in Oscars Fortnight, Review

Ben-Hur (1959)

32nd Academy Awards (1960)
Nominations: 12
Wins: 11

I’m gonna level with you, I wrote a big chunk of this review earlier this week before accidentally closing my document without saving it. So just like Judah Ben-Hur had to endure years of slavery and hardship, I had to endure writing this again, and you have to endure reading it. Let me see if I can remember the anecdote I initially started with.

*Cue flashback noise.

Back in high school, my fellow Mildly Pleasers and I made a video project for our pop culture class on the year 1959. This was a part of an ongoing video series we did: “What’s with the? (Insert year). The format was generally set around a Ron Burgundy-Esque newsman introducing a compilation of poorly conceived sketches and parodies centered around the year in question. So for 1959, we had a Twilight Zone parody, a live performance from Jerry Lee Lewis, a PSA for underage drinking, and a montage of movie parodies to close it out. This montage was always the weakest part of these videos. Rarely did these “parodies” ever include more than one of us quoting a line from the movie directly to the camera. Almost like we were making fun of the segment as a whole.

Naturally we included a “parody” of Ben-Hur. I mean, we had to! It was the biggest film of 1959. It was one of the biggest films of all time up to the point. It had the largest budget of all time at $15 million ($133 million adjusted for inflation), it’s the 14th highest-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation), and it won 11 Oscars (no adjustment needed there 😉 ) It was a cinematic juggernaut. So how did we parody it? By having me say the line “You truly are the King of Kings.” directly to the camera.

No chariot race spoof, or Ben-Hur meeting Jesus Christ. Just the line. The wrong line if I might add. I only used this line because I saw it in a Ben-Hur parody on The Simpsons. You might remember when Mr. Burns made the autobiographical short film “A Burns for All Seasons” which itself was a collection of movie parodies featuring Mr. Burns. The Ben-Hur spoof featured a Heston caricature who after collapsing in the heat is approached by Mr. Burns as Jesus. Mr. Burns gives Ben-Hur a bottle of water, says, “Drink up, Judah Ben-Hur.” to which Ben-Hur responds “You truly are the King of Kings.” A line that still puzzles me. That line is not in Ben-Hur. Now there is a Biblical movie called The King of Kings that came out a few years later, but as far as I can tell that line isn’t from that movie either.

It seems most likely that this was more of a spoof on the kind of overly-theatrical thing Heston might say in a movie. Which is fine. It’s a funny parody. But once I realized the only thing I thought I knew about Ben-Hur was false, I had to ask myself. “What do I know about Ben-Hur?” I didn’t know if it was a true story, or a bible story, or what. I knew there was a chariot race but not with any context. Thankfully, now I know. So let’s talk about it a little.

I don’t see the point in going too heavy into the background of this film. You could find that information from much better places. What I will say is I was surprised to find out Ben-Hur is based on a novel. Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ was a very popular novel released in 1880 by author and former Union Army general Lew Wallace. It’s the story of a Jewish Prince who after refusing to cooperate with the Romans is falsely accused of an attempted assassination of a Roman governor and placed into slavery. As the story continues we follow Ben-Hur as he clears his name, reclaims his freedom, and challenges his old friend (now rival) Messala to a chariot race.

Meanwhile, we learn the story of Jesus Christ (who’s the same age as Ben-Hur) and watch as their stories occasionally converge in meaningful moments. I feel like if you’re going to do an overtly Christian story this is a good approach. The story is mostly a sword and sandals epic as opposed to three hours of someone trying to cram Christianity down your throat.

The novel was a huge hit. It was made into a silent film in 1925 and again in the 1950s under the masterful touch of William Wyler. A director well known for his successful literary adaptations and for his Oscar-winning films Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Wyler was very much a perfectionist, shooting many takes. To take advantage of the film’s glorious widescreen (a format Wyler didn’t like because he thought it made the frame look empty) Wyler employed expert craftsmen to create stunning matte paintings, props, and images with a great deal of depth. The movie looks and feels huge.

Obviously, the film is a technical marvel. I could make this review paragraph after paragraph saluting the talented people who wrote, shot, scored, edited, and built this world. Unfortunately, I already wrote a chunk of this review once so that’s not happening. Instead, let me tell you what stood out to me in this film.

Charlton Heston. We gotta talk about him. To me, he’s always been the tough-as-nails action star. Like John Wayne but crazier. He fights apes. He fights mutants. That’s what he’s good at. So it’s weird whenever I see him playing a “serious” character in movies like Touch of Evil or Agony and the Ecstasy. Even weirder that he gives pretty much the same performance he always gives in Ben-Hur and won an Oscar. I’m a fan of Heston’s style. It always feels like he’s on a live stage even when he’s on a set. His bravado and intensity. He’s never boring. Though is it great acting? I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like he’s playing anyone but himself. I’m torn. I like him but I can’t decide if he was right for this part or gave an award-winning performance.

One performance that definitely didn’t deserve an award is Hugh Griffith in the role of a Sheik Ilderim. It’s a good performance and the character is likable. He’s the guy that hooks up Ben-Hur with the A-Team of horses in an attempt to humiliate his rival Messala (Stephen Boyd). The problem is Griffith is done up in horribly offensive brown makeup to look like an Arabic man. I don’t know why they did that. It’s not like anyone else is doing anything to alter their appearance. Charlton Heston is playing a Jewish Prince from Jerusalem but he’s still blue-eyed and toe-headed with a ‘50s haircut. I understand this is the 1950s and representation was not a thing at all in Hollywood but it sucks that it happened and sucks that it was rewarded.

Most of Ben-Hur’s wins are justified. Like I said the film still looks great and does have a classic, almost swashbuckling feel at times. The Jesus stuff isn’t overused either. He just kinda pops a couple of times or a crowd gathers around him. You never see his face, which was a good choice. All in all, it’s a helluva blockbuster. I just wish it wasn’t over three hours long.

Sorry if this wasn’t as depth as you wanted but hey if you made it thus far I appreciate it. You truly are the King of Kings.