Ben-Hur (1959)


Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBB.5

USA, 1959.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Screenplay by , based on the novel by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by , .  Academy Awards 1959.  Golden Globe Awards 1959.    New York Film Critics Awards 1959.  

“Gorgeously junky” is how uncredited screenwriter Gore Vidal described this pseudo-Bible epic, and no truer word could possibly be said about it. Everything about this expansive screen version of Gen. Lew Wallace’s novel is as loud as it can be:  no expense was spared anywhere (I’m sure even the water that flowed over the falls in the picture garden was imported from a spring in Switzerland). What you get when you watch it now is an impressive but weighty and tiring story that really only needs about an hour and a half to tell it fully. Charlton Heston plays the title character, a mistreated Jewish nobleman who goes to prison for something he didn’t do, but finds redemption in the end at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Lots of jolly performances all around, but the first half’s spirit of high adventure seems at odds with the second half’s higher concentration on preachiness. The most fun to be had is in watching Stephen Boyd as Massala overplay Vidal’s subtheme of sexual relationship with the clueless lead, plus the totally thrilling chariot race which is everything you’ve heard about it and more (not to mention a masterpiece of editing). Haya Harareet is above average as the love interest, but give me Elizabeth Taylor and her eyeliner in Cleopatra any day; even though that clunky epic feels like it goes on for seven days non-stop, it’s somehow more enjoyable because, unlike Ben-Hur, it seems to be aware of how ridiculous it is.

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