Ben-Hur, as it unfolds, feels very much like the movie this genre/sub genre was building towards. Everything about it excels over many of its contemporaries. It may be the best directed (in competition with DeMille’s Ten Commandments from 3 years prior). It has an outstanding production design, one of the best musical scores in movie history, and a top performance from Charlton Heston. These things combined with a good story of a man’s journey from revenge to forgiveness make for one of the crowning achievements of cinema history.
I’ve come to feel that the biblical epic film works when there is an individual human story to latch onto in the midst of the religious story being portrayed. In Quo Vadis it is about a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian woman during Nero’s persecution of followers of Christ. The Robe follows a similar structure and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators has its main character essentially lose his way while participating in the arena. There are some exceptions, it can work without the human story if you make the biblical story feel splashy and grandiose like DeMille’s The King of Kings from 1927. However you can also end up with 1961’s King of Kings which imitates Ben-Hur in style, but ends up being a dull and boring affair.
The thing that makes Ben-Hur work is the journey of a man betrayed by a former friend who uses that rage to return home and confront him to restore his name, honor and to save his family. Even with winning the Best Actor Oscar, I think Heston gives a performance that is very much like the majority of his roles. The difference is that he inserts a layer of anger to fuel his motives. I think the initial argument between Judah and Stephen Boyd’s Messala where Judah remarks that “Rome is an affront to God” is the moment that won him the Oscar. It’s the Heston you know, but it’s different. Just a tiny bit different, but it makes the acting stand out in a way I’d never seen from Heston.
The spectacle is mostly held to two major set pieces. The first being the ship battle which had a great build to it from the moment we see Judah rowing to when he first meets Arius to the battle itself. It’s a patient scene (not just because the film is nearly 4 hours long). The other of course is the chariot race which is the signature moment of the entire film. It’s a breathtaking scene which also takes its time getting there. It’s a great scene metaphorically as well. The cheers of the crowd and the thunder of the horses can almost represent the rage Judah has built up over the years being excised at last against Messala. The thing about that rage is that it is uncontrollable and you can not get out of its way, repressed by charioteers (Messala included) being trampled and crushed beneath the hooves of the horses. A criticism I see of this scene is similar to one it inspires 40 years later in the podrace scene from Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It can said that it is too long. My feelings on that are the same as George Lucas’ film, you get this kind of spectacle, you have to give it time to breath and time to take it in. The spectacle is earned here.
The central theme of Ben-Hur is how one single act of kindness can go a long way. Judah is given water by Jesus, though he doesn’t know who it is even though the audience does. The next is Arius leaving his chain unlocked before the battle. A simple conversation and another act of kindness shows Judah how simple it can be. We see after Messala’s death (some great death rattling by Boyd), how unfulfilled Judah appears. These are some great character building moments and Heston is superb in conveying them. This leads to what I feel is the disappointment of the film, it’s final act.
The last act has Judah seeking Jesus because he is known as a miracle worker, to cure his mother and sister of leprosy. However, the trial of Christ has already begun and we eventually get to his crucifixion. Judah reciprocates when Jesus falls and he realizes this was the man who gave him water all those year ago. Then we conclude with the family reunited as his mother Miriam and sister Tirzah are healed and cured. If Ben-Hur was about a man who did not believe in God and does by the end, this would be a good ending I feel. Yet Judah does and always had. His story is moving past his desire for vengeance. The ending of Ben-Hur (and this is the same for the 1925 silent version) feels like a story meant to help people unfamiliar with Christ and Christianity understand the power of the faith. It feels at odds with the personal story that had been told over the last 3 hours. It’s certainly an old Hollywood storytelling technique and it undercuts the great story that was told.
Despite this, Ben-Hur is quite the marvel and it deserves to be. The genre had build itself to this moment and it truly is the peak. After Ben-Hur, the biblical epic did not have the same aura it once did and every effort following it, did not have the same impact. I take this as a result of moving from the 1950s into the counterculture of the 60s. New Hollywood filmmaking would become the norm and studios would have to adjust. However, Ben-Hur remain a testament to an era of filmmaking that truly sought to transport you to another time and place.