Favorite Films A-Z: Ben-Hur

Charleton Heston took a lot of grief over the years for his acting style. It’s not unlike the crap that gets thrown William Shatner’s way. Which is not to say that Shatner is really in Heston’s class; no, Heston is clearly the superior thespian. But his gravitas made him less well-suited to a modern age lusting for naturalism and “authenticity” in their media. Heston’s strength is perhaps best shown in microcosm in Hamlet (1996) where he was the player-king. He declaims a speech and his character is so moved that he begins to weep. This was Heston’s bread-and-butter; his formal, poetic, and dramatic delivery is given with the strength and power to move the willing hearer. Sadly, most of the modern world is for a tale of bawdry or they sleep.

That being so, the title role in Ben-Hur is tailor-made to Heston’s strengths. He plays the central character in an historical melodrama on an epic scale in the time of ancient Rome. Based on a novel by Lew Wallace (sometime Civil War general, governor of the New Mexico territory and envoy to the Ottoman empire) the movie is about a wealthy Jew in Palestine seeking revenge for a severe injustice.

Judah Ben-Hur welcomes his childhood friend Messala back to Jerusalem. Ben-Hur and Messala grew up together despite one being a Roman and the other a Jew. Messala has returned with the new governor and he is now a tribune commanding the legions occupying Palestine. The two men, having grown apart during their separation, find that Rome’s occupation has created a divide between them that their friendship is incapable of bridging.

Judah and Messala are both too proud and entrenched to compromise, but their enmity is sealed when Messala seizes on an unfortunate event to make an example of Ben-Hur and his family. He reasons that he will better keep order with the fear engendered by the public condemnation of his oldest friend without hesitation or mercy. While he may be right, Ben-Hur becomes his implacable foe and the rest of the movie is devoted to his quest for revenge and what comes of that.

It’s quite a long movie, but since it’s from a more civilized age it includes an intermission. There’s no real push for any sort of ethnic accuracy or authenticity in casting, at least not as we would consider it today. Hugh Griffith steals all his scenes as Sheik Ilderim, but he does so in a rather obvious brownface. (If you’re not a simpleton, however, you’ll be able to distinguish between an acting method acceptable at the time, drawn from the stage and at least as old as plays like Othello and when it’s done in furtherance of a racist agenda.) The Romans are all suitably patrician and vaguely British. Sam Jaffe from The Asphalt Jungle appears here in a small part as the loyal Simonides.

One of the only serious criticisms to level at the film is how it feels like it wants to have its revenge story both ways as regards Ben-Hur. It wants to both allow him the emotionally satisfying revenge he’s after, but also redeem him by his interactions with the Jesus subplot. It’s very Hollywood, but at the same time, if memory serves, it’s also true to the novel. This seems like a quibble set against the scope and scale of the film, though. The crowds may be eked out with matte paintings in the truly grand scenes, but the effects are of an age where they’re all practical. The “cast of thousands” scale was never done again at this magnitude, I believe The chariot racing stunts were all done live for the camera and the ships really clashed in an enormous water tank for the naval battles. (Even if the fully fleets were shot with models.)

All in all, Ben-Hur is a thrilling story, put on film in the old manner, and you’re unlikely to see anything comparable made in this fashion again. “It is the old way.”

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