First, some apologies for the delay – Roommate Russ and I were contending with a hunt for a new apartment (I realized at one point that the last time I did a proper apartment hunt was back in 1994). But I think things have stabilized enough now to bring you a review. ….My bad luck that it’s a review of a nearly four-hour Bible epic starring Charlton Heston.
But it is a nearly four-hour Bible epic that left me pleasantly surprised. This time around Heston is “Judah Ben-Hur”, a wealthy Jewish merchant living in Judea during the days of Roman occupation. While other Jews are rebelling against the Romans, Ben-Hur is a little more chill – he’d like the Romans gone, sure, but he’s more into the diplomatic approach. In fact, one of his childhood best friends was a Roman – Messala (Stephen Boyd), who’s just been rewarded with a military command of a post in Jerusalem. The friends enjoy a warm reunion, but during their talk Messala tries to talk Ben-Hur into turning informant against his own people, giving Messala the names of any known Jewish Zealots. Ben-Hur is taken aback by the request and turns Messala down, driving a wedge between the friends. In fact, Messala is so hurt by what he feels to be a betrayal that he soon seizes on a flimsy excuse to punish Ben-Hur, when a loose ceiling tile falls off Ben-Hur’s house and nearly hits the Roman governor. It’s an accident, and Messala knows it is, but he still accuses Ben-Hur of deliberately throwing it, and sentences him to hard labor as a galley slave. And for good measure, Messala also sentences Ben-Hur’s mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) to life in prison.
Ben-Hur spends the next three years nursing one mighty grudge. But then a Roman naval captain, Arrius (Jack Hawkins), cuts Ben-Hur a little slack during a sea battle by not chaining him to his seat like the other slaves. This lets Ben-Hur save some of the other slaves when the boat takes a hit – and then go on to rescue Arrius as well. The grateful Arrius not only frees Ben-Hur, he adopts him, training him as a charioteer. But Ben-Hur has never forgotten his family, and soon returns to Judea, hoping to use his newfound prestige to free his mother and sister, and to get back at Messala. He is quickly enlisted as a charioteer for the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who suggests showing Messala up in a big chariot race is the best way to embarrass him, or even kill him (chariot races can get awfully dangerous, dont’cha know). But Esther (Haya Harrareet), a former flame of Ben-Hur’s, urges him to stand down; he could get killed, he might get arrested again, or something worse could happen. In fact, there’s a new Prophet she’s been listening to, some Guy out of Nazareth, who suggests that people should love their enemies.
…So, the book upon which this was based bills itself as “A Story Of The Christ”, but director William Wyler leaves Jesus out of most of the story; He appears as an incidental character only, either from a distance or shot from behind. He gives Ben-Hur some water as he is being marched off to the galleys, and Ben-Hur returns the favor when he stumbles upon Jesus’ walk to Golgotha; and except for a prologue showing the Nativity and a scene where Esther tries to drag Ben-Hur to come listen to The Sermon On The Mount, that’s pretty much it. The actor playing Jesus, an opera singer named Claude Heater, wasn’t even credited in the final film. Instead, we get action and spectacle – a big sea battle (even if you can tell they used toy ships in a tank in some places) and a brilliantly epic chariot race, with some surprisingly violent stunts. Far wiser film scholars than I have spoken of the chariot race sequence, and have spoken far better than I have; all I will add, therefore, is the affirmation that it lives up to its hype.
Heston also, thankfully, isn’t gravely intoning things the way he was as Moses; he’s got more of an emotional range (hell, he has an emotional range). Esther – on her way to becoming an early Christian – isn’t a preachy mouthpiece either; she is genuinely into Ben-Hur, and is genuinely concerned about him. And she’s gutsy – thinking nothing of doing charity work amongst the lepers near town. (Well, there’s a bit of a reason for that.) There are a couple moments where Esther speaks of something Jesus said with a bit of a starry-eyed awe, and Ben-Hur goes through a similar conversion towards the end after witnessing the Crucifixion, but in terms of preachiness, it’s pretty low-impact.
So…I liked it more than I thought I would.