“Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well, I’ll tell you how: with another idea!”
It’s hard to tell from today’s cinema landscape, but big Bible epics used to be huge, and the best is undoubtedly Ben-Hur (the 1959 version, not the terrible 2016 remake). Directed by William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Best Years of our Lives) and starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd, this is a film that seems simple on the surface but has some big ideas operating behind the scenes. This is a true Bible epic made by a Jewish man intending to present ideas that appealed to people of all faiths. Though slow at times, this film has some of the best action sequences of its time, with one sequence in particular being very impressive even today. While not perfect, this holds up as a great classic epic film with some depth to back up the tension and action, and I’m glad I got a chance to watch it.
The story opens with two friends meeting: Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince trying to protect his people during the Roman occupation, and Messala, a Roman military officer yearning for a promotion. There’s immediately some tension because Messala wants Ben-Hur to surrender his province peacefully and give up all dissenters to him. When Ben-Hur refuses, he’s arrested on some trumped-up charges. After some time as a slave, he finds his freedom and starts planning how to get his revenge.
I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur. But no matter what this man has done to you, you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
As I said, the action sequences in this film were among the best of their time—particularly the chariot race, which holds up very well today. (The sea battle, while still very well-done, has lost some of its charm over the years.) The chariot race scene took about ten weeks in total, using 25% of the film’s budget, and it was totally worth it. Even today, I spent moments scratching my head wondering how they pulled off some of the stunts in that scene. Overall, I wouldn’t describe Ben-Hur as a fast-paced movie, but this scene is rather gripping, and it was phenomenal for its time.
When I first watched the film, it seemed somewhat disjointed with the long discussions about ideas and the overtly religious bits seeming shoehorned in. But upon further reflection, everything works and this is a very tight story. It’s set up as a revenge plot, and that comes to head in the chariot scene; but that’s not the end of the story. This is a redemption story dressed up like a revenge plot, with Ben-Hur and Messala representing the ongoing struggle between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. Rome was spreading not just the empire, but also the idea of Rome. And, as Messala so succinctly states, the only way to defeat an idea is with another idea. In the end, it’s the ideas the Jewish prophet Jesus is spreading that allow Ben-Hur to win the war in his mind against the ideas of Rome, not the hatred that drives him to revenge. Seeing that connection gave me a deeper level of respect for the film and the character of Ben-Hur.
Ben-Hur is a bit of a relic, although very well done and intelligent. It’s quite long (almost four hours) and slow in many places. But the story goes deeper than it initially seems, the execution is excellent, and a few stand-out scenes really elevate this above other Bible epics of the time like The Ten Commandments. This may be a bit slow for modern audiences, but the patient will be rewarded with a deep story about recovery after immense tragedy. And if you want to experience the old Bible epic movie craze from decades past, this is undoubtedly the place to start.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: William Wyler
Genres: adventure, epic, historical