Classic Movie Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

Title: Ben-Hur
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

From 4th to 6th grades, I attended a Catholic elementary school where the teachers liked to show us Biblical Epic Movies in class.  We watched today’s film, Ben-Hur, as well as Barabbas, The Robe, and Masada (which the teachers apparently didn’t realize has a scene with a topless woman until it was too late). Oddly enough, all of these movies are tangential to the Bible, and we somehow never watched any of the movies actually based on Biblical stories like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told.  Anyhow, lest you think we were religious nuts, this same school was the first place I saw The Karate Kid, A Christmas Story, and The Ice Pirates!

I really enjoyed Ben-Hur when I saw it as a kid, but in the intervening 35+ I’ve come to assume that it was cheezy Hollywood.  Rewatching it now, I found a lot to like about it: stirring action scenes, a compelling story of revenge and redemption, and a story that really sells its tangential relation the life of Christ.  It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), the scion of the most prosperous Jewish family in Jerusalem.  His childhood friend, a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Judea to command the garrison. Their reunion becomes an unhappy one when Judah refuses to provide names of fellow Jews who oppose the Roman occupation.  Judah, as well as his mother Miriam ( Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell).

The bulk of the movie is Judah’s journey to return home and find his family.  This includes two of the most memorable set pieces in Hollywood history.  Who can forget the naval battle in which Judah and other enslaved people must row the ship to ramming speed? After saving the life of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Judah returns to Jerusalem to face down Messala in a chariot race depicted in an intense action sequence with some remarkable stunts.

Judah’s path crosses with Jesus a few times in the movie, but it’s not until the final act where he and his family stumble upon Christ’s procession with the cross and crucifixion.  Ben-Hur may have the most artistic and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ in history of film.  And because it’s told through the reactions of the characters, I think it is more effective than a more straightforward story from Jesus’ perspective.  Ben-Hur is long and a bit old-fashioned but I think it holds up better than some of its contemporary epics.

Rating: ***1/2