Movie 4/100: Ben-Hur


Directed by: William Wyler | Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd | 1959

We finally looped around to the beginning and watched film 100 on the AFI list: 1959's Ben-Hur.

Back in my review of Yankee Doodle Dandy, I mentioned that I have a hard time dealing the portrayal of women and other backwards parts of old movies unless the story somehow manages to transcend that for me. Yankee Doodle Dandy didn't, but Ben-Hur did. 

Even though I have a harder time getting into movies from this era, Ben-Hur kept my attention for its entire 212-minute running length. I'm a little biased, but I attribute that in part to the fact that it's based on a novel. I tend to find books more compelling than movies in general, though I haven't read the 1880 Lew Wallace novel this one is based on. 

Epics are entertaining in general, and this one told a gripping story of Judah (Ben-Hur)'s quest for revenge after he and his family were wronged by a childhood friend. There were even moments that reminded me of one of my favorite epics, Les Miserables: Ben-Hur in chains, with a slaver taking particular interest in him and his strength, and then providing him a confusing kindness that Ben-Hur felt compelled to repay. Their relationship ended considerably better than Jean Valjean and Javert's, but there are definitely parallels: 

That's not to say I didn't have issues with the story, however. I didn't care for the black-and-white portrayal of the characters (down to using black and white horses in the famous chariot scene). I always instinctively try to defend a character when a story asks me to hate them, and that was the case with the villain in this story, Messala. For me, the conflict between Messala and Ben-Hur was understandable enough when it started: Though childhood friends, they ended up at odds over politics -- that is, Rome's rule over the Jewish people. (Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant; Messala has become a Roman tribune). The part that is hard to understand is why Messala, who at first seems to consider Ben-Hur's family as dear as his own family, is so perturbed by this disagreement as to realize that Judah Ben-Hur and his family did not intend to threaten the new governor when a tile fell from their house during a parade, yet proceeds to jail Ben-Hur, his sister, and his mother indefinitely and in very harsh conditions. It's just too much of a turn around for me to fully buy into. 

And the women in this film are just side characters, defined by their relationship with Judah, not as interesting characters in their own right. They are simply mother, sister, and lover, used to provoke Judah to action. You can even see all the swooning in the preview: There are so many "Oh, Judah!"s from distressed women that multiple of them are featured in the trailer. 

By far the worst scene was the introduction of Esther, Judah's slave and later his lover, who is at the time engaged to another man. In some gross attempt at flirtation, he says to her: 

JUDAH BEN-HUR: You know, in the old, wise days of Solomon if there was among his slaves some girl who filled his eyes he could choose her out from the rest and take her to him.

(To be fair, Esther seems totally into it. It's pretty clear that both the screenplay and the novel were written by men.) 

Also, the dude playing the Sheik? Wearing brown face. Plus the character's a bit over the top. 

The whole religious angle also seemed forced into the story. Pete and I both came away thinking it would be just as strong, if not stronger, without the haphazard-seeming Jesus scenes. 

To end on a positive note: The costumes were designed by an incredible woman, Elizabeth Haffenden, who earned an Oscar for her work. 

See the famous chariot scene below, and check out some cool behind-the scenes photos here