Release Date: 18 November, 1959
Oscar Ceremony: 4 April, 1960
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Nominees: Anatomy of a Murder, Room at the Top, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story
“Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.” – Quintus Arrius
Oh man, you know it’s going to be a long ride when the tagline of the movie is “A tale of the Christ” and the total running time is 3 hours and 32 minutes. Just when I thought Christianity couldn’t get any drearier, Ben-Hur came along and proved me wrong. The thing is, I actually like the director… He’s made some pretty amazing movies, but this just isn’t one of them. I think I might be going to hell after this review.
Ben-Hur is the highly melodramatic story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince devoted to his faith and people. One day, his childhood friend Messala returns to Jerusalem after having been away in Rome. He is now the commander of the Roman garrison and essentially wants Judah to betray his Jewish people, give up their names, and join him in adhering to the ways of the Roman Empire. Fear not, Judah is too loyal for that stuff. However, this causes tension between the two men, and eventually Messala betrays Judah by sending him into slavery and imprisoning his mother and sister. Three years later, Judah manages to escape and he is determined to get his revenge. There are a lot of other components to the story but ultimately they’re mostly just distractions.
What does all of this have to do with Jesus? I don’t know, you tell me. There are actually religious undertones throughout the story, but sometimes they feel forced. Other times they’re so obvious that they come off as a joke even to believers. It’s like watching a long Roman movie with a bit of Jesus sprinkled here and there. In the last hour or so, the filmmakers finally decide to make the relevance of religion more significant, so they add a largely predictable (when leprosy comes into play you pretty much know Jesus is going to have to cure it) and unnecessary component to the story just to wrap things up nicely with a bow and remind us that Jesus is our saviour. To be honest I could easily have told you that without even watching the movie.
Message to Hollywood: quantity is not synonymous with quality. Your movie is not necessarily a masterpiece because it lasts almost 4 hours. Summarizing is a skill. Brevity is not a crime. I cannot stress this enough. Is it possible to have a fantastic movie that also happens to be long? Sure. Gone With the Wind is a great example. However, Ben-Hur pretty much feels like people were just trying to squeeze in random scenes and unnecessarily lengthen the dialogue just to turn it into an “epic.” If you ask me, all it did was turn it into a snooze fest. It dragged on so much. If I wanted an incredibly long and slow religious tale, I would have read the Bible. Truth be told, it might have actually been more engaging than this poor excuse of a respectable movie.
The other thing is, Ben-Hur does not feel like a labour of love. Not a single person in the movie looks happy to be there and the acting is very monotonous. These people, including Charlton Heston, display no raw emotion whatsoever. The point of an epic is to reel your audience in and make them engaged, but this was the opposite; it was an extremely passive viewing experience. I was very aware of the fact that I was watching a production more than living the narrative. It was a struggle to force myself to care about it. The whole thing was pretty much MGM showing off just how much money they have to waste. All the effort went into the budget, and by the end there was none left for the heart and soul required to make a great film.
Many people admit that Ben-Hur is not very interesting, but praise it for its famous chariot race scene. Fair enough. It is indeed a great technical and cinematic achievement (and those horses are natural born actors too). However, this 10 minute sequence does not make up for the film’s remaining 200 minutes of boredom. That’s not why you give a movie Best Picture! Give it Special Effects or Cinematography and that should be good enough. There’s a pretty epic car chase in The Fast and the Furious, but I don’t see that winning Best Picture anytime soon. Okay, I admit that’s a pretty bad comparison, but you get the point. Imagine if people said that about Titanic (which happens to be Ben-Hur‘s equal when it comes to its record-breaking 11 Oscar wins). “Man that scene where the boat sinks really made the movie!” No.
Anyways, for some reason Ben-Hur still managed to stand out, and it probably owes it all to its grandeur. The costumes, the number of actors, the sets, the horses, the props, the effects… no other movie really compared. Or maybe audiences were super excited about the whole Jesus fan fiction aspect. In the end, the movie served its purpose: It will be remembered by all, and that’s more than you can say for a number of its Best Picture antecedents.