WolfmanOz at the Movies #70

A Tale of the Christ

There are some films that make a lasting impression when you see them for the first time, and Ben-Hur (the 1959 version) is one such movie for myself.

I first saw it on a re-release in the early 1970s when my parents took the family to see it on a huge cinema screen, and for one young lad the experience was simply mesmerising. Awe and wonder filled me as I watched this story of shocking betrayal, revenge and forgiveness unfold on screen, and by the time the heart-stopping chariot race was over, my fate as a future movie addict was sealed. 

Despite its 212 minutes running time, this is storytelling at its finest that knows how to entertain; as we follow the story during the time of Jesus of a Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, who is betrayed and sent into slavery, whilst his family is imprisoned, by his Roman friend Messala. He regains his freedom and returns back for revenge. His dramatic journey just never lets up and immerses you completely.

It’s hard to imagine anything more cinematic: if ever there was an epic that was meant to be seen on the big screen in all its bombastic glory, it’s Ben-Hur. And even now, after I’ve seen the film many, many times, I feel like this story has a certain sense of greatness to it that is touching (and I don’t just mean that in a religious sense).

What’s not to love about Ben-Hur ? It’s a film that tells an epic story in an epic way, filling every shot with artistry and colour until the screen overflows with splendour, which is all enhanced by Miklos Rózsa’s magnificent score. Despite the lengthy running time, the pacing never flags. The episodic structure of the storyline works in the film’s favour, ably chronicling the adventures of the lead character as he undergoes a thrilling journey to hell and back.

It has Charlton Heston playing his most famous role and being incredibly heroic and strong in it. It has a cast of seasoned performers in support, not least Jack Hawkins as a sympathetic Roman general and Stephen Boyd as the villainous Messala. And, of course, it has the most spectacular and complex action sequence ever put on film in the shape of the chariot race, which is just as thrilling and breathtaking as it was when it was first released in cinemas.

The film was directed by William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s greatest directors from its Golden Age period. He was able to steer a huge production and keep his sanity and perspective whilst showcasing the human emotions amidst the spectacle.

Wyler’s handling of the religious scenes where Jesus appears is both sensitive and touching; and, in the following scene where Judah and the other slaves are marched to the galleys they stop in Nazareth to water the Romans’ horses. Judah begs for water, but the Roman commander refuses. Judah collapses but is revived when Jesus gives him a drink. It is masterfully directed.

The chariot race in Ben-Hur was directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, filmmakers who often acted as second unit directors on other director’s films. The chariot arena was modelled on a historic circus in Jerusalem. Covering 18 acres, it was the largest film set ever built at that time. Planning for the chariot race took nearly a year to complete. The chariot scene took five weeks (spread over three months) to film and required more than 320 km of racing to complete. The end result is simply one of cinema’s greatest set-pieces that will never be surpassed.

Unfortunately, YouTube won’t allow me to show the chariot race as one clip, however I can show it all as two clips.

Finally, it’s a film that engages the senses and the emotions. It never forgets, amid all the glory and the epic wonder of the scenery and action, that this is a human story about real people struggling with their lives. There’s a message there for any viewer, Christian or otherwise, and that’s the reason why Ben-Hur hasn’t dated a day since it was first released. It’s a true classic for a reason.

Ben-Hur is nothing like the many sandal and sword or Bible films of that era; it is (at least to me) the ultimate film epic. With its touching story and fantastic action sequences, Ben-Hur is among the milestones of its era and part of film history.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . The ultimate man of conscience.