#73. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg (based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe
William Wyler’s biblical epic Ben-Hur is the movie that served as my introduction to classic films, creating a lifelong obsession with the silver screen in the process. I saw it as part of my grade 7 religion class all the way back in 2003-2004, and was captivated by every minute of the 3 ½ hour film. Ben-Hur tells the classic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy prince living in Jerusalem with his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O’Donnell). His best friend is a man named Messala (Stephen Boyd), who after some time away from Jerusalem, returns to the city as a commander of the Roman garrison. After an accident nearly costs the life of the governor of Judea, Ben-Hur is sent to the galleys by his once best friend, and his family imprisoned. What follows is an adventure the scale of which had rarely been seen on screen before 1959. The film spans several years, and sees the rise and subsequent fall of Jesus Christ, who plays a prominent figure in the film. Wyler’s Ben-Hur is mostly remembered by the public for its incredible chariot race scene, which is still just as thrilling and visceral today as it was more than fifty years ago. The film’s few action scenes feature a sense of realism and brutality that is not often seen in film’s of this era, and adds to Ben-Hur’s unique nature. It’s never exploitative in this way, but instead uses its visceral nature to further the story along, and convey the weight of the situations faced by Judah Ben-Hur and those around him. Charlton Heston’s performance as the titular character is tremendous, bringing an undeniable charm and charisma to the role that has proven to be unmatched in subsequent retellings of the story. While Ben-Hur is more than 3 ½ hours long, it never feels slow or bogged down by its run-time, mainly due to its incredible writing and pacing. Every scene feels meticulously crafted and has a sense of purpose, and major milestone moments are evenly spaced out throughout the film. An example of the film’s excellent sense of pacing comes in its final act – even after the chariot race is done, the film manages to keep its hold on viewers with a rigorous journey to the leper colony, where we finally get some much needed emotional payoff. Ben-Hur would go on to win 11 Academy Awards in 1960, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), and Best Cinematography – only losing in one category. Every minute of Ben-Hur is captivating and finely crafted – there’s no wonder why it was so well-received by a 12-year old me.