Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Ben-Hur (1959)
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Ben-Hur (1959) is MGM's three and a half hour, wide-screen epic Technicolor blockbuster - a Biblical tale, subtitled A Tale of the Christ.

Director William Wyler's film was a retelling of the spectacular silent film of the same name (director Fred Niblo's and MGM's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)). Both films were adapted from the novel (first published in 1880) by former Civil War General Lew Wallace. Wyler had been an 'extras' director on the set of DeMille's original film in the silent era. MGM's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), featuring a cast of 125,000, cost about $4 million to make after shooting began on location in Italy, in 1923, and starred silent screen idols Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. This figure is equivalent to $33 million today - it was the most expensive silent film ever made.

This remake of the novel was inspired by the fact that three years earlier, Cecil B. DeMille and Paramount had remade the 1925 version of his film as a successful 50's epoch Biblical tale titled The Ten Commandments (1956). The heroic figure of Charlton Heston (an iconic and righteous Moses figure) would again be commissioned to play the lead role in this film of a Jewish nobleman (the Prince of Judea) - after the role was turned down by Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson and Paul Newman. In the plot, prince Judah Ben-Hur was enslaved by a Roman tribunal friend (with a homosexual subtext provided by co-writer Gore Vidal), but then returned years later to seek revenge in the film's centerpiece, a chariot race. Ultimately, he would find redemption and forgiveness in the inspiring and enlightening finale.

The colorful 1959 version was the most expensive film ever made up to its time, and the most expensive film of the 50s decade. At $15 million and shot on a grand scale, it was a tremendous make-or-break risk for MGM Studios - and ultimately saved the studio from bankruptcy. [It was a big dual win for MGM, since they had won the Best Picture race the previous year for Gigi (1958).] It took six years to prepare for the film shoot, and over a half year of on-location work in Italy, with thousands of extras. It featured more crew and extras than any other film before it - 15,000 extras alone for the chariot race sequence.

Ben-Hur proved to be an intelligent, exciting, and dramatic piece of film-making unlike so many other vulgar Biblical pageants with Hollywood actors and actresses. Its depiction of the Jesus Christ figure was also extremely subtle and solely as a cameo - it never showed Christ's face but only the reactions of other characters to him.

It was one of the most honored, award-winning films of all time. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston - his sole career Oscar), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Costume Design, Best Special Effects, and Best Screenplay (sole-credited Karl Tunberg). It was the first film to win eleven Oscars - it lost only in the Screenplay category due to a dispute over screenwriting credits (Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, and Gore Vidal were all uncredited). Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) are the only films to tie this phenomenal record, although unlike this film, they came away without any acting Oscars. Many felt that Heston's performance was inferior to other nominees in the Best Actor category: Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot or Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top, and James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder.

The chariot race sequence in the Circus Maximus (an amazing replica of the one in Rome) is one of the most thrilling and famous in film history. [Homage was paid to it with George Lucas' pod-race in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999).] The site of the race, the Circus Maximus in Jerusalem (Judea), was constructed on over 18 acres of backlot space at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome, and the filming of the sequence took about five weeks. Except for two of the most spectacular stunts, both Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd did all their own chariot driving in the carefully-choreographed sequence. There are contradictory reports about the fatality of a stuntman during the dangerous scene in the film, yet no published discussions of the film mention the accident, and Charlton Heston's 1995 autobiography In the Arena specifically stated that no one was seriously injured (beyond a cut on the chin) during the filming of the scene.

The Story

A prologue describes the historical background - the film is set in Jerusalem during the time that Jesus was born and became known for his "radical" teachings:

Anno Domini - In the year of our Lord, Judea for nearly a century had lain under the mastery of Rome. In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar, an imperial decree ordered every Judean each to return to his place of birth to be counted and taxed. Converging ways of many of them led to the gates of their capital city Jerusalem, the troubled heart of their land...Even while they obeyed the will of Caesar, the people clung proudly to their ancient heritage always remembering the promise of their prophets that one day there would be born among them a Redeemer to bring them salvation and perfect freedom.

Joseph of Nazareth, of the family of David of Bethlehem, is seen being questioned and counted by Roman officials. As originally shown, the film opened with a series of tableaux of the birth of Christ Nativity sequence and the coming of the Magi.

The next scene, "Anno Domini XXVI," is in sharp contrast to the Nativity scene. The newly appointed Roman Tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd), the ambitious commander of the legion that precedes the new Roman governor, rides through Nazareth, on his way to the ancient city of Jerusalem. Messala is returning to his boyhood home after some years in Rome. The pagan ruler Sextus (Andre Morell), whom Messala is replacing, tells him that the country is changing and the people are reluctant to honor Rome:

I think you'll find the people changed since you were a boy...They won't pay their taxes in a rational resentment of Rome...then there's religion. I'll tell you, they're drunk with religion, smash the statues of our gods, even those of the Emperor.

Autocratic in nature, Messala intends to "punish them" by enforcing the Emperor's command upon the "rabble rousers" and restoring order so that Judea may be a more obedient and disciplined province. Unrest is also due to the preachings about a Messiah, a "King of the Jews who will lead them all into some sort of anti-Roman paradise." There's also a wild man in the desert named John the Baptist and a young carpenter's son "who goes around doing magic tricks, miracles they call them...This man is different. He teaches that God is near, in every man. It's actually quite profound, some of it." "To fight an idea," Messala explains, you fight "with another idea."

A centurion informs Messala that "there's a Jew outside" who wants to see him. The other Roman soldiers are surprised to see Messala agree to greet a Jew, a potential enemy of Rome. Messala has respect for the influential Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and tells his centurion: "This was his country before it was ours. Don't forget that." The two men have been like brothers, and they are reunited. The stout, handsome Ben-Hur, who belongs to one of the country's wealthy families in Judea, arrives to pay his respects to his boyhood friend. They embrace each other warmly in the long, stone-columned hallway of the Roman garrison lined with spears. Ben-Hur says he "drank a toast" to Messala when he heard the news he had become a tribune.

They challenge each other to a friendly competition, hurling javelin spears into the point where two wooden beams cross in the ceiling, exclaiming: "Down Eros, up Mars!" Their aim at the crossbeam and their friendship is "still every way" after so many years. One is a Roman, one is a Jew. Messala realizes it will be a difficult province to govern and asks for Ben-Hur's help and advice. Ben-Hur is opposed to Roman domination and suggests: "Withdraw your legions. Give us our freedom." But Messala cannot - he is second in command to the new governor who will arrive in a few days with two more legions. Ben-Hur is more and more hateful of Roman anti-Semitism and argues against his childhood friend. Messala warns: "There is rebellion in the wind. It will be crushed."

Messala has traveled and fought extensively throughout the Roman Empire - in Britain, Africa, and Spain, and he sees a Roman world in the future, a master race:

Be wise, Judah. It's a Roman world. If you want to live in it, you must become part of it...I tell you, Judah, it's no accident that one small village on the Tiber was chosen to rule the world...It wasn't just our legions...No, it was fate that chose us to civilize the world - and we have. Our roads and our ships connect every corner of the earth, Roman law, architecture, literature and the glory of the human race.

Ben-Hur believes in the Hebrew people of Judea: "I believe in the future of my people." Messala asks that Ben-Hur, an admired and respected aristocrat, speak out against rebellion and futile resistance to Rome that would only end in the extinction of his people. But Ben-Hur finds it difficult to join in a pact against Jewish rebels. Messala realizes the difficulty of what he asks, as he pours wine for a toast: "It's an insane world, but in it there's one sanity, the loyalty of old friends. Judah, we must believe in one another." They cross arms and drink to that pledge.

The next day, Judah's mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) also receive Messala warmly in their home, almost as one of their family. Messala presents a Libyan brooch to Tirzah. Likewise, Ben-Hur gives Messala a valuable white Arabian horse as a token of their friendship (foreshadowing the chariot race to come), and Messala thanks him: "It's going to be like old times, I know it."

Messala also asks about their previous day's conversation, and inquires which of his friends are strong opponents of Roman rule. In effect, Messala asks Ben-Hur to turn traitor on his people, and reveal the names and identity of Jewish underground resistance leaders - referred to as "criminals." Judah refuses to betray his compatriots and coreligionists by becoming an informant in an act of friendship. In return for bringing order into Judea with Ben-Hur's help, Messala promises him advancement in the eyes of the new Emperor Tiberius. To Messala, the Emperor "is God, the only God, he is power, real power on Earth." Ben-Hur responds by pledging his allegiance to his own people, refusing to become part of the Roman world: "You may conquer the land, you may slaughter the people. That is not the end. We will rise again." Judah turns against Messala with an angry denounciation:

Rome is an affront to God. Rome is strangling my people and my country and the whole earth, but not forever. I tell you, the day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before.

Messala offers an ultimatum - be with him in helping to eliminate rebellion or against him. "If that is the choice, then I'm against you," Judah affirms. Marking him as a troublemaker, Messala breaks off their friendship abruptly. Miriam and Tirzah are saddened to hear that Messala has suddenly left their home, hearing that he wanted to use Ben-Hur to betray their people.

A caravan returns from Antioch and Ben-Hur's servant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet) arrive at the household. Judah grants her permission to marry a merchant in Antioch, offering her freedom from slavery as a wedding present. Later in their darkened upper room in the tentative love scene, they share a few memories of their childhood and he offers her a loving thought before she departs:

Judah: If you were not a bride, I should kiss you goodbye.
Esther: If I were not a bride, there would be no goodbyes to be said.

After they kiss each other, she wipes a few tears from her eyes.

Shortly thereafter, the new Roman governor Gratus (Mino Doro) rides in a heavily-guarded parade into Jerusalem. Townspeople watch quietly from the rooftops and streets as the provincial governor marches through the crowds. At the house of Ben-Hur on the parade route, Judah watches with Tirzah from the roof of their palace. When Tirzah leans forward over the rail to get a better view of the governor, she accidently loosens a heavy roof tile which breaks off. It falls to the ground below, spooking Gratus' horse, throwing him into a wall and injuring him. Although it is clearly an accident, and Judah attempts to take the blame, it is interpreted as an assassination attempt. Troops under Messala's command are ordered to break into the palace and they arrest Judah and his entire family as rebels. Messala goes to the roof alone to examine the tiles and accidently dislodges pieces of the tiles himself, realizing Judah told the truth.

In prison, Judah learns he is to be taken to Tyrus to become a galley slave without a trial. He makes a daring escape from his guards, forces his way into Messala's presence with a spear, and is allowed to speak. Ben-Hur demands that Miriam and Tirzah be freed, accusing Messala of being evil. Messala claims he is not evil, while explaining how he must put his duty as Roman tribune ahead of friendship:

I wanted your help. Now you have given it to me. By making this example of you, I discourage treason. By condemning, without hesitation, an old friend, I shall be feared.

A heartless Messala plans to frame them, to make an "example" of the family to advance his own position in the new government. In utter frustration, Judah begs for their freedom but is denied. He threatens to spear him unless he frees Miriam and Tirzah. Messala counters with a promise that they will be put to death that day (nailed to crosses in front of him) unless Judah surrenders. In anger, Judah hurls his spear into the wall next to Messala. As he is taken away, he vows revenge on Messala: "May God grant me vengeance. I pray that you live till I return." Messala replies, mockingly: "Return?" He is led away through the archway of cross beams, bringing to mind the friendly javelin rivalry of their reunion only days earlier. Without a trial, Miriam and Tirzah are also imprisoned. Even Judah's servant Simonides, who has come to Messala to plead Judah's case, is held for questioning.

Ben-Hur is sentenced into exile to the slave galleys, and forced to join other prisoners chained together on a forced march across the desert in the searing hot sun to Tyrus. Along the way under the heat and lash, many prisoners die. When they stop enroute at the small town of Nazareth for water, the slaves are permitted to drink only after the soldiers and their horses are finished. The guards allow all the slaves to drink except Judah. As he lies in the sand, collapsed from dehydration and crying "God, help me," a hand (from the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth) quietly reaches toward him with a gourd of drinking water and defies the centurion's orders. In the uplifting dramatic moment, Ben-Hur is protected from harm from the dumbstruck Roman guard. Ben-Hur gains fortitude and strength from the encounter.

Over three years later, Ben-Hur has toughened, surviving the galley slave ordeal so far. He is one of over 200 galley slaves shackled to an oar in a Roman galley flagship. A new Roman officer Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) arrives on board to take command. Below deck, Arrius surveys the health and condition of the slaves, and he speaks to Ben-Hur, identified as condemned galley slave number Forty-One. Arrius realizes much about Forty-One's character after whipping his back, realizing that his hate has kept him alive:

You have the spirit to fight back but the good sense to control it. Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-One. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.

All the slaves are told: "You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well and live."

Later, the Roman admiral Quintus Arrius orders a demonstration of the galley's speed necessary for battle, attack, and ramming. He forces his rowers to perform at a faster and faster pace, set at a punishing rate by the sound of a pounding drum. Some of the galley oarsmen die of heart attacks, and all collapse following their ordeal. Except Judah, who sits erect, strong, noble, and defiant.

Arrius notices Judah's prominent attitude and sends for him to learn about his background during his relief period. Ben-Hur asserts that he is not ready to die - the god of his fathers will save him. Arrius offers to take Judah to Rome and train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Ben-Hur believes that his existence has a purpose, that his God will free him to take revenge on his enemy for wrongfully condemning and imprisoning him and his family. Forty-One's stubbornness and hate have kept him alive while other men have perished all around him. Arrius thinks he is foolish to believe in freedom: "You will never escape while we are victorious. If we are not, you will sink with this ship, chained to your oar." Ben Hur refuses the offer unless it means his freedom.

In one of the more spectacular scenes in the film, the Romans fight against Macedonian pirate war ships in an exciting sea galley battle. Arrius orders that Judah's leg be unchained during the coming battle to give him a chance to survive. Their ship is rammed, oars are smashed, bodies are splintered, and their ship is boarded. Judah breaks loose, strangles one of the guards and retrieves the keys, frees many of his fellow prisoners from their chains, and goes on deck to find the flaming galley ship boarded by pirates in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the Roman soldiers.

Ben-Hur miraculously saves the life of Quintus Arrius who has been knocked overboard and quickly sinks with his heavy armor. Judah pulls him to a piece of floating debris and prevents him from drowning. They view the flaming wreckage. Thinking he has been humiliated in a defeat, Arrius tries to commit suicide but Judah prevents him. Exhausted, they both collapse - recovering consciousness the next day.

Arrius: Why did you save me?
Judah: (answering with another question) Why did you have me unchained?

Arrius is not allowed to repeat his suicide attempt, and begs: "Let me die." Judah repeats back the words he has heard so often: "We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live." A Roman ship picks them up, and they learn that the Roman fleet was victorious, although five ships were lost. Arrius tells Ben-Hur: "In his eagerness to save you, your God has also saved the Roman fleet." Arrius offers Judah the first drink from a cup of water. Passing by an opening in the deck, Judah looks down and is reminded of his past - he sees the galley slaves rowing in the darkness below.

Quintus Arrius celebrates victory with Ben-Hur in Rome, riding side-by-side with him in a golden chariot to an appearance before the divine Emperor Tiberius (George Relph). Although the emperor is aware that Judah was a galley slave, condemned as a threat to a Roman governor years earlier, Judah is given to Arrius as his slave. Ironically, Judah becomes an expert charioteer in the great circus (arena), one of the classic Roman arts of war that he once rejected. In gratitude, Arrius legally adopts him as his foster son and rewards him with his freedom. He also is given control over his stable of racing horses. Arrius introduces Judah to "My old friend Pontius Pilate," a Roman who worries about his upcoming appointment as governor of troubled Judea, replacing Gratus.

Although Judah is devoted to Arrius, and attains worldly citizenship, money, position, and praise, he cannot forget his homeland and his family's fate. He tells Arrius that he must leave and return to Jerusalem. Months later, on his long journey on the return to Judea, Ben-Hur meets Balthazar (Finlay Currie) of Alexandria (one of the three men who followed the Bethlehem star and put gifts before a newborn baby). Balthazar introduces him to his host - a wealthy, bearded Arabian horse trainer Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who is training his four splendid white horses for the upcoming chariot races. Judah impresses the Sheik with his "keen eye" and knowledge of horse racing. The sheik attempts to talk Ben-Hur into being his charioteer: "Would you make my four run as one?" Judah is invited into the Sheik's tent for refreshment and to tell of his racing days in Rome.

The polygamous sheik is dismayed that Ben-Hur hopes to have only one wife some day: "One wife? One god, that I can understand - but one wife! That is not civilized. It is not generous." With a clap of his hands, the team of four Arabian horses, called "beauties," are invited into the tent like his "children," members of the family. [In Wallace's novel, the names of the white horses are specified (they are named after stars): Altair, Aldebaran (the youngest), Antares, and Rigel.] Ben-Hur's curiosity is aroused when he learns that Messala will race in Jerusalem's circus. The Sheik tries to capitalize on Judah's interest and asks again:

Judah Ben-Hur, my people are praying for a man who can drive their team to victory over Messala. You could be that man! You could be the one to stamp this Roman's arrogance into the sand of that arena. You've seen my horses. They need only a driver who is worthy of them. One who would rule them with love and not the whip. For such a man, they would have raced the wind.

Judah would rather confront Messala on his own: "I must deal with Messala in my own way." The wise Balthazar insightfully knows what Judah really means:

Balthazar: And your way is to kill him. I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur. But no matter what this man has done to you, you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
Judah: I don't believe in miracles.
Balthazar: Your whole life is a miracle. Why will you not accept God's judgment? You do not believe in miracles, yet God once spoke to me out of the darkness, and a star led me to a village called Bethlehem where I found a newborn child in a manger. And God lived in this child. By now, he is a grown man, and must be ready to begin his work. And that is why I have returned here, so that I may be at hand when he comes among us. He is near. He saw the sun set this evening as we did. Perhaps he's standing in a doorway somewhere on a hilltop. Perhaps he is a shepherd watching, a fisherman. But he lives in all our lives. From now on we'll carry his mark. There are many paths to God, my son. I hope yours will not be too difficult.

As one last thought before Judah leaves, the Sheik reminds him: "There is no law in the arena. Many are killed. I hope to see you again."

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