MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEEND*** #100. Ben-Hur (1959)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.


The golden days of Hollywood loved an epic. They loved a biblical sword and sandals epics the most. And when they wanted to make a biiiig movie in the 50s, they needed a biiiig an actor. An actor who knew no subtlety. An actor who’s most restrained moments would make the sets of this movie look like model miniatures. So when it was time to make this massive, epic tail, with its massive, epic budget, it was time to call in the massive, epic Charlton Heston. The result was a movie so epic and massive, it became the go to comparison for anything of ample size. It became Ben-Hur.

It’s the year 26A.D, and the Roman rule of Jerusalem is getting a little more handsy than it had been until then. Up and coming Roman kiss-ass Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to the Jerusalem town where he grew up. Leaving as a boy, he returns as the man who will run the show, on behalf of the Emperor. There’s a happy reunion with his childhood friend, the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur. The happy reunion doesn’t last long. Messala’s ruthless ambition leads to Ben-Hur sent off into slavery for a crime he didn’t commit, while his mother and sister are sent to prison. Swearing revenge, we cut to Ben-Hur several years later, chained to the oar of a Roman ship.

This is where I started to notice the episodic nature of Ben-Hur. At over three and a half hours, I was a little hesitant about dedicating so much time to one movie. But it’s structure makes it feel more like binge watching a TV show, rather than slogging through one, long movie. The ever changing locations, the new characters who come in and out of Judah’s life, the incremental goals he needs to achieve on his way to ultimate victory. All of these things keep these 220ish minutes moving at a cracking pace that never felt like 220ish minutes.

Parallel to the trials and tribulations of Judah Ben-Hur is the story of another plucky young Jew of the time, a bloke named Jesus Christ. Ben-Hur is a story about faith, and a story about the rewards of doing the right thing instead of the easy thing. A story where Jesus pops every half hour or so to teach Judah (and the audience) some Christian message. But since the J.C stuff is mostly only ever on the periphery, it never hit me as overly preachy.

According to the IMDB trivia section for Ben-Hur, Heston had to learn how to drive four horse chariot for this movie, because before this time, he only knew how to drive a two horse chariot. What a soft, pampered, Hollywood powder puff. Sorry, did I just criticize Charlton Heston for only knowing how to drive a two horse chariot instead of a four horse chariot? What I meant to say was, Holy shit! Chuck Heston already knew how to drive a fucking chariot! Nutty ideas about gun ownership aside, he might be the most badass dude ever! Seriously, the NRA seems like bunch of psychopaths and the US gun laws are bat shit insane, but homeboy could drive two different kinds of chariot!  

Directed By – William Wyler
Written By – Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, Christopher Fry
Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director – William Wyler
Best Actor in a Leading Role – Charlton Heston
Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Hugh Griffith
Best Art Direction / Set Decoration (Color) – Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning, Hugh Hunt
Best Costume Design (Color) – Elizabeth Haffenden
Best Special Effects – A. Arnold Gillespie, Robert MacDonald, Milo Lory
Best Film Editing – John D. Dunning, Ralph E. Winters
Best Music – Miklós Rózsa
Best Sound Recording – Franklin Milton

6 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEEND*** #100. Ben-Hur (1959)

  1. You’re inviting trouble from the “pro gun lobby”, the “Christian Right” and reviewing a classic all at the same time. A new bench mark has been reached.

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