Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is one of those films that almost everyone recognizes, even those who aren’t self described film lovers. The two elements that consistently stick out the most when this movie is being discussed are typically Charlton Heston and the chariot race that occurs about three quarters of the way through, and there is undoubtedly a solid case to be made for both. Another thing I have come to notice when stumbling upon articles and reviews is how the movie appears to be synonymous with words showering it with high praise such as ‘masterpiece’, ‘glorious’ and ‘epic.’ After viewing it for the first time in at least 5 years if not more, I concluded that the most accurate description among the three key words mentioned above was ‘epic.’ In several respects but not all I can agree with the sentiment that Ben-Hur is glorious, but I must refrain from calling it a true masterpiece. More on that later.Developing a plot synopsis for a movie that has a running length of 222 minutes (or 3 hours and 42 minutes if you prefer) is an interesting prospect, but here goes anyhow: Around the time that Jesus is born, the Roman Empire has vowed to tackle some serious population control, with some special attention awarded to the province of Judea. People and their families are to be properly accounted for with the intention of Caesar and the central Roman administration collecting the rightful amount of taxes. Messala (Stephen Boyd), a newly promoted Roman general returns to Judea for the first time since childhood, but this time as the enemy. He needs the people of Judea, who have recently been captivated by a mysterious rabbi promoting a bizarre and unorthodox holy message, to submit to the will and demands of Rome, or incur the risk of severe repercussions. For this, he wishes to rely on the help of an old boyhood friend, Juda Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a business man as well as the wealthiest and most influential man in the province of Judea, but the former refuses, thus putting an abrupt end to their once solid friendship. Things only get worse when one day, as the Romans are parading in the streets, an accident injuring a high ranking Roman official is spun by Messala into a false accusation of crime committed by the Hur family for which Juda, his mother and sister tossed into the dungeons. From then onward for the rest of the film (or most of it), Ben-Hur vows to exact his revenge on Messala, no matter the cost, with the extra incentive being the rekindling of his love with Esther (Haya Harareet), the daughter of a former employee of his..
That’s just about the first 30 or 35 minutes of Ben-Hur, which, for most movies, would mean I had just revealed exactly what happens during the entire first third of the film. But this isn’t any ordinary movie, it’s a 3 ½+ hour epic, so I’ve actually only given away about 13.3333% of the movie, so fear not, there is plenty I haven’t even begun to touch on. When it comes to story in the purest sense (i.e.: events that take the central characters from point A to point Z), Ben-Hur is gifted with a sense of largesse, giving the viewer more, and more, and then still a little bit more in case you were worried things would take a lull. I’m well aware that I can often write with some less than convincingly camouflaged sarcasm, but this is not, in fact, one of those times, at least not entirely. No, William Wyler, a director whose filmmography I’m not intimately familiar with, is surprisingly effective at insuring that the plot ticks along like clockwork. Plenty happens in Ben-Hur, so much so that by the movie’s end, literally several years have gone by, but the stretches where I checked my watch were far and few between. The vast majority of this pleasing success rests with the film’s focal point, that is, the story of the Ben-Hur character and his personal quest to learn of his family’s fate after their imprisonment and quench his thirst for revenge by striking back at Messala. With so much time to tell this tale, Wyler deftly sets up the oncoming rivalry between Ben-Hur and Messala by serving some early scenes in which the two behave just like any old friends would if they had not seen each other for many years. Their camaraderie, old memories are shared, and the hints given to the audience about their former exploits as children tell a tale of fun, mischief and of true kinship. Now, as adults, their differing convictions are set in stone, and so with great frustration their bond is loosened, and eventually disappears entirely. This being a adventure epic, things run along quite smoothly with the stakes clearly established by the script and Wyler’s sure handed direction. Both Heston and Boyd give emotional and captivating performances which serve the movie well. The acting is on the boisterous side of things for the most part, but that’s also the type of story which is being told, one rife with personal vendettas and raw emotion. Besides, I’ve always liked Heston as an actor precisely because he comes to each role, including this one, with such force and conviction. Subtlety is not the name of the game, but it is always entertaining to watch. Boyd, as Messala, delivers many of his lines with such vitriol that his character is quite easy to dislike, which is exactly the point. I think a case can be made that these performances would have suited a stage adaptation of Ben-Hur exquisitely, but we have to make do with what we have.
The movie’s focus on the journey and adventures of Juda Ben-Hur are what keep things into perspective. What is going on between the Roman Empire and the disruptive province of Judea is replicated on a smaller, far more intimate scale. The struggle by those who wish to resist Roman domination is epitomized by Ben-Hur’s will and encourage to go farther and longer for what he sees as justice, that is until his anger slowly takes over near the end of the picture. The reality on the ground is thus epitomized by the duel between Ben-Hur and Messala. To Wyler’s credit, the film knows exactly how much or how little time to invest in virtually all of Ben-Hur’s exploits and encounters that relate to his personal quest. His time as a slave, his adoption by a Roman general, his long delayed return home to see what has become of his house and those who decided to stay behind, his surprise drop in at Messala’s living quarters after years in exile, all of these chapters are given the right amount of significance and pay off in one way or another by the film’s end, which made the viewing experience quite rewarding because with a mammoth-like running length of 222 minutes, things could have just as easily derailed into a ditch of disaster.
As the story nears its conclusion, the character of Ben-Hur is embittered with his people’s condition under Roman rule, even more so than during the movie’s earlier stages. He has successfully found his family, but they are now cursed with leprosy, the conclusion of his rivalry with Messala was less than satisfactory, and the people of Judea are still slaves to a seemingly unshakable foreign force. A person very close to him even states that he has morphed into the very type of character he swore to resist years ago. This, alas, is one of the rare portions of the film where the story loses some focus. The principle criticism I am about to elaborate on finds its source partly in some personal issues (less important in the grander scheme of things) and partly in what I consider to be good storytelling (the more urgent part of this criticism). In the movie’s opening credits, it is mentioned that Ben-Hur is a ‘Story of The Christ’, which hinders the latter moments of the movie. I absolutely understand that there is an element of redemption to Ben-Hur ’s journey, that the story takes place during the time of Jesus’ life on earth, that the story and teachings of Christ can and are applied to Ben-Hur’s situation, but I don’t think it works very well as played out in the film. Early in the picture Jesus makes a neat cameo appearance as Ben-Hur and a hoard of other prisoners are being led on foot to the galleys and stop for some water. It’s a nice scene that offered a brief, interesting and effective interaction between our protagonist and the son of God. However, when it seems as though the movie is going to conclude, the story of Jesus is brought back into the fold for the final 30 minutes or so and ties in with the leprosy afflicting Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. By the time the movie finally ended, I was seriously questioning why the addition of Jesus’ crucifixion was necessary. The tempo of the movie takes a sudden and unwarranted shift. To say that everything which happens to the protagonist throughout the film is ‘realistic’ would be naïve, but they are based in some sort of reality, whereas the last half hour or so throws in the story of the Bible, complete with a gift from God Himself at the very end. All is well that ends well because God is siding with the Hur family, literally. It all feels very much out of whack with most of what happened before and thus made for a disappointing ending.
What could have been a near perfect film ends up being pretty good, but not more. It feels as though Wyler and company couldn’t tell when the right moment to stop was. They had something very special in the bag, but over-indulged and kept on adding too much. It’s hard to make a case for greatness when a film commits this sort of fault. I want to reiterate that Ben-Hur is very good and very entertaining in many respects. All the praise about its scope, its sense of adventure, and the high tempo drama that drives the story are earned. The risk with a film of this ilk is that things can get bloated. Much like with the Romans entering Judea, Ben-Hur is selfish in that it wants its cake and to eat it too.