Review: Ben-Hur (1959)


It keeps going and going and going and going…

Screenplay By: Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, Karl Tunberg & Gore Vidal
Directed By: William Wyler

I’ve decided that I will begin my review, or critique to satisfy a certain rat’s vernacular leanings, of Ben-Hur by accentuating everything I couldn’t stand about the film. I do this because I don’t want people to come away from my review, again critique in the case of the rat, thinking I hated Ben-Hur. I did actually like it, it just so happens there was quite a lot to not like about it and quite a few things that ground my gears as it were.

We will start with the character of Judah, as portrayed by Charlton Heston. Now, I have no problem with the acting and thought Mr. Heston did a bang up job as Judah. But, I have a problem with the way the character of Judah is portrayed in the narrative. First, he is a slave of the Roman Empire, and this is before he’s an actual slave mind you. I have always had problems with stories that want us to feel for someone being held under the boot of an oppressive regime when said cuckold goes to his home where his slaves service him and he eats fresh meat from a plate held by a servant while peasants starve outside his walls. Maybe it’s just me, but that sort of set up isn’t about to make me feel for Judah in any way. From there we move on to the fact that Judah bitches about Romans treating Jews as slaves, and hey, what does Judah himself own, slaves. But, the narration doesn’t think that’s a big deal at all. The story literally introduces the idea of Judah as a slave owner, then sweeps it under the rug a second later. Oh, Judah is a sympathetic and kind slave owner, never mind the fact that he doesn’t officially free his slaves, he’s sympathetic you see, because he says sympathetic things to the man who is bound to him body and soul as his slave. Lovely man, this Judah Ben-Hur. After the narration has decided we should forget the fact that Judah owns slaves we are then introduced to Esther, and what do you know Judah owns her too! But, that tricky and sly narration is present again to try and make us think Judah is a kind man again, because he doesn’t free Esther, but presents her to her intended groom as a wedding present. See, Judah is awesome and a man we should root for, he owns slaves and treats woman like property to be sold. You know what, that’s enough on Judah, because I could type eighteen paragraphs about how terribly the narration handles his character.

Now we will move on to a few collaborating issues. The movie is far, far too long. I realize it wants to be an epic, heck it is thee EPIC but someone needs to tell William Wyler that Ben-Hur can be an epic and still clock in at three or maybe even two hours. Hey, we have a huge, sweeping epic, let’s add in over ten minutes of music playing over a famous art piece, this will interest the people! No, it won’t, it’s more filler tossed at a movie that doesn’t need more filler. Finally, as much as I know this will upset the religious zealots, get rid of the Jesus Christ story. It’s fine that Judah meets Jesus, that we know that Jesus is around in this time, but everything after the chariot race is one long, slow death for Ben-Hur. The movie should have ended with the chariot race, and they should have and could have come up with a better way to resolve Judah’s inner problems and the issue of his mother and sister. But, no, it is a Jesus Christ parallel, so we need to keep the movie going for forty more minutes and completely negate the good ending that the chariot race would have supplied. Ben-Hur is possibly the best example ever of a movie dragging on for far too long and overstaying its welcome.

For my last bit of griping I want to get into some of the subtext in Ben-Hur. I’ve already explained to you how the whole handling of the slave issue pissed me off, but then the movie went and made the chariot race into a race issue. Hey, these pure as the driven snow white horses ridden by its good willed slave master will take on your black as night horses ridden by an evil man and crush them. You see, white is good, black is bad, and Ben-Hur is here to tell you as such. And in the end just like what should happen, the good puritanical white man with the pure as the driven snow white horses trounces the evil man with his evil black horses. Call me crazy, and I know a lot of people will, but racism isn’t okay in my book and a major motion picture extolling the virtues of white oppression and dominance over the black man strikes a negative chord with me.

Well, that certainly was quite a long diatribe on my part situated squarely in the negative region. I know a lot of readers are wondering how the heck I can think Ben-Hur is good if I had that many negative thoughts about it. For the same reason that despite its abhorrent racism The Birth of a Nation is a great movie. Ben-Hur looks tremendous, it is an epic in every sense of the word. The chariot race draws you in, despite the spotty, mostly bad, narration towards Judah’s character, you find yourself interested in the various situations he finds himself in. Rome has never looked better on film, except for maybe in the TV series Rome. The city of Rome, as well as Judea, look amazing and transport you to the time and place of the stories occurrence. You want to find out what is going on with Judah when he is all of a sudden in the galley of a Roman ship, you want to know what is going on with Judah at every stop of his journey. Finally, the chariot race is amazing, full of suspense and choreographed to near perfection. Ben-Hur does all of these things amazingly well, almost to perfection. That is why despite all of its various flaws it ends up being a movie that I still liked.

Is Ben-Hur worthy of the monumental praise and accolades it has always received? Most certainly not, but it isn’t a movie to be passed over either. Ben-Hur is a piece of cinema history, it is a grand epic. It deserves to be seen for all of its positives as well as for all of its negatives. Hmmm, I complained about Ben-Hur’s length and then I wrote a one thousand plus word dissertation that is supposed to be a movie review, or critique you damn rat. Whose being bloated and overstaying their welcome now?



Bill Thompson

8 responses to “Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

  1. Tabby Monkworthy

    I think, old chap, that you need to get out more.

  2. Get rid of Jesus, eh? Well, you’ve certainly got into the spirit of this movie. If you’d ever read the book, or how the book came to be written, you’d know that Jesus is the whole point of the story, the catalyst by means of which the main character frees himself from the hatred and bitterness destroying him. Buy hey, you know this, right? You’re just pulling our legs. I don’t believe a true movie critic could review an iconic movie like this and totally miss the point.

  3. The point deserves to be missed. Too much time is spent with a character that adds nothing to the movie. It is but one of the many, many faults in Ben-Hur. I don’t compare books to novels, I respect that they are two different mediums and deserve to be judged on their own merits, so I will not go down that path. However, in the movie Jesus is a non-entity that they try and prop up as an entity. If they wanted him to matter to the audience then he needed to matter in the story, but he doesn’t, he’s an empty shell that in no way comes across as a motivator for the lead character.

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  7. Quite simply if Jesus has no meaning in your life, he will have little meaning in this movie for you. If you know him, the Jesus scenes are quite profound, and bring the movie to a conclusion it otherwise could not have achieved. In your version, Meriam and Tearsa are left to rot as lepers, while their salvation is what drove Judah through this entire story. “The Christ” is the link pin to the main character’s ultimate resolution, too.

  8. Seeing as how I don’t believe anyone can know Jesus, your argument holds little sway for me. It’s great that you think you know him, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t share your belief. However, even if I did know him I wouldn’t agree with your point. Salvation does not drive Judah, being a better slave owner than the other slave owners, that’s what drives Judah.

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