Oscar Review: Ben-Hur (1959)
Yet another film where Charlton Heston doesn’t wear any pants. Our next Best Picture comes in at AFI’s #72 and is one of many historical epics of the ’50s. Ben-Hur – winner of 11 Academy Awards, more than any other film until Titanic (1997) – is the story of a Jewish prince who is sent to prison by his childhood friend, who has returned as the commander of the Roman Legions, over political disagreements and a public misunderstanding.
After spending years in exile, experiencing a wide range of suffering – from extreme heat and thirst in the desert to endless rowing on a Roman ship – Judah Ben-Hur saves the life of an important Roman who adopts him and grants him his freedom. Judah returns home as a champion chariot racer and finds his home abandoned, his mother and sister living in the valley of the lepers, and a man who once gave him water sentenced to death on a cross.
When I was younger, I had seen Ben-Hur a number of times and was taken in by the adventures Judah experienced throughout the film. He escaped from a slave ship while still thinking of others. He regains his freedom through his character and integrity. He befriends a wealthy merchant and becomes a renowned horse racer. And, of course, there’s the famous chariot race in Rome. At a younger age, I was easily satisfied with such a story pakced with so many turns of fate.
What I wasn’t as conscious of until I got older was the overtly religious aspects of the plot. I was aware of the time frame of the film being during the lifetime of Jesus and that there were a number of encounters throughout.
When I watched Ben-Hur again this past Christmas when I received it as a gift I saw it with different eyes than I did when I watched it last. All in all, the film is a good story with a level of writing one would expect from movies of this era. It does an excellent job carrying out the epic scope of the story with it’s many locations and the trials Judah faces. However, watching as a more spiritually mature person than I used to be, I found many of the Christ references and interactions to be more than a bit forced and unnecessary to the overall plot. I don’t think Jesus needed to be the one to give Judah a drink of water when he was dying of thirst in the desert or as a catalyst for some change in Judah’s sense of compassion. He was always a man of integrity with the well-being of others at the forefront of his thinking and I think that he would’ve saved the Roman commander and the like anyway without the influence of all of the Jesus references.
Other than the seemingly forced Christian superimposition – which, in my view, hurts the story more than it helps – Ben-Hur is a classic, though I wouldn’t say that it is a “must watch.”
UPDATE: Also of note, the score to Ben-Hur is ranked at #21 on AFI’s list of the 25 greatest film scores.