Winner of no less than eleven Academy Awards (a record until Titanic equalled it) and perhaps the most famous epic of all time, Ben-Hur is sheer Hollywood spectacle in the golden age of cinema that reigned before CGI effects became the norm. Based upon the writings of General Lew Wallace, the story of Ben-Hur combined the life of Jesus Christ with the fictional story of Prince Judah Ben-Hur. Wallace's original source became a very successful play, and was twice made into feature films before in 1907 and 1925.
However, the most famous cinematic version appeared in 1959, and was directed by the acclaimed William Wyler and produced by Sam Zimbalist. The enormously budgeted Ben-Hur had the entire hopes of MGM studios resting upon its shoulders, because if the film flopped the studio would be bankrupt. Zimbalist found the pressure too much to bear and died during the production, and J.J. Cohn assumed command. Charlton Heston, star of The Ten Commandments and Wyler's own The Big Country a year before, was cast to play the lead role of Ben-Hur. Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Haya Harareet and Martha Scott were also hired to fill the other major roles.
Despite the over three-and-a-half hour length, the plot of Ben-Hur is relatively simplistic in terms of actual occurring events. Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) lives happily as a wealthy Jewish prince in Judea with his family at the time of Christ's birth. Meanwhile, Messala (Stephen Boyd), an ambitious Roman solider, returns to his home and happily meets up with Ben-Hur, his boyhood friend. However, it soon transpires that Rome's crushing dominance and ignorance in pursuit of its empire has blinded Messala. He believes that all other nations are inferior to the Romans, and his ideology no longer matches that of the Jewish Ben-Hur. This disagreement is extended further when Ben-Hur refuses to reveal to Messala the names of Jewish dissenters of the Romans, fearing that they would in turn be murdered for their protests, and this causes the pair to fall out. Messala, in his bitterness, manages to take out his anger on Ben-Hur by incarcerating him and his family over an accidental incident involving the death of a visiting Roman Governor. Years pass, and Ben-Hur is condemned to life in dungeons or galleys without any word of his family, with the sole quest of vengeance against Messala being the only spark keeping him alive.
Although the film is subtitled 'A Tale Of The Christ', Ben-Hur is actually more concerned with the personal war between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala the Roman, amidst the backdrop of the life of Christ. Gore Vidal, uncredited script-doctor for Ben-Hur, even claims that when adapting Wallace's original novel he detected homosexual undertones in the relationship between the two. This is even subtly portrayed in the film, particularly in Messala's character. Messala is presented as a bitter individual due to Ben-Hur's differing opinions and apparent sexual rejection of him. The homosexual desire seems completely absent within Ben-Hur, indeed, out of the two men, it is only Messala who lacks a female love interest in the film, possibly suggesting his pre-occupation with Ben-Hur. There is however, some evidence in the documentary featured on the DVD that suggests Gore Vidal created this homosexual plot device in Messala in order to add some spice to the weak script by Karl Tunberg. Rumour has it that staunch republican Charlton Heston was never informed of this past homosexual relationship due to William Wyler fearing that Heston would never agree to play Ben-Hur on those circumstances. This indeed, was the same actor who portrayed Michelangelo in The Agony And The Ecstasy without any of the painter's homosexual traits.
Ben-Hur is so grand on an epic scale that it seems almost impossible that a film of such magnitude could be made in 1959 without any computer wizardry of the likes of the dire Gladiator. Every sequence, be it a sea battle or a pulsating chariot race, are littered with thousands and thousands of cast extras, coupled with magnificent production design that appears to splendidly convey first century architecture. No expense has been spared, and the results are perfectly demonstrated on screen.
Despite the film's forty-years-plus age, Ben-Hur still stands up remarkably well in today's more intolerant climate. Visually, veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees ensures that the film is breathtaking, and the extreme Panavision widescreen of 2.70:1 suggests strongly that the film's home is the big screen. Even so, because of its length, the film is a perfect afternoon's entertainment in a home environment. Unlike other epics such as Quo Vadis and The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-Hur never drags in pacing terms and never strays into a pretentiously ponderous narrative. The film's most famous and talked about scene - the chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala, still stands as one of the most exciting sequences ever to grace celluloid. Featuring the legendary stunt work of leader in the field Yakima Canutt, the sequence never suggests that it is anything but real, and puts the pod-race in The Phantom Menace to shame. Director William Wyler is much more at ease with a film's character developments as opposed to presenting its visual quality, and Ben-Hur is first and foremost a character drama and secondarily a breathtaking epic, in contrast to efforts such as Cleopatra which reverses these traits.
Acting wise, the cast ensemble proves to be adept at handling an important production. Charlton Heston, as the honest and respectful Judah Ben-Hur, received a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, but his persona seems more suited to hot-tempered roles such as George Taylor in the Planet of The Apes Series or Robert Neville in The Omega Man. Stephen Boyd gives to the character of Messala the necessary menace and necessary athleticism, and his performance has often been underrated over the years. Welshman Hugh Griffith is quite charming in his portrayal of Sheik Ilderim and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, despite his character only entering the film on the hour and forty minute mark! Jack Hawkins gives the British thespian stamp to the film as Quintus Arrius, and it's a pity he isn't featured in more scenes in Ben-Hur.
Musically, Miklos Rozsa contributes an exceptionally rousing score that clearly influences the likes of later composers John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Like most departments of the film, Rozsa received an Oscar for his efforts.
The DVD version of Ben-Hur includes the often left out Overture and Intermission of the film, which is perfectly in keeping with the old trips to the cinema and of epic, lengthy productions.
There is a strong backlash against Ben-Hur, and some critics hold the film in an undeserving light of being dull, plodding cinema as opposed to the creative explosion of filmmaking in the sixties and seventies. Whatever its ultimate merits, Ben-Hur is a must-see for any serious film lover, if just for the cinematic milestone that is the chariot race.
Academy Awards 1959
Best Actor - Charlton Heston
Best Supporting Actor - Hugh Griffith
Best Director - William Wyler
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Colour) - Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning, Hugh Hunt
Best Cinematography (Colour) - Robert L. Surtees
Best Costume Design (Colour) - Elizabeth Haffenden
Best Original Score - Miklos Rozsa
Best Film Editing - John D. Dunning, Ralph E. Winters
Best Sound Recording - Franklin Milton
Best Special Effects - A. Arnold Gillespie, Milo B. Lory, Robert MacDonald
Academy Award Nominations 1959
Best Adapted Screenplay - Karl Tunberg
The anamorphic transfer, framed at approximately 2.70:1, is generally very pleasing, with vivid colouring and sharp tones. The occasional artefacting is noticeable in the excessively dark scenes, but overall Ben-Hur's ageing seems to have halted with the DVD release.
Despite the film's age, Ben-Hur has often received multi-channel sound treatment in its cinema presentations, and the 5.1 remix given to the film here is excellent on the whole. The orchestral music score by Miklos Rozsa and the frequent crowd scenes all feature glorious sound channeling, and this complements the film splendidly.
Menu: For a release of such a famous cinematic text, the menus are completely underwhelming. Static, golden tinted menu screens with some film stills, coupled with portions of Miklos Rozsa's score is all that is provided.
Discs: Unlike Doctor Zhivago, Ben-Hur is only given a one disc release. Even so, the film is slit into two sides of the disc, with the intermission (two hour and fifteen minute mark) suitably being the interlude point. With a film as long as Ben-Hur, you'd hardly begrudge having to turn a disc over at the Intermission point. The extras for the film all feature on the second side.
Packaging: In keeping with Warner's Twentieth Century Epics range, Ben-Hur has been given a snapper casing (very similar to the Region 1 release) with double fold out cardboard cover which has chapter listings on the inner side. This is then housed in a golden outer cardboard dust cover that looks nice but is susceptible to damage easier than amarays.
Audio Commentary By Charlton Heston: Sensibly, Charlton Heston has not been forced to fill the film's entire running time with his sole commentary. Instead, the DVD producers have wisely chopped up his comments into chunks, and when each chunk is finished, a small arrow appears on screen informing the viewer to skip to the next chapter, which contains another chunk of his commentary. It's great to hear Heston comment on what is his most famous film, and he talks about his views on Ben-Hur as well as his memories of it, including his appreciation for working with good British actors.
Ben-Hur: The Making Of An Epic - Documentary: A fifty-eight minute documentary that is less interesting than it sounds. For a start, the first twenty-five minutes are devoted to the other, earlier adaptations of Wallace's novel. This is quite interesting, but irrelevant considering that this then forces the rest of the documentary to skim the surfaces on the 1959 version, and doesn't enter into nearly as much depth as it could have done on such a lengthy production.
Screen Tests: Two amusing screen tests for the film are featured. The first suggests how bad Ben-Hur could have been, with Cesare Danova testing as Ben-Hur and a young Leslie Nielsen testing as Messala. In light of Nielsen's recent comeback as spoof comedy king in films such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun, it's quite difficult to take Nielsen seriously as a serious actor! Both himself and Danova are so wooden that they are funny to watch in an enjoyably bad way. This screen test lasts for seven minutes, and is followed by silent screen tests of female lead Haya Harareet with the filmmakers testing out her photogenic qualities.
Photo Gallery: A set of ten various photos of Ben-Hur, ranging from promotional stills to behind the scenes photos and artwork designs.
Theatrical Trailer: Not the original theatrical trailer from 1959, but the 1968 re-issue trailer for the film, which weighs in at four minutes and manages to convey the winning qualities of the film. It even opens with the tagline of "In 70mm And Full Stereophonic Sound!"
Awards: A text page listing the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the National Board Of Review and the New York Film Society awards the film received.
The fact that they don't make films like this anymore (or indeed in this way) is better evidence suggesting that Ben-Hur deserves to be seen by anyone with the remotest interest in cinema. The extras are quite good, but are sparse in some areas, but this is made up by the excellent picture and sound qualities of the film. Take four hours out of your day and watch Ben-Hur in one sitting and you won't regret it.