If there’s any god today as mighty as the gods of old, it’s that behemoth called Hollywood. This modern deity can be as capricious as Zeus or Thor — sometimes blessing us with a Casablanca or an Evil Dead, sometimes cursing us with the likes of The Avengers — but mostly just feeding the never-ending craving of us mortals for entertainment with middling pabulum that we gobble up.
The supernatural amounts of time, effort, and money that can go into these boons from on high are no more obvious than in a film like Ben-Hur. The special effects in today’s blockbusters tend to be invisible, unless they’re awful — but when you’re confronted with actual gigantic sets of Roman cities with thousands of actual extras milling about (shot in the days before Silicon Graphics computers could replicate such things), it boggles the mind. Ben-Hur is a monster production with a huge cast and a sweeping, epic story. It’s also a testament to the lengths to which we’ll go in search of diversion.
Make no mistake — Ben-Hur is not great art. But it is great fun. Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a contemporary of Jesus, is a Jewish prince in Roman-ruled Judea newly reunited with his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). Messala, a Roman, has just returned from the empire’s capital to reign as tribune, a sort of lieutenant governor, of Judea. These old pals now find themselves separated by politics — one is the ruler, the other the ruled. Judah demands freedom for his people; Messala demands fealty from Judah, and when he doesn’t get it, he trumps up some charges against Judah and his mother and sister and has them all arrested.
And that’s when Judah’s adventures begin. Condemned to slavery, he ends up a rower on a Roman galley. He rescues the Roman general Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) from certain death, becomes Arrius’s adopted heir, and earns his freedom. He returns to Judea to face Messala and avenge his mom and sis. He becomes the voice of righteous rebellion against the occupying Romans. He takes up with a slave girl (there’s always a slave girl — freedom was obviously a relative thing), but as is typical for these kinds of guy movies, there’s way more passion between Judah and Messala. Guys like these two, sworn to vengeance against a former friend, may profess hatred, but they’re always more in love with each other than with any women.
Ben-Hur is cornball melodrama — highly diverting but hardly emotionally involving. Heston’s performance is pretty wooden, but he looks good in a loincloth, and that’s all that really matters here. This is three-and-a-half hours of bloodsports, revenge, rebellion, and homoerotically charged spear-throwing contests. All praise Hollywood!
Best Motion Picture 1959
AFI 100: #72
unforgettable movie moment:
The chariot race, one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, stunning in its violence and adrenaline-pumping beauty.
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1960: The Apartment
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71: Forrest Gump
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73: Wuthering Heights