Ben-Hur has the mostly unchallenged virtue of being a biblical epic that, if not quite as astounding as its unparalleled eleven Oscars would suggest, is actually pretty good. The number of kids foisted into watching it during a Religious Studies class, only to be very pleasantly surprised (I can’t say my response was similar when Pink Floyd: The Wall got an unlikely airing), and its status as a Bank Holiday weekend fixture, has given it a well-earned reputation, even if nothing in the rest of its three hours and 32 minutes comes close to matching the nine-minute chariot race.
Notably, like Titanic (which isn’t nearly as good, but also gleaned eleven statuettes), Ben-Hur failed to garner Best Screenplay, but at least it was nominated in the first place (unlike Jimbo’s doomed romance). Karl Tunberg took the final credit, but there were a number of cooks involved, including Gore Vidal, very vocal in later years about how he persuaded Stephen Boyd to play Messala as the spurned lover of Chuck’s Judah Ben-Hur. How true this anecdote is remains a source of debate, particularly given Vidal seemed to be (successfully) attempting to wind up Charlton Heston as much as anything. Either way, there’s no denying the unbridled joy Judah takes in seeing his old pal again (“We were friends as boys. We were like brothers”).
Boyd didn’t get nominated, although he deserves credit for attempting to infuse Messala’s Machiavellian machinations with a touch of substance beyond mere villainy, but he ought to have been lent more of a hand by the writers. There’s usually too much of the polar opposites in the telling to make the dynamic between Judah and Messala really interesting; we aren’t buying Judah being accused by Esther (Haya Harareet) of becoming just like him, and Heston’s rock of rectitude is a little too impermeable to express anything very deep, certainly to the extent of deserving the Best Actor Oscar.
I mean, Chuck’s fine, and he does what’s required of him, which is to bring star wattage to an epic, something that’s no small feat in itself – others have been much more disparaging, including director William Wyler – but it takes a different class of actor to add layers to such a basic outline (this may be a thinking person’s epic, but that only stretches so far). Such as Russell Crowe in Gladiator, for instance, which riffs on Ben-Hur shamelessly, and also attained Oscar glory as a consequence.
As personified by Heston, Judah is just your everyday, blonde(-ish) haired, blue-eyed Aryan Jew, and it’s difficult not to see America’s support of the recently-established State of Israel in his pronouncements and resistance to Roman rule. There’s also a light veneer of a McCarthyism critique during the early stages (“Tell me the name of the criminals” demands Messala, asking his old friend to inform on his countrymen; which is about when Messala is required to start twirling his moustache – “What do the lives of a few Jews mean to you?”)
Wyler proudly declared that it took a Jew to make a decent film about Christ, but I’m not sure it’s quite that. The Jesus episodes are closer to Forrest Gump-encounters with Judah, who just happens to stumble by at divine moments (a cup of water here, a Sermon on the Mount there), and the picture very significantly reduces the impact of Ben-Hur’s conversion. He never actually pronounces himself as a Christian, but rather confesses “And I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand”. Much preferable to the cold dead ones Heston intoned to the NRA that time, as well as being an implicit rejection of the wrathful Old Testament God.
Generally, there’s a sense of stuffiness and earnest, classical Hollywood reverence to the “Tale of the Christ” parts, superbly mimicked by the Coen Brothers and George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!, that has you longing to get back to a slave galley or the arena. Of the former, jolly Jack Hawkins offers some comparative theology (“Your God has forsaken you. He has no more power than the images I pray to”). Of course, Arrius only goes and adopts Judah, putting a spoke in what is turning into a Job story. Arrius is the exception to the general disdain shown towards the hissable Romans, which takes in Judah’s audience with Pilate (played by the superbly surnamed Frank Thring).
There’s a warm view given to the Arab of the piece, albeit he’s a blacked-up Arab in the shape of Sheikh Ilderim (Welshman Hugh Griffith, who won Best Supporting Actor), showing solidarity with the Jew and backing him against Messala. That scene, as Messala, surrounded by fellow Roman soldiers, insults him, finds Ilderim in the mode of marvellously casual sarcasm: “Bravely spoken”.
The chariot race needs no commentary. If the Christ passages are old Hollywood, this is the ushering in of the new; it remains an enthralling piece of filmmaking, a clear influence on the likes of Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Lucas (The Phantom Menace), with Miklos Rozsa’s otherwise marbled score (John Williams evidently picked up a few cues from him) dropping away to allow for the furore of hooves and whips and Messala’s death-dealing “Greek chariot” (presumably all that nation’s chariots chopped the wheels from under you that season). Wyler really didn’t like widescreen, finding it next to impossible to fill the expanse of image, or exclude elements from it, but you wouldn’t know it from his and cinematographer’s Robert Surtees’ staggering efforts.
The trouble is, once the chariot race is over, and Messala’s toast (John Le Mesurier can’t save him) there are still more than forty minutes to go, including an interminable attempt by Chuck to bring relief to his leprosy-ravaged mother and sister. Very fortunately, it appears everyone within a twenty-mile radius received healing when Jesus died, something I didn’t read about in The Bible.
Despite this inflexibility when it counts, Ben-Hur generally makes the whole sword-and-sandals/ religious epic thing look easy, deceptively so when so much in the genre is such indigestible stodge that there’s no chance of replicating it as formula (look what happened to Ridley Scott when he tried to go back to the well, twice). If you needed convincing, another remake would be along in almost sixty years to prove the point…