Rakesh's movie talk
Ben Hur (1959)

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Directed by William Wyler
Written by Karl Tunberg (based on novel by Lew Wallace)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins and Haya Harareet.


I sometimes feel not qualified to write commentaries on classics. They don't deserve a writer like me. But they certainly do deserve an audience like me, somebody who could be easily awed and dragged in like a willing witness. Ben-Hur is a name you can find in anyone's top ten, twenty, fifty or 100 best film list. It is currently in my top twenty.




Honest. I don't know where to begin. You know the story. Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a friend of Messala's (Stephen Boyd) the film’s bad guy. Messala works for the Roman army, which has conquered Judea, our hero’s backyard. Messala wants his buddy to betray his own men and tell him who the Roman empire adversaries are, and our hero refuses. Incidents follow, which include Ben-Hur getting imprisoned and sent to galleys, and his mother and sister, also imprisoned, and eventually becoming lepers. Ben-Hur somehow gets to be free, and he seeks his family, as well as revenge towards Messala. The story is simple, but there are so many important scenes. There are not merely plot moving scenes, but brilliant exposures of great characters and emotional situations. Scenes do not cut after a minute like the present day MTV crazed releases, but are squeezed to the last drop of its intensity, no matter how happy or sad they are.


It can be argued that three quarter of this film is one long set up to the finale featuring the fiery chariot races. But time spent on watching this set up will definitely be well spent. It strips off the original impression of Ben-Hur as we see him during the opening and makes him the vengeful and rock-hard persona that we see racing in the circuit.


The chariot race runs for around 15 minutes which is pretty long for present day standard, where a chase scene with explosions will take approximately a couple of minutes. During this race, you will find yourself not looking at your watch, not grabbing the popcorn or whatever you are eating. You eyes will be fixed on those darn horses and the men riding the chariots. It took three months to shoot just this scene alone and it is justified. It is spectacular and will never be rivalled again. We all know that it inspired George Lucas' podrace scene in The Phantom Menace, but it only served to bring the memory of the greatest race scene in the history of filmmaking.


Of course, it ends with the bad guy getting trampled by other horses. Oh hell, did I give it away? Anyway, strange thing happened to me. Thanks to Stephen Boyd’s performance, I actually begin to feel pity for this guy, who is supposedly the reason for Ben-Hur’s suffering. Like the hero, we realise it is not Messala, but the Roman Empire which is the bad guy. This single scene reveals many things to us. 


Younger generation may not like Heston’s performance. It might look a bit overdone and too stagy. Personally, I liked it. It moved me. Hey, it won him Best Actor Oscar, and who are we to argue.


I hate to admit this, but Ben-Hur is the only Hollywood movie that made moved me to tears towards the ending. I know that I am saying this at the risk of being looked at as a sissy, but you have got to watch it to know what I mean. All the scenes involving Christ still brings lump to my throat. I have not seen many movies depicting Jesus, but of all I have seen, I believe this is the most emotional even if he is only given a couple of scenes and the whole movie is not exactly about him. We are given the chaotic ambience of his era, Ben-Hur's own experienec representing the worst of it, and at the centre of it all, you have Christ and his love. This film truly depicted his life without even showing him most of the time. I am not sure if it is the work of the director William Wyler and his scriptwriters, or the source novel by Gen. Lew Wallace.


Ben Hur was holding the record with eleven wins until Titanic came along and tied. But this classic will be remembered the most in the future, not the overrated James Cameron movie. It is unfair to compare this two. But I like to highlight the fact that if the Academy is keen on honouring films like Titanic, there is a great chance that we will not be able to see films like Ben-Hur anymore. End of comparison.


My warning is don't watch the film when you are back from work, tired and longing to feel the sheets of the bed. It is dangerous and you are doing this 42-year-old screen legend an injustice


If you feel that you have read too much of praise with regards to this movie, then I suggest you read this review - this critic certainly have some interesting complaints:




But it doesn’t mean that you can afford the luxury of missing this movie. No way should you miss it. No way! You hear? No way!



Trivia: In imdb.com, the site also names Maxwell Anderson and Christopher Fry and Gore Vidal as uncredited contributors of the script. Vidal was then blacklisted by House of UnAmerican Activities, for involvement with communists. Not sure about the other writers. For all you know, Tunberg could just be a front. Anyone with info, please share it with me.