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Friday, February 4, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #32: Ben-Hur (1959)

Note: this post has been modified from a previously published post

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston

Go big or go home. It often seems like that's AMPAS' motto when it comes to deciding their Best Picture winners and few films have been as big, as extravagant, as William Wyler's version of Ben-Hur. A larger than life story with larger than life performances and production values, you just sit back in awe of its staggering ambition.

The film opens with a brief prologue centered on the birth of Jesus Christ, who occupies the very periphery of the story for much of the film and finally takes centre stage in the final act. From those opening scenes the film transitions to the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a noble Jew living in Jerusalem who will come into contact with Jesus at several key instances. When Judah's childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns as a commanding officer of the Roman Empire, Judah is thrilled because he believes that they can work together to quell tensions between the Romans and Jews. However, he quickly learns that Messala’s aspirations in the Empire have changed him and a wedge is driven permanently between them. This break is further solidified by Messala’s actions following an accident in which Judah’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) injures the new Roman governor, and Messala orders that Tirzah and her mother be imprisoned and that Judah be sent to a certain death as a galley slave as punishment.

Years later Judah is still alive and after he saves the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), he’s granted his freedom. He returns to his desolated home and former slaves Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and Esther (Haya Harareet) and is informed that his mother and sister have died, sending him into a tailspin of grief. In truth they are alive but Esther has promised to keep it a secret because the years living in filth in the prison have rendered them lepers and they can’t bear to have Judah see them as they now are. Full of rage and wanting revenge on Messala, Judah enters into a chariot race against him, knowing that often “accidents” happen in the coliseum. With a bit of skill and a bit of luck he wins, but finds that his revenge is empty and discovers the truth about his mother and sister, sending him into a deep despair that only a certain messiah can cure.

From its first moments Ben-Hur carries itself like a “film of great importance,” which would seem pretentious if it didn’t also seem so damned sincere. It cannot be accused of subtlety in any respect – the screenplay begs for scenery chewing and the actors happily oblige and the plot is punctuated at every turn by pomp and circumstance – but it invests itself fully in this story and approaches it in a very serious, straight forward way that is completely disarming. Ultimately it’s the bigness of the film that makes it work because it wins you over with its sheer audacity, its joyful excess, it’s barely concealed homoeroticism. Seriously, if Brokeback Mountain had won in 2005, it wouldn’t even have been the gayest Best Picture winner.

Directed by the great William Wyler, the film is a superbly constructed piece of work. It is of a length befitting an epic tale but it is so well edited that it never drags, finding the perfect balance between action set pieces and the quieter sequences that connect them. The chariot race is one of the most celebrated action scenes in film history and it’s one of those things that everyone who considers themselves a movie lover should see. It’s an exciting, intensely filmed scene that definitely lives up to its reputation. For all the technological advances that have been made in the 50 years since the film was made, a large part of its charm comes from the fact that what you’re seeing is real, not computer generated. The level of effort, resources and passion that would have been necessary to make this film is just amazing and it absolutely pays off. Ben-Hur is a film in a class all its own.

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