When it was released in 1959, the New York Times declared William Wyler’s Ben-Hur “by far, the most stirring of the Bible-fiction epics”; an accolade richly deserved. Ben-Hur was, and remains, an untouchable amongst screen classics – a huge thing, full of lusty, iconic performances and spectacle, yet still managing to capture the human saga that is at the heart of the story. Arguably, Ben-Hur will always be remembered for its mind-boggling chariot race – a mesmerizing feat of full-scale stunt work staged by second unit director Yakima Canutt. Yet, the film also endures because of its intimate familial tragedies. These are embellished by Miklos Rosza’s intricate score and Robert Surtee’s sumptuous cinematography. And then, of course, there is the ‘Wyler touch’.
William Wyler was already one of Hollywood’s most respected and eclectic film makers by the time he agreed to helm Ben-Hur. Wyler’s fascination with the project stemmed from the fact that he had never made ‘a Cecil B. DeMille’ picture before. But the director was also intrigued by the prospect of doing something new with the conventions of the Biblical epic. Throughout the 1950s, other directors had delved into antiquity, but always with a rather stiff reverence to these ancient texts that resulted in a static series of moving tableaus – perhaps fearful that anything less than strict adherence to the faith would infuriate purists and religious scholars.
This is particularly true of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956); an extremely stoic and stylized recreation of the life of Moses, though arguably, without much life infused into the film itself. The characters move and speak with a cadence that is theatrically rehearsed instead of natural. In contrast Wyler’s Ben-Hur is a deliberate departure from that time-honoured rigidity. The characters that inhabit Karl Tunberg’s screenplay are flesh and blood; earthy men and women who lust and suffer the same as contemporary mankind.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is based on Gen. Lew Wallace’s turn of the century novel. The title is rather deceptive, however, because the book is not really about Christ at all, but of the Jewish prince who endures great hardships at the hands of his one-time boyhood friend, now, the Roman tribune Messala. The book was so popular that MGM made it into an elephantine silent epic in 1929 with Judah’s ultimate ‘conversion’ to Christianity the pronounced central focus of the plot. For the 1959 remake, Wyler greatly tempered this conversion, choosing instead to concentrate on the flawed relationship between Judah (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd).
In this respect, Ben-Hur is immeasurably blessed by ‘the Wyler touch’ – the director’s uncanny knack for extracting poignancy from the personal rather than the awe-inspiring. Obviously, Ben-Hur has plenty of both; from its opening ‘star of Bethlehem/birth of Christ’ sequence to its thrilling sea battle and exhilarating showdown in the Circus Maximus, William Wyler’s remake is a mighty accomplishment. The proof is in the film, and also in its record-breaking 11 Oscar wins – including Best Actor, Director and Best Picture; a tally unmatched until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). However, it is important to note that most of Titanic’s Oscar wins were for technical merit. These categories did not exist in 1959.
Despite having no less than four screenwriters working in collaboration on the project, only Karl Tunberg received credit for this adaptation. The story concerns Judah Ben-Hur – a Jewish prince who is reunited with his boyhood friend, Messala after a period of some years apart. Messala has just been made a Roman tribune of the province. Judah assumes that their youthful friendship has remained intact during this separation, but Messala expects Judah to betray his people for the sake of their friendship. This, Judah categorically refuses to do.
When a tile falls from the house of Hur, striking the newly appointed Roman governor, Messala seizes upon the opportunity to make an example of Judah and his family to assert Roman authority in the province. He imprisons Judah’s mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister, Tierza (Cathy O’Donnell) in the Citidel where they contract leprosy, and exiles Judah to a life of slavery aboard a Roman galley from which it is presumed he will never return. On his fateful trek through the desert Judah collapses from heat exhaustion and is given water by Christ.
Meanwhile, Judah’s faithful servant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) rushes to his defence, along with his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet), whom Judah has set free from her bond to the house of Hur. But Messala’s revenge knows no boundaries. He imprisons Simonides, leaving Esther to fend for herself in the abandoned ruins of the house of Hur.
Judah’s slave galley is presided over by a harsh commander, Quintus Arrias (Jack Hawkins). After an epic sea battle destroys the vessel, Judah saves his commander aboard a makeshift raft and prevents him from taking his own life in disgrace. Sometime later, at rescue aboard another Roman galley, Arrias is informed that although his ship was lost, the battle has been won. He returns to Rome a champion with Judah at his side and shortly thereafter petitions the senate for the right to adopt Judah as his son.
Judah is made a Roman citizen. But his heart is still bent on revenge. He confronts Messala to learn what has become of his mother and sister. Messala’s inquiry reveals that Miriam and Tierza have become lepers. They are exiled from the Citadel, returning a short while later to the house of Hur where Esther learns of their predicament. Miriam makes Esther swear that she will not tell Judah what has become of them. Thus, when Judah vows to Esther that he will not rest until learning the truth, she lies to him that Miriam and Tierza are dead, hoping that by doing so she will free Judah’s mind from its tortured grief. Instead, Judah begins his downward spiral into hate.
While travelling abroad, Judah meets Balthasar (Findlay Currie) – one of the three wise men in search of the adult Christ – and Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), a fiery Arab who is training his team of white stallions to race in the Circus Maximus. Judah and Balthasar accept the Sheik’s invitation to dine at his camp, and Ilderim suggests to Judah that both their purposes might be best served if Judah agrees to be his charioteer against Messala.
Judah accepts. But Balthasar cautions that there are many paths to God – revenge not being one of them. Judah and Messala race to the death inside the Circus. Despite employing every underhanded racing trick to secure his victory, Messala’s chariot is destroyed during a perilous hairpin turn and Messala is trampled to death beneath the hooves of an advancing chariot. Before he dies Messala confides in Judah that Miriam and Tierza are disfigured exiles residing in the valley of the lepers; thereby ensuring that Judah’s hate for him will endure after his death.
Against Esther’s strenuous objections Judah seeks out his mother and sister in the valley. Having already experienced a religious conversion through the word of God, Esther encourages Judah to take Miriam and Tierza to the city to see Christ. Regrettably, they are too late. The new governor, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) has decreed that Jesus be crucified. Judah and his family arrive just as Christ is being paraded through the streets bearing the weight of his cross and his crown of thorns in abject humiliation.
Judah recognizes Jesus as the man who gave him water in the desert and, after Jesus falters on the road, Judah attempts to reciprocate this act of kindness, only to forcibly removed by a Roman Centurion. Esther, Miriam and Tierza begin their arduous trip home. But Judah follows the procession to the mount where he witnesses the crucifixion with Balthasar.
On the road home a violent storm breaks out, forcing Esther, Miriam and Tierza to seek refuge inside a cave. As thunder and lightning tear apart the sky mother and daughter experience a miraculous restoration of their flesh. Drained of all bitterness, Judah returns home to Esther where he learns that his mother and sister have been cured. The film ends with a shepherd leading his flock past the hill where Christ’s body once clung to the cross.
Ben-Hur is an all-encompassing spectacle, brimming with raw human emotion that continues to haunt and enthral us. This is an epic whose heart beats profoundly beneath its surface sheen. The depth of human tragedy and triumph fully saturate and satisfy our expectations for a good story, even as the epic sets and costumes recreated inside Rome’s Cinecitta studios dwarf all of our expectations for visual grandeur.
Ben-Hur was shot in MGM Camera 65 – the most expansive of the widescreen processes, and it is saying much of William Wyler’s direction that he fills the screen, not only with the resplendence of Robert Surtee’s lush cinematography, but also manages to frame his characters in interesting ways that heighten the intimacy of the narrative.
Ben-Hur was released at a precarious period in MGM’s history. The film’s overwhelming financial and critical success managed to stave off the spectre of financial ruin for the studio. More than that, it elevated MGM’s reputation – that had begun to wane in the industry throughout the 1950 - to its rightful prominence as a company still in pursuit of cinematic excellence whatever the cost. In the many lean years that were to follow, Ben-Hur would remain a high water benchmark to look back on with considerable pride.
Today, Ben-Hur still ranks among the ‘top ten’ all-time greatest movies ever made. These accolades are well deserved indeed. The film ushered in a new earthy stylistic approach to making big screen epics. And its success ensured that more valiant attempts in the genre would continue to be made throughout the 1960s. But Ben-Hur stands in a class apart from the rest as a testament to William Wyler, Charlton Heston and the blind faith of a crumbling studio system whose commitment to integrity and making ‘good pictures’ far surpassed any fear facing that uncertain future.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is flawless. The 1080p hi-def image is lush and spectacular, yielding a palette of vibrant colors and a spectacular amount of fine detail throughout. A meticulous frame-by-frame restoration has eradicated virtually all age related artefacts. The image is smooth and clean. Gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe this visual presentation. The audio is 5.1 DTS with a bombastic bass. Miklos Rosza’s score is the outstanding benefactor here.
Warner gives us a handsome package of extra features including the exclusively produced ‘Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur’ feature length documentary with interviews from family and friends that provide a personal back story to the making of the film. The rest of the extras are all imports from previous DVD incarnations and include; Ben-Hur: The Film That Changed Hollywood, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, and Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures – a sort of music video-esque travelogue of still images set to Rosza’s underscoring. There are also outtakes and screen tests, the 1929 silent version, an audio commentary, and theatrical trailers to wade through. Regrettably, the 1929 version has not been remastered in 1080p.
Warner’s padded extras include a hardcover booklet with stills and factoid information, as well as a reproduction of the original shooting schedule diary with Hestons footnotes included. Bottom line: Ben-Hur is a film with few – if any – equals. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf. It is a must have, must see experience.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)