Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ben-Hur (1959) – Movie Review: The One with Moses not God

Wait a minute, it’s how long? Is there a cliff notes for movies?

The 1959 epic film Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet and directed by William Wyler. The swords and sandals epic tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur who is betrayed by his Roman friend in order to keep the province of Judea in line. Judah then must survive and plot his revenge against his one-time friend. They truly don’t make films like this anymore. Which might be both a good and a bad thing. The movie is an entertaining watch with a good story and performances, but the length can be tough to get through.

The runtime for the movie is three hours and thirty minutes and is grandiose in every fashion. The sets are massive and the film has hundreds of extras. There are big extravagant ceremonies on numerous occasions which use the big sets to highlight the assumed pomp of Rome. I could have done without the set ceremony pieces, or at least a few less. If there is one barrier for a modern viewing audience these are it. I can see the appeal of having these scenes, but I think they may be like CG set pieces of today, there needs to be a balance. There are couple too many of these scenes which drag the pacing of the film down. Take these scenes away and I would have enjoyed the movie even more.

I enjoyed watching Ben-Hur. It is the first time I’ve watched the film in one setting. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie many times, but not all at once. The story of Judah is captivating and pulls you in. Heston does a great job in the role and you understand why he was a movie star. He did overact a time or too, but I think this is also a product of the time. Stephen Boyd is another standout. He plays the Roman extremely well. He does go over the top at times, but there is a subtleness to his performance. The character isn’t a good person, but you understand his motivations. He was just as captivating in his performance as Heston. Haya Harareet was good as the female lead in the film. Stunning and glamourous were the movie stars of this time, and she fit the bill. She also held her on with Heston. The character was a strong presence in the film and was a good conscience for Judah in the movie.

On top of the performances, and the compelling revenge plot are the action pieces in the film. The boat battle is dated for the time, but for anyone who has rowed or has workout on a rowing machine you should have some sympathy for the work portrayed. The actual boats are obviously miniatures, but I still enjoyed watching these scenes for how movies used to be made. I don’t prefer this over CG or good CG, but it’s still interesting. The big action piece is the chariot race, and it still holds up. Every aspect of the scene is well done, and while a few shots are obviously in front of a screen, most draw you into the exciting race. There is a reason this is a standard many action scenes are compared too. The movie is worth watching just to see the buildup and execution of this scene. The story to this point builds to a satisfying payoff from the race.

Ben-Hur is a classic film, and I can understand not wanting to slog through over three hours of movie. It really doesn’t feel quite that long with the good revenge story. It is shot extremely well and draws you into the movie. I could have done without some of more of the elaborate scenes, but I can understand them for the time the film was made. I don’t know if the new Ben-Hur will be worth watching, but I haven’t seen anything enticing from the trailers. If they reviews are bad, check this one out instead and give and older classic a try. It’s worth seeing if you enjoy good storytelling and acting, just skip past some of the ceremonies.

Have you ever sat down and watched the original Ben-Hur? If you have what did you think? If you haven’t what is your favorite swords and sandals epic? 

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