Ben-Hur is one of the most celebrated and successful pieces of cinema in the history of the art. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, which feels like it’s getting longer rather than shorter. I’m 34-years-old now and this is a good age to be looking back beyond my 1984 birth year.
I make no apologies for the spoilers. It’s over half a century old, for Christ’s sake.*
The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a prince living in Roman Empire-occupied Jerusalem under the watchful eye of guards working for Julius Caesar. His long-time best friend Massala has returned following extensive guard training and is now a fully-fledged devotee to the Roman Empire. However, when a guard’s march walks through the city and a tile falls from a roof and hits a guard, Ben-Hur is blamed and banished to slavery, whilst his mother and sister are sent to prison, all at the hands of a Massala keen to impress his superiors. This begins Ben-Hur’s plight to avenge this wrongdoing and seek justice.
Now, there are a couple of things that may have been prevalent in the marketing of Ben-Hur back in 1959, but 60 years on all we hear about is the chariot race scene and as such we’re left with a few surprises.
Firstly, this film is extremely religious. Indeed, the story is, at heart, a tale of how one man’s beliefs are tested and torn to shreds before eventually being restored to a place stronger than ever. Jesus Christ is an important character, even though he is never mentioned by name, nor is his face ever seen. The story uses Judah Ben-Hur as an allegory for Jesus, and it is an adaptation of a novel titles ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’. It is effective in doing so, albeit through the medium of a fairly slow-paced cinematic epic.
Secondly, whilst we’re on the topic of the slow pace, this film is almost four hours long! It is split across two Blu-ray discs.** This is a crazy amount of time, and it was proved to be far too long when the film was remade a few years ago in around half the running time. Admittedly, this version was far less successful than its most popular predecessor (itself a remake). Realistically, the only way to get through it is to watch it in installments.
Indeed, manually splitting it into a four-part mini series will make it more manageable to modern audiences. I hate myself for recommending doing that, but this film is no easy nut to crack based on what modern audiences are used to.
It’s typical of the blockbuster films of the time to be over-long and of epic proportions. The Ten Commandments. Gone With The Wind. Looking back, it seems the longer the film, the more likely it is to have stood the test of time.
It is no wonder that fans of the film concentrate so heavily on the brilliant chariot race and that horrific rowing slaves scene. True, when this film is good, it’s great. The scene where he discovers his sister and mother are still living in The Valley of the Lepers is truly heartbreaking. Watching him confront Massala on the operation table is as satisfying as it is horrific.
Of course, the chariot scene is rightly celebrated. Watching that in isolation, in all its grandeur, is something to behold. If you have the setup, I highly recommend you watch it at home in brilliant HD and surround sound. It is absolutely majestic.
It is wholly unfair to judge it by today’s standards, of course. Is Murnau’s Sunrise as entertaining as Jenkins’s Moonlight? Probably not. But it operates on a different plane. Both are excellent, judged by whatever standards, but modern audiences are more likely to enjoy a film made in modern times.
The same holds true for Ben-Hur. It’s of its time. It is definitely hard work, without a doubt. But if you can’t dedicate four hours to it in one sitting, then you’ll still get a lot out of it by splitting it up into bite-sized chunks.
* You see what I did here? Of course, this is a religious joke. And the film is religious. I’m a classy reviewer…
** Probably not a concern at the time.