Sunday, May 04, 2008
Ben Hur (1959)
(Image from IMP Awards)
Ben Hur (1959)
'Ben Hur'. Biblical epic. Won 11 Oscars. The very name evokes a mental image of the grand, old fashioned Hollywood epic. The film tells the story of Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince during the time of Jesus (whose birth story is depicted in an over-earnest prologue) who is betrayed by his Roman best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) and winds up on a galley as a slave. Judah believes in the right of the Jewish people to be free of the Romans, while Messala believes that the civilized world must be under the rule of Caesar. Judah's mother and sister are arrested alongside him and are disappeared; he vows to somehow survive his impossible situation and escape slavery, thereby giving himself a chance to save them and exact revenge upon his erstwhile buddy. Oh, and during his incarceration he happens to bump into Jesus.
The film is unquestionably epic, and the scale is certainly impressive. The much famed chariot race sequence is, to this day, incredible to behold, a truly brilliant action set piece that still packs quite a punch. The production values are grand for their day. Heston and Boyd make for fine protagonists - both have presence and charisma (and is there some kind of homosexual subtext between them?). The rest of the cast are also fairly good, though it must be said that everyone exudes a sense of solemnity that verges on the annoying. Clocking in at 3 hours and 40 odd minutes, it's certainly long, but unfortunately unlike other butt numbing epics like Lord of the Rings it doesn't really earn its runtime. The hero returning from slavery to wreak vengeance angle is great - and is almost certainly part of the inspiration for Gladiator - and for the first two hours or so it's fairly engaging. Ben Hur survives against all odds, driven by his thirst for vengeance, and while this mission gives him purpose it starts to consume his innate decency. The revenge part of the story ends surprisingly early however as the film shifts to an extended final act revolving around his mother and sister that drags and is a little silly.
And sadly, things don't get much better as the end approaches. The religious angle derails the film in its concluding moments and really caps off the pompousness that permeates the first 2 or so hours. The idea of a great preacher spreading a message of peace and forgiveness is fine and could have been interesting. Unfortunately the film is far too reverent and its literal interpretation of biblical events and their impact on the protagonists comes as a slap in the face to those who aren't overly enamoured of ancient fairy tales, especially when said fairy tales creep into what for the most part presents itself as relatively realistic and historical. It's too left field and assumes that viewers are also true believers by almost randomly inserting magic into proceedings - if this stuff had been peripheral and only alluded to instead of depicted literally, the film would have been far better. I realize that the story starts off with Jesus's magical birth and thus establishes its intentions early on, but there's almost two and a half hours of (relatively) grounded in reality film between the beginning and the end, making the end supremely jarring.
As it stands, 'Ben Hur' is a very good film, certainly wonderfully put together and impressive as far as epics go. Unfortunately, it descends into insufferable religious propaganda by the end. Worth seeing as a significant and well done piece of cinematic history, though your mileage may vary.