AFI List: Ben Hur – 1959 (100)

27 Feb

Movie: Ben-Hur Year: 1959 Genre: Drama

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd

Let me start by saying: the chariot scene is the reason I thought Charlton Heston was a bad-ass. That was a pretty awesome scene – and very realistic for the film itself and the time period… I mean, he was pulled out of the chariot and hopped back in. Amazing. Can I also be shallow here? This man was just beautiful. The galley scene – well – that’s burned into my brain now as the epitome of a man. This is how I choose to remember Charlton Heston.

Ok, gushing aside… I did research this one before I decided to watch it. I knew it was on the “Epic Historical Drama” genre films of late 1950s/early 1960s, but I had not seen it before tonight and thought I’d pay closer attention to it if I already knew the story beforehand. I’m glad I did. I will warn you – I am going to practice in spoilers because I’ve seen it and I assume that, if you’re reading this, you most likely did, too.

Interesting the timing of this film – at the beginning of Lent for me – a time of reflection. The screenplay is an adaptation from a novel written in 1880 called “Ben-Hur a Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace. It is a work of fiction, set in the first century AD. In fact, this 1959 version is the second movie adapted from this book – the first was in 1925 – and I’m truly intrigued by this now and want to see that one, too. I also now want to read the book because I have since learned that this book was the biggest selling book until “Gone with the Wind” in 1936, and, because of this movie, beat “Gone with the Wind” in 1960. It has been my experience that the book is almost always better than the movie.

The story revolves around a man named Judah Ben-Hur who is an aristocrat from what is currently known as Jerusalem. When he was a child, he was friends with a Roman boy, Messala. Messala comes back to Jerusalem as a sentry and is reunited with Judah, only to shortly develop a rift with him because Judah refuses to assist the Romans in getting the Jews “on board” with the Roman rule. During a parade for the new governor, a tile from Judah’s house falls onto the governor, hurting him. While the Romans know it is an accident, they condemn Judah, his mother and his sister because Judah is seen as a trouble maker and Messala is making an example of him – he puts all three of them in jail. Judah is then sentenced to the galley of a Roman war ship. The Consul of the ship Judah is on becomes impressed with his dedication and orders his chains removed while Judah is in the galley. The boat is engaged in battle and Judah saves the Consul’s life, so the consul takes Judah back to Rome where he adopts him.

Judah eventually gets the itch to go back to Jerusalem. On his way back, be befriends a Sheik that has four beautiful white Arabian horses. The Sheik discovers that, while in Rome, Judah was pretty much a chariot champion and he asks Judah to race his horses for him. Judah declines to race, but offers the Sheik advice… that is until Judah realizes that Messala (now a mortal enemy) is also in the race. He races Messala, and although Messala is trying to cheat by tearing up the wheels of the opponents, Messala’s cheating ends up tearing up his own chariot, falls out and is trampled – Judah wins the race. Judah goes back to his house to find his old servants and eventually, his mother and sister (who contracted leprosy while also in prison and are now in a leper colony outside of town), and then witnesses the crucifixion of Christ.

I bet that at this point you’re wondering what this all has to do with Christ – Judah, Messala and Christ are all about the same age. And, as it turns out, Judah crosses paths with Christ several times, the first where Christ gives him water when he passes out in a Chain Gang on his way to the Galley – then the last, symbolically, where Judah gives Christ water when he is on his way to his crucifixion. The crucifixion wasn’t terribly graphic, but pretty realistic and with a lot of symbolism, especially at the end when Judah’s mother and sister are in the cave just after the crucifixion and a rain storm washes the blood from Christ onto them to heal them from leprosy. Pretty moving to me.

I learned a lot by researching and watching this film:

  • The film was shot in a relatively new format at the time, 65mm, with an extra wide aspect ratio of 2.76 to 1 – too wide to play on the 35mm projectors, so, to maintain aspect ratio without cutting off the sides of the picture, they had to “letter box” it by putting plates on the tops and bottoms of the projectors – I never knew that’s how they did it. I grew up in the VHS age and with square TVs so watching a letterbox version of a movie meant you got to see everything. One day I’ll have a wide-screen and will be able to handle an aspect ratio close to this without diminishing the height of the image.
  • In addition to the running and enjoyment of movies, I’m also a bit of a photographer, so I really enjoyed watching the cinematography of this film – the colors, the shadows, the depth of field. The lead cinematographer loved to play around with depth of field and discussed it quite a bit so it was fun keeping an eye out for it – it was especially cool in the ship scene. I knew the ships were mini models and that the “ocean” was a pool (you can tell), but it was still cool to see the mixed depth of field and how they accomplished that sounded like a lot of work.
  • This film took about 7 years to complete from conception in 1952 to final wrap in 1959. The budget grew from $5 to $15 during that time and it sounded like it was one frustrating project to be involved with. The screenplay was written by one guy, but then finished by two others (who didn’t get credits for it) by them writing at either end and meeting in the middle. That impresses me. And… they had the (at the time) highest paid director and actor on any film.
  • The guy who played Jesus didn’t get credit and you never see his face or hear him talk. He’s just an extra – who was actually an Italian Opera singer. Impressive.
  • It was shot on location in Italy (actually, this was another huge reason it took so long… trying to find a place to shoot it). They repurposed sets from other movies for use with this one and most of the extras they had in the crowd shots were poor locals that didn’t have phones so they had to send messengers through the towns to round them up.

On that note… it is time for me to go to bed. I know I have a few other long ones ahead of me – maybe I’ll watch those on a Saturday!

The next on the list: Toy Story (1995). Looking forward to this one!


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List


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2 responses to “AFI List: Ben Hur – 1959 (100)

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