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Great Movies Roundtable: Ben-Hur

Courtland and I are going to start a monthly roundtable, discussing the films on AFI’s 100 years… 100 movies list.

Starting #100 and working our way up the list, our first film is “Ben-Hur.”  Made in 1959, directed by William Wyler, “Ben-Hur” is famous for its chariot race (in which no one actually died, regardless of what you read on the internet) and its spectacle. The tale of a Jewish aristocrat who lived the same time as Christ, “Ben-Hur” is about revenge and redemption… but it’s mostly about sandals and swords.   It won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.


General thoughts/feelings about this film? 

 CRH: I think Ben Hur is a great movie. The movie still thrills me in its action and moves me in its drama and romance. It has a gorgeous cinematography and music.  The sound is utterly incredible. During the chariot race you feel the hooves of the horses thundering all around you as you watch. The score by Miklos Razsa is beautiful and stirring. I was transported to the Bibleland of this story.

Some of the special effects have not aged well. The great naval battle is obviously models. It almost works, but they are still dated. Another downside is that the film has a slow pace which is fine when you are in a theater and immersed in that environment but it makes it harder to watch when my cell phone is right there. Lastly the story is good but not great. It feels a little underdeveloped.

WK: I don’t think Ben-Hur is a classic, or really, all that good. Charlton Heston is barely serviceable as the lead. It doesn’t help that he’s at least 50 pounds heavier and six inches taller than anyone else in the movie.  It’s too long, too melodramatic, and too racist for me (I can’t believe Hugh Griffith won a Best Supporting Actor for his brownface role has Sheikh Ilderim.)

It’s interesting watching films like this – I find myself paying more attention to the work of the crew than the director or actors.  I see the costumes and the set design and just how many extras must have been hired, coached and costumed to get some of these scenes. That’s all work the director has little to do with.  (I also can’t believe Wyler won Best Director for this.  What exactly did he do that was so great?  The best scene – the chariot race – was directed by a second unit director!)

It’s big – it has that going for it. But we’ve gotten better and better at creating spectacles over the years, and this pales in comparison to others. But when it comes to big films that depend on exciting setpieces, I can think of several that I’d rather watch than “Ben-Hur” — films like “Master and Commander,” or “Terminator 2,” or even “Gladiator.” None of those are currently on AFI’s list.


Aside from the famous chariot race (too obvious), which is your favorite scene in the movie? 

 CRH: My favorite scene (Besides the Chariot Scene which is a glorious action scene) is where our hero, after being wrongly convicted is thirsting to death on his long march to the slave galleys he is denied water by a cruel soldier. He collapses at the end of his rope and utters a desperate prayer. And a stranger comes and gives him water touching his hand and quenching his thirst. This scene is beautiful, soft and glorious. When I think of compassion I think of this scene. Hope swells for our hero after this incident and life moves on. I was greatly moved watching this again.

WK: That is a good scene, and probably my favorite of the Jesus cameos – and yet it’s still almost spoiled by Jesus’ gloriously shampooed and styled hair.  We never see his face, but surely hair like that will inspire worship!

Divine locks

Divine locks


In general, I felt like the depiction of Jesus was pretty heavy-handed – especially in the way it directly affects the story, causing Ben-Hur to give up his hatred and stop seeking revenge against Rome. Really, I could have done without the last half hour of the film – basically everything after the chariot race.  From that point on, the writing takes a serious deep, the pace becomes glacial, and it feels like we are just going through the motions in order to label what is essentially a revenge flick “A Tale of the Christ.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 1.51.05 PMI think my favorite scene is one early in the film between Heston and Israeli actress Haya Harareet.  Wyler directs almost every scene with emotions turned up to 11 – especially after Ben-Hur’s return to Jerusalem in the second half – and it’s pretty exhausting.  But early on, Harareet brings a grace and naturalism to her scenes.  We see her flirting with a man who is clearly beyond her social station, and testing to see if he feels anything for her, or can be seduced into feeling anything for her. Heston matches the tone she brings – there’s a bit of physical action where he takes a ring from her and tries to put it on, first his middle finger, then ring finger, then finally his pinkie finger, that subtly illustrates just how gigantic he is, especially compared to her.

I suspect the scene was written more straightforwardly than she acted it — I guess she was supposed to be madly in love with him from childhood or something — but she brings a playfulness to it that I found enchanting.  Plus it’s gorgeously shot, a night scene against window blinds that provide a striking contrast.

Buying or Selling? In 1998, this film was #72 on the list.  In 2007, it fell to #100 – a drop of 28 spots.  The list will inevitably be revised again in a few years.  Do you think it will rise or fall on (or off) the list? 

CRH: Now on this film’s legacy as a classic, I must say it will remain so. The only thing I can say is that it is the best movie of its type. It’s less corny than “the Ten Commandments” and more competent than the films that came afterward which include “Samson and Delilah” and “Cleopatra.” At the very least it’s a glittering remnant of a Hollywood long past.

 WK: I’m selling. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this fall off the list by the next revision – in fact, I definitely prefer several of the films that have already fallen off the list – like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Manchurian Candidate, Fargo, and Frankenstein. I don’t really see what sets “Ben-Hur” apart from other big spectacles, aside from its budget and awards. It has some nice setpieces, like the famous chariot race.  But that’s not enough, in my mind, to make it a classic.  Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t really imagine needing to see it again.

Up Next Month:  #99: Toy Story





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Posted in The Classic Movie Series.

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