The 1959 semi-biblical epic Ben Hur clocks in at 100 on the AFI list. It was ranked higher on the 1997 list at #72. It strikes me that the film dropped in ranking because of a number of the imperfections that I will talk about but that the rankers were unwilling to drop it off the list completely because of the historical significance and fame of the film.
First, a quick synopsis. Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jewish prince who refuses to become an informant for the occupying Romans when asked by his old buddy Messala. When the Roman Governor comes to town, JBH is watching the entry from a top a wall with his sister. When his sister leans on the wall, some tiling breaks off, striking and injuring the Governor. JBH is sent into forced servitude and his sister and mother are sent off to parts unknown. JBH becomes a rower on a Roman ship and ultimately saves an Admiral (? – unsure of the rank) on the ship during a battle after inexplicably being unlocked from his chains on the boat following a conversation with said Admiral. He ultimately saves him when the ship sinks, is adopted as his heir, travels towards Rome, ultimately enters a chariot race against Messala, where he wins and Messala is injured and ultimately killed. On his death bed, Messala tells him his family, who he thought was dead, is still alive and he finds them at a leper colony. They go to find Jesus Christ, see him get crucified and Jesus’ death cures his sister and mother of their lepercy.
It is a LONG film, clocking in at over 3 hours and 45 minutes. It even has an intermission about two and a half hours in!
What I Liked:
- The film is absolutely beautiful. The sets are gorgeous, the production quality is first rate, especially considering the movie was made 60 years ago and there are many, many shots that would be beautiful wallpaper.
- The chariot race is truly as epic as I remember. Rewatching it, I can see how heavily everything from Days of Thunder to The Fast and the Furious borrowed from this scene. Its influence extends to films made years and decades later.
What I Didn’t Like:
- The character development is poor, especially for a film of this length. We don’t know much about JBH’s back story other than he is a Jewish prince. His mother and sister are very one-dimensional. There is not a lot of moral ambiguity in the film and you clearly know who you are supposed to be rooting for all the way.
- The film doesn’t address any bigger issues in life or society. I find the best films tend to have something to say. This one has a story to tell but doesn’t teach us anything about ourselves or about history.
- It is over dramatized and over acted at times. Everything is hyper-emotional, loud and epic. There is no subtly in the film at all that would enable you to think or emotionally connect with the film or its participants.
What made me cringe:
- The whitewashing. I know that this is part and parcel of 1950s cinema, but seeing a Scottish guy (Hugh Griffith) play an Arab Sheik is downright absurd. I mean, heck, they couldn’t find an actual Jew to play a Jewish prince and instead cast a blue-eyed guy from the midwest?
Production Quality – 10/10
Screenplay – 6/10
Acting – 7/10
Rewatch Value – 4/10
Overall – 27/40
I think the greatest movies have insanely good production, a great screenplay, quality acting and are films that you want to watch over and over again. The production quality for Ben Hur was among the best I’ve ever seen. The screenplay is well put together but lacks emotional depth and character development. The acting is solid, but overdone at points and emotionally unexceptional. And after sitting through the film for almost 4 hours, I am unlikely to watch the film again if it comes on TV.
I’ve only watched 1 of the 100 films, but I can’t imagine that this will wind up on my personal top 100 list, given that the AFI list excludes a number of fantastic comedies (Animal House, Caddyshack and many others), a number of great independent films (Smoke, The Brother McMullen), some animated classics (Fantasia, Wall-e) and a number of big budget films (Amadeus, The Social Network) that I consider better.
I understand its inclusion from a historical significance standpoint, but I’m glad I rented rather than bought the film.
A very different film, Toy Story, is up next at #99. Stay tuned.