Ben-Hur is easily one of the greatest works of drama, spectacle, entertainment and sheer emotional storytelling that I have witnessed in my life. It lives up to its reputation as winner of eleven Academy Awards and then some, and managed to work its magic for someone who hadn’t seen this film in their formative years. It’s Wyler’s grounded, intellectually sincere direction yet larger than life scope that helps it to transcend the sometimes dismissive label of “message movie” to be something that can truly mean all things to all people regardless of belief. Like other classical epics by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean, its the delicate balancing act between the intimate and the spectacle that Ben-Hur finds its most lasting impact, allowing it to trasncend its inherent religious sentiment.
In AD 26, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy prince and merchant in Jerusalem, who lives with his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott); his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell); their loyal slave, Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet). Esther loves Judah, but is committed to another. Judah’s childhood friend, the Roman citizen Messala (Stephen Boyd), is now a tribune. After several years away from Jerusalem, Messala returns as the new commander of the Roman garrison. Messala believes in the glory of Rome and its imperial power, while Judah is devoted to his faith and the freedom of the Jewish people. This difference causes tension between the friends, and results in their split after Messala issues an ultimatum to Judah. During the parade for the new governor of Judea, loose tiles fall from the roof of Judah’s house. The governor is thrown from his spooked horse and nearly killed. Although Messala knows this was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Miriam and Tirzah. Judah swears to take revenge.
After three years as a galley slave, Judah is assigned to the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who has been charged with destroying a fleet of Macedonian pirates. Arrius admires Judah’s determination and self-discipline, and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Judah declines the offer, declaring that God will aid him in his quest for vengeance. When the Roman fleet encounters the Macedonians, Arrius orders all the rowers except Judah to be chained to their oars. Arrius’ galley is rammed and sunk, but Judah unchains the other rowers, and rescues Arrius. In despair, Arrius wrongly believes the battle ended in defeat and attempts to commit suicide but Judah stops him. They are rescued, and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet’s victory. Consul Arrius returns to Rome with Judah as his guest, and both are honoured by Emperor Tiberius (George Relph)
Heston delivers one of his finest emotionally driven performances in his career, illuminating the warmth of a kind-hearted prince but also the fierce rage that seems barely contained at the slightest provocation. Boyd is fantastic as the treacherous Messala, a man with a great deal of charisma and charm but balanced with great arrogance and contempt and a physical and vocal presence to match Heston. Both actors have a believable brotherly bond and they show the subtle changes from best friends to hated enemies. Hawkins gives gravitas, iron authority and world-weariness to Quintus Arrius and becomes very liable in his own way. Harareet gives a spirited performance with a great deal of emotional range and subtle expressions, and you do believe there is love between Esther and Judah. Scott and O’Donnell are equally sympathetic and sweet as Miriam and Tirzah respectively, and leave an impression despite their limited screen time. Jaffe is sympathetic as Simonides, and Griffith is charming, boisterous and exuberant as Sheik Ilderim. Relph has a brief but memorable role as the venerable Emperor Tiberius. Some quibbles about his accent aside, Finlay Currie does a great job as narrator and as one of Wise Men, Balthasar. Frank Thring portrays Pontius Pilate as a level headed and relatively decent man despite the part he plays in the condemnation of Christ.
The cinematography by Robert L. Surtees on MGM’s legendary Camera 65 and epically wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio is a beautiful feast for the eyes. The use of lighting gives each location a unique sense of atmosphere, ranging from the brightly lit Jerusalem, bleakly hot deserts, to the dark, dank galley of the roman ship or dark, cold hallways of the Roman fort. This is a case where capturing as much of the scenery and cast of thousands necessitates this kind of camera work. The breadth and depth of field and sublime colour demand to be seen on the largest screen possible. One of the greatest visual master strokes of the film is the fact that you do not see Jesus’ face, but the impact of his presence is tantalising. The fact that his name is never spoken also keeps it subtle, but also more mystical, intriguing and yet more real at the same time because you see him through other characters’ perspectives.
The vast and elaborate sets populated with well adorned extras bring the life and colour of Jerusalem to life. They don’t look like sets; they look like real locations with history and tangibility to them. The matte paintings for the sky do look rather like paintings rather than the real thing, but that is no insult on the quality work. Other matte paintings used to expand the vistas of Palestine, Jerusalem and Rome are some of the finest ever committed to film. The miniature ships are shot in a way that allows the scale of the conflict to still seem massive and terrible. The editing, cinematography and succession of practical effects maintain the illusion of a massive naval battle.
The chariot race is one of the most perfect sequences ever put to film, the build-up with the epic fanfares, the slow pace taking in the spectacular circus and charioteers walking in step just before they break out into a spirited gallop. The fact that it’s all shot in camera, without any music, with no doubt multiple takes and a serious risk to both man and beast involved, including what looked like some serious injuries on set, only adds to the breath-taking wonder of this scene. The variety of camera angles and occasionally cutting to the cheering crowd keeps the scene dynamic and engaging without going overboard with the editing. The emotions run high as Messala desperately races against his old brother Judah, madly whipping his horses and ramming his chariot while Judah needs no such cruelty to spur his horses on. It still holds up beautifully today and cannot possibly be topped.
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to many Miklós Rózsa scores in this series, but this is in my eyes his crowning achievement. The breadth and variety of music is legendary, and each piece is memorable in its own right. The bombastic Parade of Charioteers theme, the militaristic Roman marching themes, touching romantic melodies, the tragic strings for Miriam and Tirzah, the modest yet uplifting theme for Jesus, and triumphant choruses can make the hearts of viewers soar with wonder. Similarly, the restraint on certain scenes where the music dials back to let the performances speak for themselves is just as commendable.
Apart from some necessary narration and a few pieces of cursory dialogue, the prologue depicting the Nativity is perfect, and its visual power in the imagery presented from the Star, to the three kings, the watching shepherds and the town of Bethlehem beneath the stars have a lush, painterly feeling to them, even as we follow the three kings and see the birthplace of Jesus. The music accompanying the scene is suitably tender and quietly joyful.
Despite its epic length, Wyler uses every minute of the film wisely. Character beats are appropriately set up and flow naturally into the next scene. We see how well matched Judah and Messala are intellectually and physically, get a sense of how close their families were as children and how much Messala has changed, and we see the seeds of doubt sown before the two break apart. Despite his charisma and affable initial appearance, the film intelligently shows the darkening side of Messala with each new scene, until he is shown to be one of the most realistic and despicable villains to grace the silver screen. The fact that Messala still speaks to Judah like this is all just a game to him twists the knife even more. They very tentatively hint that there was more between Judah and Messala when the latter jokes about “unrequited love” when the former is reluctant to throw his lot in with the Romans so easily.
Judah is the sort of idealistic hero who is just flawed enough to believably exist. He knows when to be loyal to his ideals and when to bide his time respectfully in the company of Emperor Tiberius and Arrius. It’s ironic that he ends up treading the path that Messala desperately sought by the Emperor’s side, and he achieves this by being a good man and holding back from the easy path of murder. One good turn deserves another and mercy begets mercy. But Judah has his share of flaws. When faced with further complications to his mission, he is quick to anger and let that rage manifest for long stretches of time. The notion of brotherly betrayal, you buy into the love and friendship between them and thus the pain that rips them apart is all the more painful. The film is somewhat ambivalent on the whether it was the innate corruption of Rome that turned Messala into the villain he is in the film or whether he really was just a corrupt man, since we see opportunities for him to take the high road and bury the hatchet but he chooses self-advancement at every turn.
Vengeance gave Ben-Hur no satisfaction, and all that rage is shifted from the dying Messala to Rome itself. The bitterness was so deep rooted that Esther tells him point blank that he’s becoming like Messala, and his hatred and bitterness is eating away at him, more so as he watches the suffering inflicted upon Jesus as he carries the cross. The simple act of kindness from Jesus to Ben-Hur remained with him for four years and allowed him to hold onto his humanity and to repay kindness with kindness when given the chance to see that same carpenter’s son again. Even when Ben-Hur realizes that he cannot live by hate anymore, there are consequences of that feud, he lost his brother and eschewed his Roman name of Arrius to start again.
The ending of Ben-Hur with the healing rain is portrayed as nothing short of a miracle, and works for symbolic purposes because this had been built up to since the beginning with the Nativity and the encounters with and allusions to Jesus sprinkled throughout the film. Just as the hate that was twisting and warping Ben-Hur inside was stripped away and healed when he had a genuine encounter with Jesus and kept him from going over the edge. The message of forgiveness and relinquishing hate was effective because it was subtle and emotionally sincere to what had been seen and felt earlier in the film.
Overall, Ben-Hur is a magnificent film with just as much of a far reach in terms of technical achievement as well as storytelling prowess. Like with The Ten Commandments and that film’s sincerity and strength in the message it sought to convey, Ben-Hur derives greater strength from its earnest yet grandiose approach to the thematic material and respect for its audience. It was one of the best films of 1959 and is still a ground-breaking classic to this day precisely because it continues to move and inspire audiences to this day.