Hollywood still makes epics, even the Biblical kind it so enjoys messing up, yet all of the special effects and big names can’t compare with some of the best of yesteryear, especially 1959’s Ben-Hur, the first of only three films to win eleven Academy Awards. Indeed, this film that garnered one of the greatest Oscar sweeps of all time deserved every one; the sets, the scope, the emotions, the acting, the moral message are all conjured so impressively from the pages of Lew Wallace’s bestseller that no film has bested its number of Oscars, only equaled.
Coming only three years after Charlton Heston’s other Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur weaves a story of lost friendship, vengeance, and redemption alongside brief but potent glimpses from the life of Jesus, whose face is shrewdly hidden, allowing the viewer to imagine his appearance as they will. Heston won Best Actor for his title role, which may not be as imposing as his turn as Moses but carries far more emotion. Unlike Cecil B. DeMille’s Exodus story, vain histrionics are kept to a minimum in favor of excellent dramatic acting from Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Stephen Boyd as Messala, Haya Harareet as Esther, and Oscar winner Hugh Griffith as Sheikh Ilderim. While the film is most notable for its action scenes, the character moments are often powerful; the scenes of mercy between Judah and Jesus are quietly profound high points.
Even so, the film boasts some of the most thrilling scenes of Hollywood’s golden age, full of magnificent sets, a cast of thousands, and some brief but unusually violent images for 1959. The galley battle is a vivid turning point for the film, creating both a provident moment of grace and a memorably rare depiction of ancient naval warfare. Of course, the film’s most intense sequence is the famous chariot race, about nine minutes of action filmmaking at its finest. The upcoming Ben-Hur remake will no doubt rely on CGI for this part, but the original is all the more monumental for its reality and lack of computer enhancement.
I don’t watch Ben-Hur but once a year typically, mainly because of its exhaustive length (over 3½ hours), but it will always be a milestone of epic cinema.
Best line: (Quintus Arrius) “In His eagerness to save you, your God has also saved the Roman fleet.”Rank: 58 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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