Our Drew reveals why you should still check out this epic in 2020!
It’s odd to say that this film deserves more love – it still holds the record for most Oscar wins (now tied with Titanic and Return of the King), it was the second highest grossing film in its time (only surpassed by Gone With The Wind), and it’s to this day regularly placed on Top 10 list of the best epics of all time. Regrettably, time goes by, and since its release in 1959, the film’s relevancy has declined steadily. Nowadays, I don’t know many people who’ve even heard of Ben-Hur, and if anything, the 2016 remake only helped to push it into history.
I’d make the case that, bar a few things, this movie is as enjoyable now as the day it came out, and you should absolutely go and watch it if you haven’t already. Sure, it clocks in at 3 hours 45 minutes (there’s even an intermission, I shit you not), but honestly most of you suppressed your millennial attention spans to sit through Avengers: Endgame for 3 hours – just stick it out. Besides, could there be a better time than now to watch an absurdly long film at home?
Setting aside the length, which I stress again is totally worth it, Ben-Hur is huge in every single other way. It’s one of those historical epics that spent a ridiculous amount of money building gigantic sets, designing lavish costumes, and hiring thousands of extras, and the effect is genuinely immersive – there’s not a single moment that you notice a matte painting background, or a cardboard cut-out for instance. It’s a cliché, but they really don’t make them like this anymore, since you can achieve a similar (but lesser) effect with smaller sets and VFX at a fraction of the cost – a tendency that maligned cinema for a good couple dozen years.
The plot spans the 5-ish year journey of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) as he goes from riches to rags to riches again, swapping roles throughout the story as a Judean prince, a Roman consul’s adopted son, a galley slave, and a chariot racer. For the most part, it’s a classic revenge tale, with Judah and his family being betrayed by his best friend, the Roman tribune Messala (no relation to Tikka), and him earning his way back home through selflessness and charioting.
The relationship between Judah and Messala is one of the best reasons to watch the movie, and I want to emphasise the word relationship because this is one of the most homo-erotic movies ever released – there’s more sexual tension in a single scene than all of Brokeback Mountain combined. I’m not even shipping, the main scriptwriter literally wrote Messala as if he were a spurned lover, and suggested to the actors that they perform their first scene as if they were a reuniting couple. There’s even a Romeo and Juliet-esque plot of star-crossed lovers, with the Jewish Judah and Roman Messala forbidden to be together. It genuinely breaks your heart to never see them hit the sheets.
But the sexual tension continues all the way through the film – a scene when Judah is a galley slave is particularly memorable, when Roman consul Arrius comes to inspect the rowers and notices a spirit that separates Judah from the rest. In the scene that follows, he tests the rowers’ endurance by ordering them to row at increasing speeds, all the while making intense, unbreaking eye contact with Judah as he gets all sweaty. You honestly feel like you’re intruding.
Every romantic scene between a man and a woman meanwhile is completely lifeless and unbearably long. I don’t know if it was just the acting style of the time, but Haya Harareet (playing Esther, Judah’s love interest) has the same expression throughout the entire film and it’s both distracting and hilarious when it really shouldn’t be.
Probably the worst parts of the movie are when Jesus butts in. His presence does provide a pretty important framing narrative to the story, giving Judah some essential character traits and familiarising the backdrop of Roman-Jew political tensions, but it’s always quite jarring when he pops up – like when you run into someone you sort-of know at the shops and feel obliged to have a longer-than-comfortable conversation with them. Characters will interrupt the super-compelling Count of Monte Cristo story with long monologues about following stars and how wonderful Jesus is, and it derails the mood every time.
If there’s anything else I had to say against the film, it is a little awkward when Hugh Griffith shows up in blackface as an Arab Sheikh, but he plays the character with so much charm, some refreshing humour, and thankfully very little egregious stereotyping, that you’re more than willing to forgive it as ‘of its time’.
But enough of the bad, because that’s literally all there is to complain about, and I haven’t even gotten to the chariot race. You see, not only is Ben-Hur one of the best movies ever made in general, it’s also sneakily one of the best sports movies made. About halfway through, Judah’s whole revenge plan somehow revolves around beating Messala in a chariot race, and it’s awesome.
A frankly insane amount of work went into the chariot race and it shows – you can feel the thundering horse hooves because they really did charge 78 horses around the ring for 3 months. You flinch and gasp when the racers crash or scrape up against the walls because they really built the 18-acre arena, then crashed a bunch of chariots in it for the shot. You’re personally invested in every second because they really trained Heston and Boyd and popped them in the driver’s seat to glare at each other. You’re glued to the screen because of the incredible long shots tied together with claustrophobic close up encounters. It’s 7 minutes of pure intensity, concluding one of the best revenge stories ever told, and few action scenes since have been able to match it.
Even if you don’t love Ben-Hur, it probably influenced everything you do love. John Williams’ whole musical style, which continues to dominate movie franchises today, can trace its origins to Miklós Rózsa’s stunning score. The clever mix of set-building, scale models, and matte paintings was employed again to awe-inspiring effect in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The chariot race is so perfect that George Lucas made the Podrace scene in The Phantom Menace an almost shot-for-shot remake – something our resident Star Wars fanatic (and only living fan of TPM) Tom should appreciate.
In short, Ben-Hur is like an awesome grandad: definitely of its time and a little awkward nowadays, but it’s got some epic stories to tell, and laid the foundation for what you’ve got today. I think that earns a viewing.
If you’d like to support us, please check out our Patreon!