Winner of staggering 11 Academy Awards, Ben-Hur is a titanic production by every means, both in scope & ambition, that ranks amongst the grandest epics to ever grace the silver screen, features one of the most breathtaking moments in cinema history, and is valiantly brought to life through its lavish production design, skillful direction, sweeping cinematography, majestic score & strong lead performance from Charlton Heston.
Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a rich Jewish prince in Jerusalem who’s betrayed by his childhood friend, now a commanding officer of Roman legions, when he refuses to sell out his own people to the Roman empire, resulting in his family being thrown in prison while the prince himself is sent to the galleys. The plot covers the epic journey he makes to return to his homeland & seek revenge against his so-called friend.
Directed by William Wyler, this extremely ambitious project comes to life in grand detail and is told with patience, with little bursts of excitement at regular intervals. Wyler leaves no stone unturned to infuse a sense of grandeur to every sequence, and the meticulously detailed set pieces, Miklós Rózsa’s epic score, and widescreen cinematography play an important role in realising this vision. But there are also many moments that go on for way too long.
Running at 212 minutes, it’s a daunting film to sit through and the relaxed narration plus plethora of moments that are stretched a tad too far don’t make this ride any easier. The drama manages to be compelling but there are also scenes in between that overstay their welcome & slow down the plot considerably. Two segments stand out the most, one being the sequence in which a Roman Consul tests Ben-Hur’s determination by overworking the slaves and the other is the following.
Ever since its debut, the nine minute chariot race sequence has been hailed by viewers & critics alike as one of the most astounding, jaw-dropping & extraordinary moments in motion picture history and it still remains one of the greatest accomplishments of epic filmmaking. Heading into it, I was doubtful that it may appear a bit dated today but it’s such a gripping, intense & powerful sequence that it effortlessly exceeded all my expectations and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.
Coming to the performances, the ensemble comprises of Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet & Hugh Griffith, and all of them chip in with strong inputs. Heston definitely is the standout and plays the titular character with restraint & passion. Another amazing thing about his performance is the apt chemistry he shares with every other member. The rest play their part accordingly. And one striking aspect I really liked was the angles chosen to depict Jesus Christ, never showing his face yet evoking a mythical vibe almost instantly.
On an overall scale, Ben-Hur is well-deserving of all its accolades, for what it put on the screen given its time of release is nothing short of an achievement. Like all great works, it has managed to stand the test of time, and even though I had slight difficulty in sitting through its overstretched moments of drama, I’ve got nothing but admiration for its grandeur beauty. Looking back today, the whole epic may not live up to its hype for all its viewers out there, but that chariot race sequence is undoubtedly destined to dazzle everyone and leave them absolutely speechless for decades to come.