100. Ben-Hur (1959)

“When a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge.”

It took a lot to bring myself to actually watch this film. I don’t know whether it was the length or if the subject matter just didn’t really appeal to me, but it eventually took me three days to watch Ben-Hur. If I am being completely honest, I did not enjoy the first half of the film. The second half, however, is a completely different story. But, let’s start from the beginning.

The film opens with an overture, lasting six minutes and thirty seconds long, scored by the wonderful Miklos Rozsa. Then, after the overture is over, comes more music. Honestly, I’m pretty sure at least 85% of this film is music. And that is completely fine because it’s a great score.

There are so many beautiful wide shots in this film; I actually lost count of how many times I said “wow” while watching. They just showed the landscape in such a beautiful way. Clearly, William Wyler was taking advantage of Technicolor.

As for the actual plot of the film, we are immediately shown that this story takes place during the time of Jesus Christ’s life, as the film begins with Mary and Joseph entering Bethlehem. What I thought was interesting was that, unlike most religious films, this one did not solely focus on Christ. The audience was reminded throughout the film that Christ was living; however, it is not until later that we are shown him. And even then, the audience never sees his face (smart choice on Wyler’s part). The film, although focusing on Ben-Hur, is really about the people during the time of Christ and how what happened and what was said affected them. I found that to be incredibly intriguing.

Some of the dialogue jumped out at me during the first half of the film. Some of it was just so clever. For example, “How do you fight an idea? Especially a new idea?” in which the character Messala (I’ll get to this jerk in a minute) replies “How to fight an idea? With another idea”. Lines as clever as that are scattered throughout the entire film.

Now for Messala. Let me preface this first by saying that I do not necessarily blame Messala for being the jerk that he was. It is obvious that, at some point, he was a good guy. It’s Rome that has “ruined” him.

This guy used to be best friends (like best friends) with Ben-Hur. He has been away from the town he grew up in for a long time. He comes back as a kind of ruler of the town. Only problem is that he is Roman, not Jewish. That provokes such dialogue such as “This is a Roman world. If you want to live in it, you must become part of it” (they don’t try to hide conformity as a theme at all). All is pretty much fine and dandy, until the new governor arrives. Ben-Hur’s sister, Tirzah, accidentally knocks some roof tiles from the building and they fall to the street, hitting the new governor in the head, causing him to pass out. Now, you may be thinking ‘well, Messala and Ben-Hur are bestest friends. Surely, Messala will believe Ben-Hur when he tells him that it was an honest mistake’. Well, you’d be wrong. Even after Messala has gone up to the roof and seen with his own eyes that there are, in fact, incredibly loose roofing tiles, he sentences Ben-Hur to death and Ben-Hur’s mother and sister to prison (where they eventually become Leper’s and it’s all very sad).

Here is where we, the audience, and Ben-Hur first come into contact with Jesus Christ. Christ gives Ben-Hur water while he is chained, on his way to his death. Christ is the only one who is willing to defy the Roman soldiers in order to give Ben-Hur water so, ya know, great for him. From there we follow our main character to a ship that he is a slave on, rowing. Eventually the story progresses to Ben-Hur becoming a chariot racer and learning Roman ways, and then returning home. Upon returning home, he visits Messala and demands that his mother and sister be set free. It is here that the audience, not Ben-Hur, learn that his sister and mother have contracted Leprosy. Ben-Hur is then told that they have died. This moment is the largest character change for our young Ben yet. Earlier, he refused to take part in a chariot race, even after learning that Messala would be racing. It is after Ben-Hur finds out that his mother and sister are dead that he decides that vengeance is the best option, and decides to race.

End part one (long, right?)

Part two, or Entr’acte if you prefer, is the part that I thoroughly enjoyed. I found it to be much more interesting. Maybe it’s the whole “seeking vengeance” thing? If it is, what does that say about me as a person? Hm.

So, anyway, the second act is where the famous chariot race takes place. Multiple times the camera is placed behind Ben-Hur on his chariot and it really gives the viewer the feeling of being a participator of the race. William Wyler made a bold choice by not adding music to this sequence. Honestly, this is one time where I actually like the lack of music. It creates a sort of tension, eagerness.

During said chariot race, we find Messala being a jerk (again), driving a chariot with blades on the hubs, because apparently he thinks he wouldn’t be able to win this race fair and square. There is no hiding who is supposed to be “good” and who is supposed to be “evil” during this race. Messala is dressed in black, his chariot is black and red, and his horses are black. Ben-Hur drives a light colored chariot pulled by white horses and wears light colored clothing. Ben-Hur treats his horses lovingly, while Messala brutally uses a whip. Ultimately Ben-Hur wins the race, but not without fatally wounding Messala. Messala dies, but not before telling Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are not dead, as he had thought, but rather living as lepers in the valley. Eventually Ben-Hur sees them and, with persuasion from the character Esther, brings his mother and sister to see Christ. Unfortunately, they go to see him the day of his crucifixion.

Well, actually, it isn’t all that unfortunate. The look on Christ’s face as he carries the cross is what brings about internal peace with Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. Also, Ben-Hur realizes that the man he is watching is, in fact, the man that gave him water at his time of need. He continues to follow Christ all the way until his death, and then, metaphorically and literally steps into the light. His sister, mother, and possible future wife (did I mention that there’s a romance in the film? Not a very flushed out one, but still a romance, nonetheless) have taken shelter in a cave as there is a massive storm that begins. Christ dying is a second chance for mankind. The storm signifies a second chance or rebirth. Even Ben-Hur’s sister and mother get a second chance as they are miraculously cured of Leprosy. The film ends on a happy note.

As stated above, I enjoyed the second half of the film, not the first. I found the music to be lovely and the scenery to be beautiful. The acting was wonderful, and everything fit together so nicely. It is just an altogether well-made film. However, it is probably not one that I would watch again.

Grade: B-


Small disclaimer: This is my first blog post, so I’m still working out the format and whatnot. So, that may change in the near future. We’ll see.

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