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Total Crap: 3.3%

2 reviews, 79 user ratings

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Ben-Hur (1959)
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by Alexandre Paquin

"The Dullest Story Ever Told"
2 stars

"Ben-Hur" (1959) is the closest Hollywood has come to creating a film now described as a biblical epic which is neither biblical nor epic.

Extremely popular when first released, the film, based on a famous novel by Lew Wallace, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record only equalled by Titanic (1997), an achievement made more spectacular by the fact that the film was the remake of a prestigious 1926 silent production which had cost a then-unheard-of four million dollars. And while the 1959 film is technically more advanced than its predecessor, it is imbued with an undeserved solemnity which is more apparent than in the silent version. In most other respects, the remake is less original and exciting than the silent picture.

Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a member of the Jewish nobility living in Jerusalem, who lives a religious life and peacefully opposes the occupation of Judea by Rome. When his old friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to the region as a Roman official, they are divided over the fate of Judea. Throwing friendship aside, Messala has Ben-Hur, as well as his sister and mother, arrested under a wrongful accusation of treason. While the fate of his family is unknown, Judah is condemned to spend the rest of his life in the Roman fleet's galleys. His fate, however, takes a turn for the best when he saves the life of the commander of the fleet, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Freed from slavery, he becomes Arrius's adopted son, but instead of forgetting his past to become the heir of a Roman aristocrat, the motives that becomes the purpose of his life is to find his family and take his revenge on the treacherous Messala, which he eventually does through a famous chariot race.

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not the main theme of the film; ultimately, Ben-Hur is less a biblical epic in the manner of The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) than a traditional Roman Empire story in the style of Quo Vadis? (1951), or a film set against the background of the life of Christ such as The Robe (1953), a film which it closely resembles. Despite its subtitle "A Tale of Christ" (more used in reference to the 1926 version), Ben-Hur's protagonist is not a biblical character, but its eponymous character, who is entirely fictitious. Furthermore, in spite of Judah's constant references to his God, Christianity is mostly relegated to the background, and apart from a sequence before the opening credits, a brief encounter between Ben-Hur and Jesus, and the last thirty minutes of the picture which deal with the Crucifixion, there is nothing particularly biblical about Ben-Hur, in comparison to the 1926 version, which, although never rising above biblical tokenism, had episodes of the Christ's life (filmed in two-strip Technicolor) regularly interrupting the protagonist's story. And in spite of its length (217 minutes), widescreen cinematography, and potential scope, there is nothing particularly epic about it either.

Ben-Hur's most obvious problem is its constant decline into maudlin melodrama, for instance when it depicts the relations between Judah and former Hur family slave and lover Esther (Haya Harareet) or Judah's family's plight, the latter conveniently cured by a miracle for a more dramatic climax while heightening the apparent importance of religion to the story. The film's other problem is its relentlessly slow pace; Ben-Hur plods along at a speed which makes even the famous Cecil B. De Mille epic The Ten Commandments, a film which also demonstrates that too much of a good thing is not always better, look more eventful. At its most exciting, Ben-Hur features the famed eleven-minute chariot race, but this is the only truly memorable moment of the picture. The other moment which should have been exhilarating is the naval battle during which Ben-Hur saves the life of Arrius, but in the 1959 version, this scene is uninspired, and its most involving moments are cut short when the camera drifts away from the battle scene itself to pay attention to the two men on a small raft. The battle is over by the time it merely begins to become interesting. The silent film's version of this episode, which spent more time on the battle itself, is undoubtedly the most cinematic of the two, with better direction, editing, and attention to detail. Together, these two scenes last approximately twenty minutes; the rest of the film is unnaturally stretched out, and between these two events, tedium quickly takes over as we are left waiting for the climactic chariot race, which in any case is nowhere near the end of the picture, to begin.

If Charlton Heston seemed to be overacting in The Ten Commandments, his performance as Ben-Hur, for which he won an Oscar, is even worse. Every subtlety of this well-developed character is grossly amplified, as though the nature of the story commanded a larger-than-life performance. The rest of the cast is generally unremarkable, although Stephen Boyd as Messala could have had a positive impact on the picture had he had more screen time (he is mostly confined to the beginning of the film and the chariot race). As it stands, the film fails to fully develop the antagonism between Ben-Hur and Messala.

While the exterior scenes are breathtaking (including the forum where the chariot race is held) thanks to the cinematography, the interiors are generally too lavish and pristine to look authentic. Most films from that period, including The Robe and The Ten Commandments as well as the white elephant Cleopatra (1963), suffer from unrealistic sets which come across as decorated sound stages (which of course they are), but which nevertheless must have conformed to the aesthetic tastes and historical conceptions shared by millions of fifties American suburbanites. A few of the exterior scenes, particularly the Crucifixion, give the impression of having been filmed in a studio. Even the naval battle loses most of its effectiveness because of its painted background. As well, the viewer cannot entirely discard the thought that what he sees is a collection of movie stars with makeup wearing costumes that are too bright and look too new to seem historically accurate. In other words, the film is marred by a complete lack of visual verisimilitude, which does nothing to make the film more appealing or interesting.

The screenplay by Karl Tunberg (and others, including Maxwell Anderson and Gore Vidal) lacks originality, the dialogue is stilted, Miklos Rozsa's score is alternately grandiose and uninspired (with echoes of Quo Vadis? and Ivanhoe), but the person most to blame is director William Wyler, who was an inappropriate choice for the task. Wyler was an immensely talented director of dramas (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) who also directed a few comedies and thrillers, but his inability to direct anything on an epic scale is showing. With Wyler at the helm, the crowd scenes lack impact, and the complete film lacks the required resonance. Only scenes directed by his assistants (including the chariot race) are visually enthralling; the rest is highly forgettable.

Because of its subject matter and overall prestige, Ben-Hur has become a film almost impossible to criticize. However, Ben-Hur is a pretentious film which tries to pass as a serious topic (undoubtedly because of its mostly unconnected biblical excursions) a story which would have been better treated without the heavy-handedness. The 1926 silent film, which is shorter but somehow more compelling, is the best of the two versions, even though it is, as its remake, unbearably slow in parts.

The 1959 film might well be, in retrospect, the dullest story ever told.

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originally posted: 04/04/02 07:26:25
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User Comments

3/29/16 Aj wales True epic. When actors had something. Emotion. A Story well told. 5 stars
3/28/14 Mike It bored the heck out of me. Best part of the movie was the end, so I could leave the thea 1 stars
3/20/14 david finney remains my best film ever 5 stars
3/27/12 Monday Morning Yes, awe-inspiring. But cutting 60 or even 90 minutes would have improved it immensely. 4 stars
2/15/12 Ron Larson definition of an awesome Hollywood epic 5 stars
12/25/11 mr.mike Is "no bad". 4 stars
5/28/11 GSR Art depression era, Diagnosis and treatment of depression in late life, Cause cure depressi 4 stars
4/30/11 Frank Z Best single movie ever made 5 stars
11/14/10 RUBERTO KINO Ben-Hur (1959) Director: William Wyler Writers: Lew Wallace (novel), Karl Tunberg (screenpl 5 stars
1/16/07 Barbara This film is great - a classic - I watch it every time it comes on near Easter time. 5 stars
1/13/07 MP Bartley Ponderous at times, but mostly splendid stuff. A shame Heston is such a stiff bore though. 4 stars
12/09/06 Ron one of the best movies ever made 5 stars
11/26/06 Peter Still the best movie ever made. Nothing else comes close 5 stars
11/05/06 Thomas It is the best film ever to be shot! 5 stars
5/14/06 nate poo poo bear pretty good, little slow 4 stars
4/22/06 noel thomas real good 5 stars
2/16/06 cheee cheee man It was alright, they could have cut out some boring parts 3 stars
1/11/06 Megan Taht Was A Very Awesome Movie 5 stars
1/09/06 Gerry Dunne Visited Rome- Circus Maximus was pretty accurate,but I don't like the Hollywood feel to it. 3 stars
12/27/05 TERENCE GONSOLVIS greatest film i have ever seen /// 5 stars
12/05/05 Anna A little boring... 3 stars
11/06/05 Michael And their sins were forgiven and they were clean 3 stars
7/27/05 sonu singh execellent 1 stars
4/19/05 J K Rowling excellent movie 5 stars
2/25/05 ALDO brilliant film....loved it....abit similar to count of monte cristo.. 5 stars
11/19/04 screb goes on and on and on 2 stars
11/09/04 Leonardo de Stinky Ben Hur is one of the greatest movies ever made. I do not see how anybody could not like it 5 stars
11/03/04 Nevena Absolutely brilliant!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
10/23/04 Denise great 5 stars
10/19/04 Al Guy A classic film that is a must see. 5 stars
10/17/04 Monika marvellous! 5 stars
10/09/04 Sudhakar Kasina Great to have produced a movie like this scale at 1959 5 stars
9/25/04 Guy Paquin Great! 5 stars
9/25/04 James D. Joslin For all the spectical and drama, the key message is only forgiveness brings peace. 5 stars
8/09/04 BigBlack One of My personal Favorites! Like any great film, the more you see it, the better it gets. 5 stars
8/08/04 ALDO Don't know what the reviewer was on when he watched this. this is a masterpiece 5 stars
6/16/04 S C A truly fantastic movie 5 stars
5/28/04 dangergirl the chariot race is greatest part of the movie 4 stars
5/16/04 DM Very plodding in places but well-acted and directed 4 stars
4/23/04 Lucy Eyre-Tanner The greatest film ever made! 5 stars
4/23/04 Xanthe Summers Absolutley fantastic! This film has proven to be the greatest epic of all time! 5 stars
4/17/04 Chris This it the greatest movie ever made 5 stars
3/16/04 Mike Ord An epic which is both intimate & spectacular. A true gem of the cinema. 5 stars
3/04/04 Abigail Harry Its one of the greatest movies in the world! 5 stars
3/01/04 rusty morris one of the best pictures ever made in history 5 stars
12/07/03 tevfik excellent... 5 stars
11/30/03 john stretched out superficial bore interrupted by a great chariot race 3 stars
11/22/03 ross hendrick GREAT MOVIE 5 stars
9/17/03 Alan Hmmm... this critic rates "Plan 9 from Outer Space," awesome and "Ben-Hur," pretty bad. 5 stars
9/14/03 John Menuis Great! Great! Great! Too bad there are no actors today that can compare with Heston. 5 stars
9/14/03 jessica perez It was a breath-taking movie 5 stars
7/10/03 bg good movie considering the fact that it was made in the 50's 5 stars
7/10/03 addy simply awesome! I freaked out! 5 stars
7/02/03 bob mint 5 stars
5/19/03 Mahtab They could not make this movie would cost billions....It moved my soul. 5 stars
4/26/03 Kushan Ranatunga everlating film 5 stars
4/21/03 vikki kostin This film was good, the critic has gone into overdrive with his analysis of it. 4 stars
4/16/03 JL This movie is phenomonal! 5 stars
4/10/03 Ross Bernard Fuck you critic, Ben Hur rocks! 5 stars
3/11/03 Apathy Good lord that was a long movie. 2 stars
3/10/03 Chris Pretty damn gay 1 stars
2/09/03 J Sartain Great! film. wish we could still make those today 5 stars
1/09/03 Derek This 1950's movie captures the feel of the ancient world better than Gladiator. 5 stars
11/22/02 Ike Excellent and riveting! The only film I have seen where the audience applauded at the end. 5 stars
11/08/02 Jack Wolverton Best Epic Ever 5 stars
11/01/02 Ray Yes, it is such a awesome film I've never seen before 5 stars
10/14/02 Stephanie Oh I think that it was great. 3 stars
9/25/02 Addie Frentsos It's a life touching ,amazing film, a favorite of mine. 5 stars
7/27/02 I Can't Swim Gore Vidal said Ben-Hur & Messala were lovers, but didn't tell the NRA Prez..HA HA HA! 5 stars
6/02/02 Chris One of the greatest films ever made. A bibical story that dones't bore. An epic. 5 stars
4/26/02 Charles Tatum A little slow, but ten times more enthralling than "Gladiator" 4 stars
4/05/02 Rockitman007 It fucking Ben-Hur people!!!!! 5 stars
8/31/01 spaceworm Holds up to scrutiny on all cinematic levels (except some dialog). 5 stars
7/23/01 R.W. Welch Drags a bit in spots but the chariot race makes up for it. 4 stars
6/28/01 Michael Goldfield A true motion picture masterpiece that delivers and has been doing so since 1959! 5 stars
10/06/00 Monday Morning A "historical spectacle" '50s film very much worth seeing. 5 stars
5/06/00 Daria The chariot race is great, but the rest is easily forgettable. Go see "Gladiator" instead. 2 stars
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  DVD: 13-Sep-2005



Directed by
  William Wyler

Written by
  Karl Tunberg

  Charlton Heston
  Jack Hawkins
  Haya Harareet
  Stephen Boyd
  Hugh Griffith
  Martha Scott

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