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Wick's Review

Created Apr 26, 2009 08:02AM PST • Edited Feb 09, 2023 05:41AM PST

  1. Quality
  2. Great 4.0

    More than just the chariot race, Ben-Hur virtually defines big screen epic. At three and a half hours, it’s a lot of movie, full of bravura performances, grand visuals, and tasteful religious symbolism. One of only three movies to win 11 Oscars,1 it deserves the acclaim that accompanies the statuettes for Best Picture, Best Director and nine other Bests. Few movies combine thought, sentiment, history and action so well.

    Subtitled A Story of the Christ, the movie bookends with scenes of Jesus’s birth and crucifixion, interspersing these with a scene of his brave compassion. Jews and other non-Christians needn’t steer clear however. Resolutely old school, the movie doesn’t hammer the audience with theology, correctly fingers the imperial Romans as the bad guys, and includes ample action and adventure for most any movie fan.

    1 The others are Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

  3. Very Good 3.5

    Charlton Heston, moviestar for the ages, excelled at playing big biblical heros. Here he’s Judah ben Hur,1 mythical Jewish prince during the time of Roman rule over Jerusalem and what was then known as Judea. More chiseled than handsome, Heston expands into his heroic roles, never better than here as the put-upon blue blood who goes through hell to not betray his people and save his family. The Academy agreed, awarding him his sole Best Actor Oscar for this performance.

    More handsome and more slippery, his mortal enemy is well played by Stephen Boyd, a cleft-chinned actor straight from central casting.2

    British actor Hugh Griffith delivers the other notable performance as an Arab Sheik who provides the four white Arabians that Heston drives in the famous chariot race. Griffith received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, perhaps because he was a white guy playing an Arab… Ah, old Hollywood.

    Several others give solid performances, but none is a classic. The female performances are underwhelming.

    Bottom line on the acting: Notwithstanding the cast of thousands, it’s basically a two man show.

    1 Yep, his first name is Judah, not Ben. Ben is Hebrew for “son”, as in Judah, prince of the Hebrew house of Hur.

    2 Boyd’s given name was William Millar. What’s wrong with that? It’s not like he was born Issur Demsky, as Kirk Douglas was. Ah, Hollywood. Even an actor with a Hollywood name ends up with a phony Hollywood name.

  4. Male Stars Perfect 5.0

    Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur = Classic Hollywood

  5. Female Stars OK 2.5
  6. Female Costars Good 3.0
  7. Male Costars Great 4.0
  8. Great 4.0

    The film has aged well. Fifty years have passed since it was made, half a century of radical change in movie technology (especially around action), religious sentiment and audience taste. Still the action sequences are plenty visceral, the religiosity blissfully restrained, and the upright hero rings true even in our age of irony.

  9. Direction Really Great 4.5

    William Wyler’s name looms twice that of Charlton Heston’s on the Ben-Hur poster, a measure of Wyler’s Spielberg-like status back in the day. Ben-Hur – one of the legendary director’s three Best Director movies – stands as the quintessential Wyler picture. It’s been said he painstakingly elicited strong performances from his actors and was prone to long, lightly edited scenes, all of which characterize Ben-Hur.

    As to his suitability for this religious project, the German-Jewish immigrant commented that “It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.” Funny, yes, but the results back up the boast. Notice how the face of Jesus is never shown, a sign of reverence that makes the Christian messiah seem all the more holy.

  10. Play Great 4.0

    One of the best selling American novels of all time, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a Pope. Published in 1880, it was first made into a movie in 1907, again in 1925, and yet again in 1959, the version celebrated here. [Source: Wikipedia]

  11. Music Very Good 3.5
  12. Visuals Perfect 5.0

    The chariot race remains a thrilling benchmark for action adventure. Wikipedia says it took over three months to complete and five weeks to film, utilizing 8,000 extras on an 18 acre set (the largest ever built). Some eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice.

    Other bravura visuals include the glory that was Rome, the sea battle with Heston as a galley slave, and images of Herodian Jerusalem, including the Antonia Fortress where the Romans imprisoned Jews.

  13. Content
  14. Tame 1.3

    An action-adventure movie from an earlier time, which is to say G Rated.

  15. Sex Innocent 1.0
  16. Violence Fierce 1.7
  17. Rudeness Polite 1.2
  18. Surreal 2.3

    Amongst other realism liberties, the oarsmen in Roman galleys were not convicts nor were they chained.1

    One throwaway line that sounded phony but may have been true mentioned lion hunting around Jerusalem. Did lions really roam the hills around Jerusalem 2,000 years ago? A bit of research says that the King of Beasts did indeed range throughout Israel until the Middle Ages. Who knew.

    1 Source: Wikipedia

  19. Circumstantial Surreal 2.7
  20. Biological Supernatural 3.1
  21. Physical Supernatural 3.1


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