Review of 'Ben Hur'

ben_hur.jpg Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) is a member of the young arrogant elite in Jerusalem at the beginning of the first century. Meeting a childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) who is now a commanding officer of the Roman legions now occupying the city Judah quickly realizes Messala is no longer his friend with now vastly different political and ethical beliefs. Judah, his sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) and mother Miriam (Martha Scott) are seized by the Romans when a tile from their roof falls and narrowly misses killing the new Roman governor despite Messala knowing it was an accident. Judah, now bitter and hungry for revenge, is sent to work in the galleys while his mother and sister are thrown in jail. Fate intervenes with Judah now finding himself favored by the Romans becoming a talented charioteer perhaps now he be vindicated…

A classic big screen drama from the golden age of cinema with stellar performances throughout. Touching periodically on the life of Jesus this is surprisingly not a terribly religious film instead concentrating on Judah Ben Hur's thirst for vindication of the wrong that has torn his family apart. The cinematography is wonderful, filling all corners of the wide format screen (2.76:1) with magnificent sets and, of course, in the case of the chariot race of the second act, incredible action.

This is a long film at just over three and a half hours (with an intermission) to tell a fairly simple story but this time is well used to develop the, surprisingly few, main characters and build up to the climactic final act. Heston plays a dramatic (perhaps overly dramatic for today's sensibilities) Judah yet has time to nuance his performance with subtleties and mannerisms that really bring the character to life. There is a faint love interest in Esther (Haya Harareet) the only non-American lead in the film, daughter of the Hur family's loyal slave, the merchant Simonides (Sam Jaffe). Esther and Judah's love being not much more than tender words a few passionate kisses, this is mostly a family-friendly film though it has to be said there is some fairly violent stuff in the tremendous chariot race for which Ben Hur will always be remembered.

Slow perhaps by today's standards, this is a film that is not afraid to take it's time and linger over artistic and character elements including time spent with the characters saying absolutely nothing, their expressions conveying more than mere words. This is big screen film-making that exudes quality seldom seen in modern cinema where effects and big production were only part of the experience.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2019-05-05

Directed by: William Wyler

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Year: 1959

Length: 222 minutes

Genre: Melodrama