The sweeping epic drama/adventure genre may not be all that unusual in present-day Hollywood, but in 1959, when William Wyler's Ben-Hur was released, the film changed the face of cinema forever. At nearly four hours in length, this film was the biggest of its kind and went on to be highly celebrated with a staggering 11 Oscar Awards that included best director, actor and film of the year (Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King are the only other two films to get as many Oscars!).
The story follows a Jewish man named Judah Ben-Hur who is living during the time of Jesus, and when the Romans controlled their people. We learn early on that Judah is lifelong friends with a Roman named Messala who hopes to aid in the power of his Roman people. When he asks Judah to join him, he refuses and the two friends have a falling out that spirals into a tale of betrayal and revenge. Much like the story of The Count of Monte Cristo, we find Judah being betrayed and imprisoned and then having an opportunity to escape and return to enact his revenge on his old friend. What follows, however, is an intriguing story that works in some truly powerful spiritual messages.
One of the best scenes in the film involves a wrongly accused Judah, wonderfully played by Charlton Heston, being lead through a desert in a chain of prisoners when he falls to the ground out of exhaustion and dehydration. When he is denied water by the soldiers, a man who sees this act of cruelty comes over and gives him a drink. We do not see this man's face, but the music and Ben-Hur's facial reaction says it all. He didn't know at that time it was Jesus, but he knew there was something different about Him. Later in the film, Judah sees Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary and realizes he recognizes Him. He follows Him and gives Jesus a cup of water when He himself is denied some. It's a fantastic and powerful moment when Judah realizes that this is the same man who had so kindly helped him years earlier.
While Ben-Hur offers some strong spiritual themes, it is not specifically a faith-based film (in fact, the decision to never show Christ's face or let us hear his voice was an attempt by director William Wyler to downplay the Christian theme, but it actually, in a way, makes it even more powerful). However, the ending packs such a spiritual punch that you're likely to come away from the film being more greatly affected than from some modern day faith-based films. If you've never seen Ben-Hur, I don't want to spoil too much more about this side of the picture, but there's a good reason the film used to be shown on TV at Easter time each year.
The acting in the film certainly warranted the movie's awarded Oscars. While Heston's performance may be a little over-the-top at the start of the film, he really exercises his acting muscles as we see this young, naive Jewish man let's the bitter seed of betrayal fester inside of him and harden his heart. Ben-Hur undergoes quite the transformation over the course of the film. Heston really delivers a powerful performance to draw in the audience. The supporting cast is strong as well. Stephen Boyd has a similar start to Messala as Heston does, but ends up being quite a worthy adversary for Judah. And what really sells the world of Ben-Hur is the great lengths that the set design went to, as well as the fatastic costumes and on-location filming in Italy. The quintessential chariot race sequence was actually filmed in a stadium they built specifically for this film -- a detail that these days would simply just be created with digital effects without the same impact as having something actually there for the actors to interact with. It's one of those movies with a little bit of something for everyone, offering drama and action for those who like both.
If there's one crucial thing that Ben-Hur has going against it is its running time. At eighteen minutes shy of four hours, it may be a little tiring to get through in one sitting. The biggest problem with this is, while similarly long films - like the aforementioned Return of the King - make just about every second count, there are some unnecessarily long moments in Ben-Hur that could have been trimmed down slightly to help the pacing a bit. I generally enjoy all kinds of classic films that typically move at a snail's pace (by today's hyper-cut standards at least), but usually those films didn't cross a two-and-a-half hour running time. Also, the beginning does get off to a bit of a rocky start as Heston and Boyd ease into their roles, but by the time the film is in a full sprint toward its goal, everyone seems to be especially confident in the characters they're portraying. All in all, these are minor gripes for what is truly a monumental film.
The content of Ben-Hur is a little more intense than you might expect for the time period it was made in. Some of the violence ends up being surprisingly graphic. For instance, when a ship full of slaves rowing at the oars is broadsided by another ship, we see one slave pulling at his ankle shackle, causing the skin under the brace to look raw and bleeding. Then, shortly thereafter, the water is red from slaves who didn't survive the crash, and we briefly see a man missing a hand, with the bone exposed, emerge from the holding area. It's a shocking visual because you don't expect it, and while it may not be as graphic as you'd see in a film today, it's still an unsettling sight. Later, a man who is trampled in a chariot race is covered in blood from head to toe, and the crucifixion of Jesus is very bloody (but certainly nowhere near the likes of The Passion of the Christ). It's this kind of violence that will be tougher for younger viewers, but thankfully it's not something that's frequent during the film.
Ben-Hur is a classic. It's not only a film that changed the way films are made forever, but it has a timeless story that endures over fifty years after its debut. If you've never seen it, be sure to catch it on Blu-Ray. To this day, it's the highest quality resolution scan ever made for a Blu-Ray release from Warner Bros. studio and you can't find a better picture for this movie anywhere else.
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 10/9/11)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
As mentioned in the film review, Ben-Hur has been given the highest restoration quality of any previous Warner Bros. film. It has 16 times the resolution of the average new theatrical release (It was given an 8k scan, while new theatrical releases only have 2k)! It's crystal clear with vibrant colors and is likely to be the best picture anyone has ever seen for this film to date. This Blu-Ray release comes as a limited edition box set (each one is numbered) and includes a book that shows on-set photos from Ben-Hur, as well as a reproduction of Charlton Heston's production diary that has his very pages and words typed up just as he made them during the time he made the movie. In the back of the journal, there is a collection of photographs taken by Charlton Heston's wife that give fans a glimpse into the actor's life while he worked on Ben-Hur. The journal is an intriguing read, and perfect for anyone who was a fan of Heston, the film, or just curious about what it may have been like to be a part of the production of this movie and working in Hollywood in the late 1950s.
In addition to the film being included in two parts spread across two Blu-Ray discs (it's unfortunate that it still couldn't fit on one disc, but I suppose that has to do with the size of its high-def transfer as well), there are quite a few special features that include screen tests with alternate actors (seeing Leslie Nielsen as Messala is a real trip!), as well as clips from the Academy Awards ceremony where Heston and Wyler took home awards for this film. There's also a brand new documentary about the film and Heston's legacy that is presented in high-definition and features family members of both Heston and Wyler talking about their fathers and what it was like to make this movie. An additional documentary, including a standard definition one from 2005 (titled "Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema") that features famous directors like George Lucas and Ridley Scott talking about how Ben-Hur inspired them, is also present. It would have been nice to have seen them clean this one up for the Blu-Ray release (it really looks terrible here), but it actually gives you a good idea of how the old DVD transfer of the film must look in comparison to the new high-definition release.
All in all, the 50th Anniversary Ben-Hur Blu-Ray release is the only version fans of the film should grab. And if you've never seen it, you should definitely check out this incredible piece of Hollywood history.
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 10/9/11)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Sex/Nudity: We see a ship full of slave men in just small pants/loincloths; We see a bunch of men in a spa with just towels around their waists
Blood/Gore: Judah has some blood on his mouth after escaping the Romans. We then see some more blood on the side of his head; We see some blood on the feet of prisoners who are chained together and walking through the desert (we see one of them later has a little blood on his forehead); Judah has a bloody cut on his shoulder; Some prisoners pull on their chains around their ankles. We see one with blood around their ankle. We see some blood in the water and a man has a bloody cut on his chest; We briefly see a man being pulled out of the hold with a hand missing and bone exposed with blood on his forearm; Judah throws a spear at a man and it impales him; We see partial views of lepers' faces where we see some sores on their skin; Judah has some blood on his head and arm during the chariot race; A man has some blood on him after he falls from his chariot. He's then trampled badly by horses and he is covered in blood; We see Messala lying on a bed and tied in restraints with his arms and face all bloodied and skinned from the race; We see a couple lepers again with some sores on their faces and hands; Jesus has some blood on his hand while carrying the cross; We see blood on Jesus' hands and back and chest as he's raised up on the cross; We see the water beneath the cross is red from Jesus' blood.
Violence: Ben-Hur and Messala each throw a spear at a wooden beam for sport; A girl leans on a roof tile and it gives way, falling to the ground, spooking a horse and causing it to toss the Roman Governor off and into a wall; Judah tries to push away a few Roman guards, kicks one, and another hits him in the face with metal keys; Judah evades some guards, causing two to fall off a flight of stairs; Judah uses a wooden rod to choke a soldier until he passes out; Judah threatens Messala with a spear; Judah is whipped once on a slave ship; The slaves are ordered to row unusually fast and some collapse from exhaustion. A Roman guard whips some of them; We see two fleets of ships attack each other with flaming arrows. Soldiers fight with swords on the deck of the ships; Judah puts a torch of fire in a man's face, lighting him on fire. Judah rescues a Roman soldier who then tries to kill himself, so he strikes him in the head with his chains to knock him out. He then chains him to the piece of wood they are floating on; During the chariot race, Messala forces several chariots off the track, causing serious crashes and several racers to be trampled; Messala starts whipping Judah, who then grabs his whip and hits him with it a few times. Messala's chariot then breaks up and he is trampled; Roman soldiers escort Jesus as he carries his cross. When he stumbles, he is whipped to get up; We see Jesus on the cross as it's raised up and set in the ground.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content
really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.