Heston's Chariot of Ire
Here are two facts that you may not realise about the MGM epic "Ben-Hur"; firstly it wasn't the first movie made from the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur and secondly despite being an astonishing 212 minutes long is actually a very simple movie. But despite not being the first version of the story and featuring a surprisingly simple storyline this multi award winning movie is entertaining to the point that it is so captivating that time passes without you noticing. It certainly helps that "Ben-Hur" is very much an old fashioned studio epic, the sort which has a cast that goes into the thousands and features sets so amazing that they swallow you up in their detail. And in it's lead, Charlton Heston, it has a man who exudes power in every single scene, filling the screen when the storyline doesn't.
Having been childhood friends Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston - The Greatest Show on Earth) is pleased to see his old friend Messala (Stephen Boyd - The Bravados) return to the city of Jerusalem even though he is now commanding officer of the Roman legions. And despite years apart their friendship is still strong that is until their political differences causes them argue. When a tile accidentally falls from Judah's home, nearly injuring the new Governor, Messala decides to use the opportunity to teach his old friend a lesson and throws his sister and mother into the dungeons whilst sending Judah to work in the galleys. But despite being thrown into slavery Judah swears that he will return and will get his revenge.
Now there is something enjoyably clever about "Ben-Hur" and that is how the fictional tale of Judah Ben-Hur is weaved into the tapestry of history as events lead his story to intertwine with that of Jesus. Now whether you believe in Jesus and his story as told in the Bible or not, the way we watch Judah's story play out in such a way that there is a crossover, there is a meeting and a realisation as to who he is near works marvellously. It works so well that even if you don't know the story of Jesus, his birth in a stable, his time in the wilderness and his crucifixion the events where Judah is in his presence are still entertaining.
But to be honest the events surrounding Jesus are not what "Ben-Hur" is about, nope this is a story of betrayal and looking for justice as we watch Judah betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sent to a life of slavery working in the Galleys. What unfolds is basically Judah's rise from being a slave, having saved the life of Quintus Arrius during battle, and his journey back to his abandoned home where he is determined to get revenge on Messala not only for the way he was treated but also for his mother and sister. All of which leads to what is one of the best known scenes in cinema's history with the magnificent chariot race where Judah attempts to beat his one time friend and now enemy. What is amazing is that the basic story is very simple as it goes from betrayal to revenge but it never feels dull as it has subplots such as a romance between Judah and Esther as well as what happened to his mother and sister in the years he spent as a slave.
But the thing about "Ben-Hur" is that it is an old fashioned epic whose sheer size not only wows you but draws you in. In a time before CGI dominated the movie industry what you see is pretty much what you get and so the big pieces such as the iconic chariot race is amazing and comes across as dangerous as it must have been to shoot. But then it is not just the big pieces which impress, scenes where we are taken into the splendour of Judah's home prior to being thrown into slavery is equally as magnificent as is the scene which sees the Roman's parading through the centre of Jerusalem. In many ways this makes "Ben Hur" all the more impressive because whilst a visual treat the actual power of the visuals all assist in telling the story.
As you would expect from a movie which is an epic from start to finish it has a huge cast many of which are recognizable faces such as Stephen Boy as Messala, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim and the stunningly beautiful Haya Harareet as Esther. But to be honest "Ben-Hur" is Charlton Heston's movie and in many ways as Judah Ben-Hur he gives the performance of his life time. Everything about Heston's performance is spot on from the delivery of anger and hurt through to just his physical presence, it is simply the perfect piece of casting and director William Wyler draws out that stunning performance.
What this all boils down to is that "Ben-Hur" is still a mighty movie and worthy of all the awards it won. For what is a long movie with a relatively simple storyline not once does it become boring as it weaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur in with that of Jesus and not once does the sheer immense scale of the production fail to impress especially during the iconic chariot race. It may be over 50 years old and it may be over 3 and a half hours long but "Ben-Hur" is still a mighty must watch movie.