Director: William Wyler
Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet
Spoilers Within: No
Originally posted 25th March 2016 on Letterboxd.
It’s hard not to be somewhat disappointed in this first viewing of the multi-award (read: twenty-seven) winning biblical epic Ben-Hur but that’s precisely what I felt when I broke out into the sunlight after its excessive 222-minute (+ 15-minute intermission) running time.
It’s this sluggishness that drags the film down from what once was seen as the perfect historical drama to an elongated, syrupy melodrama. It’s such a shame that I write these words because it wasn’t until the last act (and the at-first-minor leprosy subplot) that I felt things seriously falling apart. For the most part, I enjoyed the subtext of Jesus’ holy doings and having those themes run parallel to Juda Ben-Hur’s (Charlton Heston) story, but in wrapping up the main narrative too early and turning that subtext into text was where it lost my interest and my willingness to see it through. Granted, it was necessary to resolve the story of his mother and sister’s leprosy, and also to seek solace in the fact that his actions were ultimately not driven by vengeance, but it turned the religious dial up in such a rapid and unexpected way that it became too fantastical and holy to the point where I became apathetic toward Ben-Hur and his family’s tearful reunion.
Considering this is a B review, there are certainly some positives: the set design – both the painted backdrops and the exteriors – consistently astonished me, and whether or not they looked real is unimportant as the craft on display was so impeccable it was difficult not to be impressed by the sheer scale of it. Additionally – and quite obviously – both Heston and Stephen Boyd (playing the loathsome Messala) were magnetic to watch and pulled off their friends-turned-enemies story with aplomb. It’s a shame that Boyd was off-screen for so long, though, as their verbal scraps were the most exciting parts of the film, even when taking into consideration the iconic ship attack and chariot racing scenes.
Regardless of its anticlimactic biblical conclusion and it’s frustratingly plodding pace, Ben-Hur is still a very impressive glimpse into a cinematic past where these massive studio productions could exist, and having just watched the hilarious trailer for the forthcoming action-driven remake, that’s definitely something to hold on to.