Ben-Hur (1959)

March 31, 2010

“I know there is a law in life, that blood gets more blood as dog begets dog. Death generates death, as the vulture breeds the vulture!”

Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is the oldest son of a noble family in Judea. Accused of attempting to kill the new Roman governor, his once-friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) sentences him to the galleys. Involved in a sea battle which sinks the ship, he escapes, saves the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), then returns to seek his mother and sister, and wreak vengeance on Messala.

Ben-Hur is one of the great epics of cinema. You can tell this because it lasts more than three and a half hours, and occasionally it feels like it. At times glorious – the chariot race is rightly famed, the sea battle is almost as good, and at times rather slow and plodding, it has an unconvincing romantic subplot and a rather more convincing gay subtext in the early scenes between Ben-Hur and Messala. Often, it looks sensational – these Technicolor films (The Searchers is another one) somehow manage to use the unreality of their colour to create a more immersive world.

Writing about Ben-Hur is rather like trying to write about the Atlantic Ocean – it is massiveĀ  and difficult to deal with on an individual scale. Commenting on acting (mostly good), direction (fine), script (has words in) seems a little futile. It’s hardly unpredictable (LOOK! FORESHADOWING! A DRINK!), but there’s pleasure in watching it unfold, and enjoying the scale and spectacle.

The subtitle, or tagline, is “A Tale Of The Christ”, but the biblical bits feel bolted on, especially the end scenes, which suffer because the climax of the film (the Chariot Race and immediate aftermath) have already been and gone.

Just in case you think that you can get through this with only low-level racism – the Judean characters look vaguely plausibly jewish (if modern Jewish, rather than biblical-times Jewish), the Romans look faintly Roman, or at least different to the Judean characters – up pops Hugh Griffiths in blackface, to sing a song about the plantation and do jazz hands. Well, not quite, but there’s no particular reason why he should be in blackface, and there’s an amusing (sic) scene where he talks about his “…six… no, seven” wives. He’s not exactly a figure of fun, but it’s a little saddening.

So. Ben-Hur. It exists. It’s rather hard to say any more than that.

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