Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith
Time and place are key to finding the right formula for success. Giant epics found their place in the 1950s and 60s, a time where Hollywood found worth investing in these large and grand tales of great men rising and making a difference in their era. Ben-Hur unquestionably falls within all of those categories as it shows the continual rise and fall of one man and how it coincides with another timeless tale.
Refusing to give up Jewish dissenters to the Romans, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is sent to be imprisoned in servitude. Through his determination and discipline, he begins his climb back up to prominence for vengeance and to free his family from similar circumstances.
As grand as the story of Ben-Hur ultimately becomes, the lasting impact the film has left remains the stunt work involved in the chariot races. It’s the first thing that pops up if you ever try to search images of the movie. The way it captured these sequences, where computer-generated effects didn’t exist, still blows my mind. The feat in those scenes feels historic because of the risk involved in filming them, which unfortunately resulted in one of the stuntmen dying in the process. A death that demonstrated incredible valor and they contributed to something that remains timeless.
For all of the notice the chariot scene rightfully receives, the story takes place in a defining time in the history of humanity. While Judah goes on his own journey, it happens to coincide with the rise of Jesus of Nazareth. The presence of Jesus only occurs on a few occasions physically, but thematically he has a stronghold on the narrative. For those who are Christian, who believe him to be God, Judah’s interactions carry deep symbolism with compassion and faith. The latter ultimately defines this film and the journey of the protagonist.
Judah’s imprisonment results from refusing to provide the Romans with Jewish rebels that are causing them inconveniences. He found it to be against his beliefs to give away his people, which results in him being stripped of everything, sent away separately from his mother and sister, who are banished to a different fate. It’s through his faith and discipline that he rises back to the top in order to achieve his vengeance on his former friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd). The use of vengeance seems loaded because he’s not out for blood in his rise to prominence. He should definitely be angry for what Messala did to him, but he cares more for exposing the bad deeds of his former friend and more importantly, finding his mother and sister.
Charlton Heston is no stranger to religious epics, as he also starred in the nearly 4-hour The Ten Commandments. He has one of those faces and a composure that allows him to portray characters of any era. Heston could portray someone of his time like in Touch of Evil but could also do Ben-Hur. In this role, Heston brings a fierce physicality that allows him to impose when needed. His collaboration with director William Wyler worked wonders for this character, who could have been fairly bland and simply be a surrogate for the incredible production and art design that serves as the backdrop of the story.
The grand nature of the story feels like a relic of a different time and shows when Hollywood saw a film of this stature would bring them large sums of money. Ben-Hur provides anyone who has been raised Christian to point out different moments and say “I know that moment.” In a way not to besmirch the film, but at times it reminded me of when Forrest Gump appeared in different major American moments. Judah happened to be at different major moments of Jesus’s rise up until even the crucifixion. Ben-Hur deserves its classic status with the implementation of a large team to transport us back to the early beginnings of the common era. The stunts remain its legacy and rightfully so because it captured something truly special.