Ben-Hur is an incredible feat of cinema which well deserves it’s reputation as one of the greatest films made. It tops Gone With The Wind is it’s scope and high-stakes (what is a farm-owner’s plight next to that of a Prince?), it’s action scenes are utterly impeccable, and it’s rhythm and pacing superb.
This is director William Wyler’s third oscar, and by jove he just gets better every time. His first two winners, Mrs Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, were enormously successful experiential chronicles of the Second World War. Wyler has an amazing ability to perfect the mise-en-scene of a shot. Stillness and motion play a huge part in his arrangement of people and bodies – have a look at any of his films and you’ll notice that people stand still a lot, and the way he arranges his pictures channels the energy of people and action. As a little test, watch this film with a friend and pause at random moments, then each draw a line in the air that follows the film picture. I’ll bet that 9 times out of 10 you’ll draw the same thing.
Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, a familiar face from The Greatest Show On Earth. He’s ruggedly handsome and every bit believeable, though I must say that the most memorable performance has to be from Stephen Boyd playing the villain Messala, who’s gruelling death scene stunned me in it’s intensity. Another highlight is the music, my personal favourite being the beating of the drums in the slave ship, where the internal sound of the film and the external score become blurred and the excitement which builds as a result is utterly palpable.
I found Ben-Hur’s tagline, ‘A Tale of Christ’, quite an interesting way to approach the film. I was surprised that the main action is kind of a side-note to major world events at the time, occouring simultaneously with the story of Jesus, whom we never fully see. By using only shots of the back of his head, Jesus’ words and actions are given an otherwordly power. At the close of the film, Judah Ben-Hur reclaims all that was taken from him; amidst the greatest loss humanity could know, Jesus has given man all the tools it needs.
Of course, no review of Ben-Hur can be complete without mention of the chariot scene. This is without a doubt one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever. There’s no CGI here, every shot is for real. The rhythm and pace of the scene is phenominal, the lead-up brimming with intensity and the pay-off just sublime. Ben-Hur is unarguably one of the greatest films ever made – real action, real emotion, and a damn good story too.