Definition of an ‘Epic’
‘Ben-Hur’ is a Historical Epic that dominated the 1960 Oscars becoming one of three films ever to win 11 academy awards to this day (joining ‘Titanic’ and ‘LotR: RoTK’) including Best Actor, Director, Supporting Actor, and Score, and is to this day still regarded to as a masterpiece in the biblical epic genre. Released in 1959 and based on the Lew Wallace novel ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’, this film stars the very talented Charlton Heston, and is directed by Oscar winning director William Wyler. After being betrayed by his friend and cast into slavery, ‘Judah Ben-Hur’ (Heston) seeks revenge against ‘Messala’ (Stephen Boyd) in this epic drama/adventure film that is very grand in scale and very, very long. The biggest issue with revisiting films that are this old is that some of them do not hold up that well and it has an effect on how todays generations will view these previously amazing films. But this film holds up incredibly well despite being almost 60 years old, and is a gripping, emotional, and intense adventure with memorable characters, engaging story, great dialogue and some powerful/incredible scenes that had major influences on films in the years that followed.
The biggest thing to note about this film is that when i say it is an ‘epic’, it really is EPIC. The base story itself follows what is essentially a revenge story with Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur in the forefront coming across many interesting characters and many challenges on his quest to put everything right. It’s amazing how something so small has been represented in a way to where you feel a sense of awe at many points throughout the film. Right from the opening it sets up an overall tone that is dramatic and engaging, and also very fun and entertaining, and it never loses focus keeping you interested in every scene. And speaking of epic, it is impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the iconic chariot race which is one of the most intense, exciting and gripping action sequences in film and the best chariot race to ever hit the big screen. I was on the edge of my seat for the 10 minutes this scene went for and it just felt so damn authentic, and real, as if i was watching a real chariot race, and no special effects were required to create that effect. Only real horses, real stuntmen, practical techniques, and a life-size arena built just for the film were required to craft one of the best action sequences in history. This scene is worth the watch of the entire film.
Also i have to mention how the way they incorporate Jesus of Nazareth into the film was amazing. The film is set during that time, but it is not the focus of the film, so how they implement the character and have him play into events in the story i loved. Even though he is barely in the film at all, his presence is felt throughout the film in various ways and it is amazing.
The film is led by a phenomenal performance by Charlton Heston who was just captivating to watch in every scene he was in. He played such a strong character with fantastic dialogue and the type of character you were right behind every step of the way. His morals and beliefs and what he stood for were all perfectly laid out by the film and you felt as if you knew everything about this character who you had only been watching for almost 2 hours. But it wasn’t just Heston bringing the talent, Hugh Griffith was also incredible as Sheik Ilderim, and Stephen Boyd was as captivating as he was evil, as this cast was full of great performances right down to the supporting characters. The cinematography on display in this film was stunning….. for the time period. There are definitely some incredible and beautiful shots and very well filmed sequences here but after seeing more modern film techniques it did lessen the wow factor when seeing some shots here and there. And there is a very good reason for why it won the Academy Award for ‘Best Score’….. It’s just amazing from start to finish. Every time it plays it adds to every scene in various ways and is a storyteller itself.
One of the things that makes this film so epic is also the only flaw in the entire film, and you may have guessed what it is already but incase you haven’t, it’s the runtime. It clocks in at 3 hours and 32 minutes or 3 hours 42 minutes if you add the opening and intermission music. Now the runtime isn’t directly the bad thing about the film, the negative is how it is handled at a few points in the middle. You need to understand that it isn’t 3 hours of fast paced action, it maintains a very steady fairly slow pace which a lot of people will not like at all. But it is very interesting and engaging stuff being focused on to get you through it, but i would say maybe two 5-10 minute sequences in the middle of the film could have been removed or shortened just to make the whole film a little tighter and i think it would have made a difference.
So in the end, this truly is a cinematic masterpiece that most importantly has aged incredibly well. All aspects of the film are expertly crafted and executed to near perfection and it contains the best chariot race sequence to ever hit the big screen. Just reading about what went into making that scene makes me admire it more and more. So as far as Historical/Biblical Epics go this is most definitely up there as one of, if not the best.