Ben-Hur, the story of a Jewish prince circa 30 A.D. It was a big budget epic and by far the highest grossing film of 1959. But how does this legendary “sword and sandal” epic fit into the pantheon of 1950s best picture winners?
The film begins with a sweeping 6:30 minute overture followed by an uncharacteristically quiet MGM lion forgoing his usual roar. William Wyler felt it would break the mood and had to get special permission to keep Leo quiet.
Instantly the grandeur of the production is evident. Huge elaborate sets and throngs of extras tell the story of Jesus’ birth complete with Mary and Joseph, shepherds watching their flock by night, three wise men and of course a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. This isn’t the more authentic Middle Eastern representation as seen in modern films like The Passion of the Christ but Wyler vividly brings to life the stylized image of the nativity westerners knew well.
A shepherd blows a shofar announcing the start of the credits. Although the film is only officially known as Ben-Hur, the subtitle (taken from the Lew Wallace novel the film is based on) “A Tale of the Christ” appears letting you know who the true central character of the story will be.
Following the credits Roman soldiers march through Nazareth. The year is somewhere around 28 A.D. and Joseph, an older man now, works in his carpentry business and explains to a customer his son isn’t there but is “about his father’s business.”
Jesus’ ministry hasn’t begun yet. No fishermen have become disciples. No miracles have been performed. At this point the reference works as foreshadowing.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem the Roman soldier Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives to take command of the garrison of the town he lived in when he was a boy. The Emperor in Rome is displeased that Judea has become unruly and has sent Messala to restore order. A new governor is on his way as well.
When Messala arrives he is greeted by his old friend, the fresh Prince of Ben-Hur, Judah (Charleton Heston).
Boyd and Heston have great chemistry together. I really buy them as childhood friends who care about each other but are from different worlds, one a Roman, one a Jew.
Their friendship becomes quickly strained as Messala seeks to bring stricter rule over the Jews in Jerusalem and he wants Judah’s help, thus betraying his people.
Messala: Either you help me or you oppose me. You have no other choice. You’re either for me or against me.
Judah Ben-Hur: If that is the choice. . .then I am against you.
Because of this fracture in their friendship when an accident puts Judah and his family in the crosshairs of the Roman authorities Messala is unwilling to come to their defense. Judah finds himself a prisoner separated from his mother and sister. His violent escape to discover their whereabouts lands him as a slave in the galley Roman ships for 3 years. Judah swears to return to Jerusalem to free his family and get his revenge on Messala.
The naval battle between the Roman and Macedonian ships looks pretty good for 1959. Yes, they’re models in a bathtub but the models are excellent and the pyrotechnics, visual effects and editing make it all look fairly convincing.
The stunts are impressive as the Macedonians board the Roman ship. Heston shoves a lit torch right in one dudes face and sets his head on fire. Nice!
During Judah’s journey he becomes a master chariot racer and finds favor with Roman aristocracy, earning his freedom and a place of honor in the house of the Roman consul. During his return to Jerusalem for revenge he meets a Sheik named Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) who is a chariot race enthusiast. Again, Judah finds favor.
When he finally returns to Jerusalem to confront Messala he learns his mother and sister are dead but with the help of the Sheik he seeks vengeance on Messala by competing against him in the chariot race.
There are so many legends, myths and tall tales about the chariot race from Ben-Hur it’s easy to forget how incredible it really is. It has all the grandeur, pageantry and spectacle you’d expect from a film sequence still famous 60 years later. It’s iconic.
I had the pleasure of seeing Charleton Heston speak live at a conference many years ago. He told the story (one he would trot out frequently) of being nervous before filming this scene to which the second unit director assured him, “Chuck, you just stay in the chariot. I guarantee you’re going to win the damn race.”
One of those legends about this scene is that a stuntman died filming it. This is untrue. I repeat. This is untrue. But what makes it so believable is Wyler shooting the race with such intensity. The camera work is fantastic and the stunts are amazing. But nobody died. I promise.
When Judah wins the race he is greeted by the new governor of the province, Pontius Pilate. He places a laurel crown on his head as “the people’s one true god” and the people cheer. The foreshadowing is effective.
He discovers that his family isn’t dead but instead living in the leper colony, outcast from society and forced to live out their days in a miserable existence. Judah blames Rome but even Messala’s death (from injuries sustained during the chariot race) brings him no peace. Anger and bitterness have overtaken his heart. But as this is “a tale of the Christ” there is still hope.
The last 40 minutes are a true biblical story as Jesus comes to the forefront in the lives of these characters to bring healing for physical, emotional and spiritual pain.
This ultimately is the story this film tells. Jesus came to bring hope and healing to the hurting and broken. Judah Ben-Hur is the stand-in for each one of us. We understand his plight. We understand hurts and disappointments. We understand loss and tragedy. We understand the dark pull of seeking revenge and retribution.
We see the familiar story unfold from a distance. It doesn’t come close to the graphic depiction seen in The Passion of the Christ. In this film the emphasis is on those watching the gruesome events.
William Wyler struggled with how to depict Jesus.
“I spent sleepless nights trying to find a way to deal with the figure of Christ. It was a frightening thing when all the great painters of twenty centuries have painted events you have to deal with, events in the life of the best-known man who ever lived. Everyone already has his own concept of him. I wanted to be reverent, and yet realistic.” – William Wyler
As a result His face is never seen, but His presence is always poignant.
My only complaint is that some of the people seem to have a very comprehensive understanding of the spiritual implications of Jesus’ death on the cross.
“He has taken the world of our sins onto Himself.” – Balthasar
“As though He were carrying in that cross the pain of the world.” – Miriam
And in what is almost justifiable Deus Ex Machina, Judah’s mother and sister are healed of their leprosy. Hallelujah! Literally…
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” – (“Miracle and Finale” by Ben-Hur score composer Miklós Rózsa)
This film was made when Hollywood was still desperately competing with television. Spectacle reigned supreme and Ben-Hur was a massive hit becoming at the time the second highest grossing film ever (Gone With the Wind). It’s gross box office revenue adjusted for inflation puts it on the all-time list at #15 ahead of Jurassic Park, Avatar and Return of the Jedi.
Watching this again makes me even more appreciative of the subtle nuances the Coen brothers incorporated into Hail, Caesar! Set in 1950s Hollywood, the film centers around the studio working on their production of “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.” Well done, Coens. You nailed it.
But even though it’s high on production it isn’t short on story. A lot of it feels dated but the execution is first-rate. Jack Hawkins is fantastic as the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius who takes Judah into his home as the son he never had. He and Stephen Boyd did great work but had too little screen time for Oscar consideration. Hugh Griffith as Arab Sheik Ilderim had just enough to get noticed for the supporting actor category going home with Oscar gold.
He wasn’t the only one. There was plenty of gold handed out to Ben-Hur that night at the Pantages. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards, a record it still holds, sharing it with two other films*.
This was William Wyler’s third win for best director tallying his 11th nomination. He would receive his recond 12th nomination in 1965. This is probably an untouchable record. Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder are tied for second with 8. Wyler was the real deal. You know you’re big time when yours is the biggest name on the poster.
Charlton Heston is at his Heston-y best earning his one and only Oscar nomination receiving best actor honors for his work. But Chuck wasn’t the first choice to play Judah Ben-Hur.
Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Rock Hudson were all offered the part. There is another interesting bit of casting history. At one point the part of Messala was offered to…and I’m not joking…Leslie Neilson. There’s actually a screen test you can find on YouTube on Leslie Neilson as Messala and Cesare Danova as Judah.
One final note… I was pretty sure I had written about this film before so I went back into the Captions archives and discovered I was correct. I watched this on the big screen with my son just over 3 years ago. It was very personally interesting to me to go back after watching and writing about it again how my experience was different. For contrast you can see my 2014 review HERE.
I’m glad the 1950s best picture winners finished on a good note. This was a rough decade for the Oscars and was overall a mixed bag. But that won’t stop me from ranking the good, the bad and the ugly**.
*Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
**Not the actual film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That didn’t come out until 1966.