Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959) directed by William Wyler

Prince of Israel Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is the richest man in Jerusalem. His boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Jerusalem after rising through the ranks of the Roman army. The year is AD 26. The Jews are a difficult lot for the Romans to govern. They are oppressed by the Pax Romana and await their messiah. Messala reconnects with Judah, but it turns out he wants more than to catch up with an old friend. He wants Judah to tell him all the potential insurrectionists that he knows. Judah is an upright man and refuses to name names, losing the friendship. When the new Roman governor marches into the city, Judah watches from the roof of his home along with his sister and mother. The roof tiles are loose and one smashes right in front of the governor's horse. He is badly injured, leading the Romans to arrest Judah and his family. Messala sees this as an opportunity to show how ruthlessly he will enforce the law--if he banishes his old friend to the galleys as a rower and tosses the sister and mother in jail without hope of release, the rest of the people will think twice before defying Rome. Rome is the world and the future, after all. Judah swears revenge but who ever survives as a galley slave?

The movie is a classic epic that I remember watching yearly as a child (back before VCRs and DVDs and streaming, we had to wait till a movie came on TV to watch it!). It holds up quite well after almost sixty years. Some moments are a little cheesy but the action sequences are amazing and the story of revenge and family love is still as affecting as ever.

The story is framed by the birth and death of Jesus Christ, who is a recurring character. Judah's hatred of Rome and Messala are a stark contrast to the faith other characters gain in Jesus and His message. While the movie's statement that Jesus's way is better than the path of vengeance is profound, the message is not delivered subtly. Which is okay, because the message is important and it makes a satisfying conclusion to the movie.

Of course, the good folks at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast have commented on the movie--check out their take here.

The studios must have thought it would be a goldmine that could be remined. The new version is directed by the guy who did Night Watch and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so he has some practice with big action. The trailer promises lots of spectacle:

The trailer also seems to show the whole movie. Maybe the makers assume that people have already seen the 1959 version and want to reassure them that this is no hatchet job like Noah or Exodus: Gods and Kings. I am interested but will probably wait till DVD.

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