AFI Challenge: Ben-Hur

Well here we go. This is my first entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page); after this there’s only 99 left in store! And as far as first entries go, this one was pretty daunting. At #100 on the list is Ben-Hur.

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Although I had never seen it, I of course knew of Ben-Hur. The record-breaking winner of eleven Academy Awards that single-handedly saved MGM Studios from financial ruin in the early 1960’s. However, when talking about Ben-Hur today, it seems that other, less positive superlatives arise. Superlatives such as “really, really, really long,” and “really, really, really boring.” While I could respect what Ben-Hur once meant for the film industry, I fully expected to hate this movie as I went into it. It is because of this that I am happy to report that Ben-Hur managed to exceed all my expectations and prove the doubter within me wrong.

This film, based on the nineteenth century novel of the same name, is simply epic. Epic in scope, epic in execution, and, yes, epic in length. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive movie ever made. If you were to apply that label to a film in today’s market, it would mean only one thing: lots of CGI. But what Ben-Hur achieves, with its ambitious use of sets, extras, and practical effects, is more awe-inspiring than the majority of the big-budget blockbusters released this past year. Watching a line of hundreds of Roman soldiers march through green pastures is marvelous because you know that the men you see in the back, at least half a mile away from the primary on-screen action, are real. It all exudes a level of care that feels more epic than most other movies, then or now.

The film’s epic status is cemented in large part by its two primary action scenes, the most famous of which is the chariot race that occurs around two-thirds of the way through the movie. This sequence is thrilling to watch even today, and I’m sure it must have had audiences writhing in suspense during its initial release. As an action scene, it is remarkably well executed for a film that is over fifty years old; it focuses primarily on the riders within the race, but cuts to enough landscape shots of the grandstands surrounding the racers to give the viewer room to breathe. In fact, it was during these wide shots of the grandstands that I caught myself thinking “How on earth were they able to realistically depict a historic racing circuit without actually building it all from the ground up?” Subsequent research answered this question: they did build it from the ground up. One million dollars was allotted specifically to construction of this individual set, used only once in the film; they literally carved the area for the set out of a rock quarry. Epic indeed.

This individual shot probably cost around $5000

This individual shot probably cost around $5000

While I do agree that the chariot sequence was enthralling, I was most impressed by the other, less-appreciated action scene from the film: the episode of naval warfare that occurs around an hour into the movie. Roman galleys clash with barbarian frigates, exchanging volleys of arrows and cannon-fire (which look more like fireworks than anything else, but are impressive nonetheless). When two ships collide, hundreds of men clash in armed combat, attempting to overtake the opposing vessel. On top of this, we see all of the action take place in the middle of a vast ocean. Now, you’re probably thinking, “well, duh, it’s naval warfare, of course it takes place on an ocean.” But my question is how, back in 1959 no less, were they able film these chaotic scenes while simultaneously depicting the water in a realistic way? I don’t know. They could have used miniatures, but then how do you explain the shots where the actors are seen in the water, all while the giant boat is in frame? And how would they have been able to get all of the static shots of the boats (of which there are many) in the middle of an empty ocean? It’s not like they could have constructed a half-dozen life-size Roman galleys and transported them into the middle of the ocean, then proceed to film it all with the less-than-advanced technology from 1959. Then again, they carved an entire set out of a giant stone quarry, so perhaps I shouldn’t assume. In any case, whereas the chariot race had me in a state of suspense, this sequence had me in a state of wonderment. Simple movie magic, through and through.

I think I’ve appropriately demonstrated the epic nature of this film, but I haven’t really touched on the fact that it also contains a lot of heart. The story of Judah Ben-Hur, an exiled Jew from Jerusalem seeking vengeance, is as soulful as it is compelling. Some may complain about the film’s length, but it is necessary in order to serve the purposes of the story. We see enough of Judah’s life before his exile to truly sympathize with him when it’s all taken away. This is bolstered by the fact that his exile comes as the result of a betrayal from the Roman tribune of Jerusalem, a childhood friend of Judah’s. The tribune, Messala, is played with skill by Stephen Boyd who, along with Charlton Heston who plays Judah, establishes a very authentic friendship between the two. While Messala becomes evil a bit too quickly for it to come off as genuine, the context surrounding his betrayal seems very real.

Judah and Messala as friends, before the whole "despicable betrayal" thing

Judah and Messala as friends, before the whole “despicable betrayal” thing

Charlton Heston gives a good, if not great performance as Judah. But whatever skill is lacking in his performances is more than made up for by the compelling story around him. It’s epic, yet intimate. Suspenseful, but full of heart. However, my favorite aspect of the story is that it is all framed around the tale of Jesus Christ. The film focuses almost exclusively on Judah (no need to retell the story of Christ, already retold thousands of times as is), yet the Messiah has an almost overriding presence in this tale. I am by no means a religious person, and I wasn’t moved by the depiction of Christ in any spiritual way, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the extra level of meaning it brought to the film. The few scenes concerning Christ are delicately executed and never seem out of place. By the film’s conclusion, it becomes evident how instrumental Christ’s brief interjections were to Judah’s development as a human being. Christ saves his physical life, then his spiritual life as well. For a film with such grand stakes, this part of the story is rather poetic.

The story’s impact should be credited in large part to the direction by William Wyler. The film is shot beautifully in widescreen format. Wyler apparently did not care for this method, but he and his cinematographer, Robert Surtees, make great use of it, depicting vast landscapes and bustling cities all in a single shot. Everything seems to brim with life, whether its the sets or the characters themselves. And when the story reaches its emotional moments, Wyler isn’t afraid to bring out a monumental orchestral score to drive the point home. It may be heavy-handed, but boy is it effective.

There is a romance in here somewhere, along with some quite depressing scenes involving lepers and some ruminations on the nature of family and self-identity. If they come off as unimportant, it’s simply because the film has its priorities straight. This is a movie with a lot on its mind, but it has the good sense to stick closer to what’s interesting (epic action and Judah’s spiritual journey) than to what’s not (I’m looking at you Esther, you and your forced romantic subplot). All in all, in spite of an uninspired lead performance and a running length surpassing three and a half hours (there’s an intermission at around 2 hrs 15 min. I highly advise you to take advantage of it), Ben-Hur is still an extraordinary feat in the realm of filmmaking. I marveled at the action, empathized with the characters, and felt moved by its conclusion. So much of this movie just seemed to be larger than life, achieving things that no other film of its time could make claim to. In a word: epic.

I give Ben-Hur a rating of…

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

I surprised even myself with that ranking, but what can I say? I thought it was a great movie.

So have you seen Ben-Hur? If so, what did you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #100 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #99 on the list, Toy Story.

Ben-Hur Info
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg
Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, and Jack Hawkins
Running Time: 212 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Production Company: MGM Studio
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One thought on “AFI Challenge: Ben-Hur

  1. Pingback: AFI Challenge | AFI Challenge: Toy Story

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