Easter has come around again, and this time, I wish to celebrate it through The Faith In Films Blogathon, as hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. For that, I’ll be discussing the classic 1959 biblical epic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston!
Judean prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his family are thrilled at the return of his childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has become a Roman tribune, which makes him second-in-command to the governor of Judea. However, their joy is short-lived when Messala pushes Judah to turn in some of the rebellious Jewish leaders, and Judah refuses. Not long after, the new governor arrives. While watching the governor’s entrance from a roof, Judah’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) accidentally knocks some tiles down onto the governor. Judah, his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and Tirzah are quickly arrested. Messala learns the truth, but decides he will become more powerful by appearing willing to punish a close friend. Vowing vengeance, Judah is sent to the seaport of Tyrus to become a galley slave. After three years, Judah is still a slave, and now on a ship commanded by the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). The Roman fleet engages with a fleet of Macedonian ships, but, before starting the battle, the Roman consul decides to leave Judah unchained (unlike the other prisoners). The consul’s galley is rammed during the battle, and Judah tries to save the other rowers. Getting topside, he saves the consul, who has been knocked off the ship by a Macedonian soldier. Judah keeps Arrius alive, and a Roman ship picks them up. In gratitude for saving his life (in a battle that they found out the Romans actually won), Arrius brings Judah to Rome, where he adopts Judah as his son. Still wanting to find out what happened to his mother and sister, Judah returns to Judea. Upon returning to his now broken down home, he finds his former servant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet) living there. Esther and Judah had developed feelings for each other before his arrest, but she now worries that he may be too consumed with hate for their love to work. Judah goes to meet with Messala, and offers to forget his vow of vengeance if Messala finds his mother and sister within the day. Messala sends one of his men to find them in the prison, and discovers they are still alive after nearly five years but are now lepers. They are sent away to a leper colony, but stop by their old home to see if Judah had returned. Esther sees them and tells them about Judah’s return, but they make her promise not to tell Judah what had become of them. When she tells Judah that they had died, he goes off to meet Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), whom he had met on his journey back to Jerusalem. He works with the Sheik’s team of horses to help train them in preparation for the chariot races, in which he hopes to beat the current champion: Messala. He does win the race, but Messala is fatally injured during the race. Before he dies, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister are indeed alive, but have become lepers. Judah continues his downward spiral, as he now feels great anger and hate towards Rome, whom he blames for turning Messala into a monster. While all this is going on, a certain Nazarene (who once gave Judah a drink of water as he was being taken to the Roman galleys several years earlier) has been preaching a message of love and forgiveness. Will this message reach Judah’s hardened heart, or will he destroy himself as he tries to fight Rome?
In 1880, after doing much research to keep his story as authentic as possible, American Civil War General Lew Wallace published his famous novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ. The novel would become a bestseller for a long time, ranking only second to the Bible. With that popularity came stage versions and film adaptations (both authorized and unauthorized). In the 1950s, the MGM studio was struggling financially. After the success of their epic 1951 film Quo Vadis, they considered a remake of Ben-Hur (following their 1925 silent film version), but it took a few years (and a change or two in studio leadership) before the project came about. The project was given to producer Sam Zimbalist, who brought on director William Wyler, with the production to occur at Cinecitta studios in Rome. The movie ended up costing a lot more to make than had originally been budgeted (which made the studio executives nervous), but the movie ended up being quite a hit, making up for the costs (and then some), as well as winning eleven Oscars (out of the twelve it was nominated for)!
I will readily admit that I do really like this movie, and its religious elements tie into why! With the story partially following Christ from His birth to His resurrection (thereby making this both a good Christmas and Easter movie, much like the movie King Of Kings which I reviewed last year), it really does give us a possible glimpse into what it would be like for those of that time to come to Christ. This movie was still made during the time when the actors playing the role of Jesus didn’t show their face or speak in the movies (since we never see the face nor hear the voice of actor Claude Heater, who portrays Christ in this movie), but that’s really a point in its favor. Without facial expressions or the sound of his voice, Claude Heater relies more on body language to portray the Christ (not to mention the aid of the score by Miklós Rózsa). For that reason, his performance (which we are only able to see for just a few minutes) is SO much better than when we actually got a fuller view through Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal two years later with MGM’s King Of Kings, especially going into the crucifixion.
And since this movie is subtitled “A Tale Of The Christ,” we can use that to talk about how faith in and of itself is a big part of the movie. As Judah Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston gives us a wonderful performance! As a Jewish man, we see him hold onto his faith, even when things go terribly wrong. For a good part of the movie, he struggles between his faith and the hate he feels for his old friend (and for Rome). Yet this faith is enough to sustain him, so much so that Jesus gives him a drink of water on his way to the galleys (when the Romans forbid anybody to do so). And he manages to survive several years as a slave on the galleys, when others didn’t last so long. Judah’s hate almost gets the best of him, when he learns from the dying Messala that his mother and sister are alive (but have become lepers). Yet, Esther, who has listened to Jesus’ message, is able to get Judah to realize how much his hate has consumed him, and, in the process, he tries (in faith) to bring his mother and sister to Jesus, hoping to see them healed.
Of course, this being Ben-Hur, I can’t get away without mentioning one of the best sequences in this movie (and one of the most thrilling for the era): the chariot race! I do very much admire the fact that Charlton Heston did learn how to operate the chariot for the big chariot race in this movie (of course, he had a little experience on the subject from The Ten Commandments). That race (a scene that last nearly ten minutes) is worth seeing this movie for! Normally, one would expect something like that to use rear-screen projection (or, in more modern films, a green screen and CGI). But here, you have the two actors right in the midst of the action, and it makes that scene so much more effective (yes, I know they did use some stunt doubles, but the movie is edited well enough that it’s hard to tell)! Plain and simple, this is a wonderful movie, fun to watch any time of the year! So I would have no trouble whatsoever recommending this one (seriously, see it right away if you haven’t yet)!
This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.
Film Length: 3 hours, 42 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
The Ten Commandments (1956) – Charlton Heston
Stephen Boyd – Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962)
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