Anthony's Film Review

Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur is no doubt an outstanding historical epic...

With a running time of three and a half hours, Ben-Hur is one of those films that definitely takes its time to tell a story (and is generous enough to include an intermission after the two-hour mark). It also presents memorable characters, gorgeous production design, lavish costume design, beautiful cinematography, sweeping music, and timeless themes. It would be a travesty if this film did not win any of the 11 Academy Awards it received, including Best Picture. As someone who has seen this film as a re-release in a theater, I could not help but be as marveled by it as older folks who had seen it back in 1959.

The film begins when Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, is born (more on him later). The title character is a wealthy Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (brilliantly played by Charlton Heston). He is a man with a heart, one who cares about the plight of his people and doesn't believe in violence, even against the oppressive Romans. This is illustrated by an early scene in which Ben-Hur reunites with a childhood friend named Messala (memorably played by Stephen Boyd). The two men laugh as they share memories and even maintain respect as they discuss their opposing allegiances, with Ben-Hur on the side of Judaea and Messala being devoted to the Roman Empire. However, in a later scene, this friendship falls apart once it is clear that neither man is willing to bridge the gap between them.

What happens next to Ben-Hur is a fall from riches to rags, but not through any fault of his own. An accident nearly kills a Roman governor arriving in Judaea, and Ben-Hur is immediately accused of attempted murder. He is then taken the prison and forced into slavery. If that isn't bad enough, misfortune also falls on a few other beloved characters: Ben-Hur's mother and sister, plus an arranged bride-to-be and her father. Ben-Hur now embarks on a journey from captivity towards freedom and vows to make things right again, for himself and his loved ones.

Ben-Hur's days in slavery are vividly captured in two powerful sequences. One involves him and other slaves fighting extreme thirst, as their Roman masters greedily drink water themselves and give some to their horses but not their slaves. The other takes place on a warship where slaves, including Ben-Hur as slave #41, are pulling oars in the galleys, to a rhythm established by a Roman beating a block with hammers. The torture becomes excruciating when the hammers come down at a faster pace, forcing the slaves to row faster to the point of collapse. This is a scene that will surely wrench your gut.

Through an unexpected act of heroism, Ben-Hur moves up from a slave treated brutally to one who receives so much admiration among the Romans that he is hardly in bondage at all. But that doesn't stop him from searching long and hard for his loved ones and finding out their fate. Also, Ben-Hur still wants to get back at Messala. For that, he participates in a chariot race, which is truly one of the most exciting chariot races you'll ever see in a movie. The whole sequence captures the adrenaline rush of the race, the shocking sights of chariots crashing, and the suspense of Ben-Hur and Messala moving side by side, all occurring over a span of 10 laps around an elliptical track.

The last part of the film takes an unexpected turn, but nicely wraps everything up. Remember when I said that Jesus of Nazareth appears in the beginning of the movie? Well, his role is made perfectly clear in the finale. Ben-Hur and the other main characters discover the power of faith, the miracles that God can bring, and the wonderful teachings of Jesus. The way I see it, this film is about Jesus, but illustrated through a different Jew character, Ben-Hur, going through struggles where similar Christian themes apply. In fact, I forgot to mention earlier that the film is based on the 1880 historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace.

I may have given you an overview of much of Ben-Hur, but there are plenty of other great moments in this epic film. What I've described so far should be more than enough to show how much I love Ben-Hur and to inspire you to see it if you haven't done so. This film will make you feel excited, sad, and ultimately happy, as any great film should. All in all, Ben-Hur is no doubt a timeless cinematic classic.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about Ben-Hur, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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