I've been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1959 winner, Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins.
An expensive biblical epic, Ben-Hur makes no attempts to be subtle, as the story follows a fictional wealthy Jewish landowner as he faces trials and tribulations, courtesy of the Romans. While the movie is called "A Tale of the Christ," Jesus appears only briefly, serving as a subtext for the tale.
To win the Oscar, the movie beat out Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun's Story and Room at the Top. Few of those competitors are remembered today.
As the movie begins, we meet Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), whose former friend, a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd), returns to govern Judea. But when Ben-Hur refuses to work for Messala and, therefore, betray his own people, Arrius has him prosecuted for a minor offense. Ben-Hur is separated from his family, forced into slave labor and longing for revenge. This, of course, eventually leads to the famous chariot race, where he competes agains Messala and several other competitors, seeking to earn his revenge through a public humiliation of his former friend.
Ben-Hur's connection with Jesus is tangential: he meets him briefly a couple times. Ultimately, though, he comes to believe. Ben-Hur's conversion is perhaps the only subtle aspect of a very theatrical movie.
Believe it or not, the story of Ben-Hur goes back nearly 80 years, with the first version being a 1880 novel by Lew Wallace. It was then adapted into numerous stage versions, including one that acted out the chariot race on-stage, using full-size chariots, horses, a treadmill and moving scenery. Two previous silent movie versions preceded the 1959 movie. So while most of today's movie-goers know the story primarily from the Charlton Heston version, at the time, the story was well-known from other sources.
I'm glad that I finally saw this movie, because now I understand some of the many references to it in pop culture. In particular, aside from the similarity of the movie poster, I had no idea how many scenes were echoed in Monty Python's Life of Brian, such as the beginning, where the three wise men see a star and follow it to a manger. In a way, you could call Life of Brian a tale of the Christ, as well, because like Ben-Hur, it's set in biblical times but follows an unrelated character.
Ben-Hur was very expensive to make, involving record amounts spent on costumes, extras, scenery and sets. There were 15,000 extras alone for the chariot race sequence. The money paid off: the movie still looks great, even by today's steadily increasing standards. The outdoor sets built for the chariot race were the largest built at the time. To a 1959 audience, it must have seemed fabulous.
Burt Lancaster was considered for Ben-Hur but turned down the role because he was a self-described atheist and didn't want to promote Christianity. Paul Newman was also offered the role but turned it down because he said he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic.
Heston, as was his habit, pulled out all the stops with his performance. In nearly every scene, he wears a contorted mask of pain as he copes with the many trials, and his fellow actors likewise engage in over-the-top histrionics. The one exception is Boyd as Messala, who is believable as someone who was once close to Ben-Hur and then becomes petty and vindictive after being spurned.
The script of this movie was reshaped several times, with Gore Vidal (ultimately uncredited due to behind-the-scenes credit dispute) playing a key role in the portrayal of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. From his suggestion, the script and the performances portrayed an implied intimacy between the two characters, who had clearly been very dear friends. When they split ways, it's as bitter as a divorce. The War of the Romans, you might call it.
One of the greatest spectacles in a grand movie, the chariot race is a tour-de-force action scene. I was fascinated, watching the behind-the-scenes documentary, to learn how the stunt coordinator simulated two men being run over by horses. Watching the movie, I was fooled into believing that some poor stunt men had been trampled, and I wondered how they could have escaped injury. Turns out it was an extremely skillful use of dummies with natural joints so they would respond much like an actual person.
Ben-Hur is all about flash and dazzle, much like The Greatest Show on Earth, the other Best Picture winner starring Heston. His acting in that movie was actually more realistic, in part because the story itself was smaller. Personally, I prefer his performance in The Greatest Show on Earth, but on the whole, Ben-Hur is a better film.
When you look at the competitors, there's little surprise that Ben-Hur won, or that it raced away with 11 Oscars. The biggest movie often does win, particularly if it does well in the box office. There's simply no way any of the other films nominated could have competed. In addition, being set in biblical times, even if it's not truly a story of the Christ, gave the film added importance. It's worth seeing, if only for the spectacle.
Rating (out of 5): ***
It's hard to beat an expensive epic.