Ben-Hur (1959)

Yes, I am reviewing an older religious epic film.  Odd, right?  Well, I had told my buddy Bob that I would in fact do this film review at his urging.  With that in mind, and given the context of the film and the people who may enjoy this review more than my typical horror fiends, I’m going to watch my language.

I took a lot of notes during this film because my short term memory is terrible.  From those notes, I’m going to try to make this into something that will offer my opinions and maybe beg some questions.

Overall, I really liked this movie.  Within the first 15-20 minutes, I kept thinking about Gladiator, and there is no doubt in my mind that this film inspired one of the all time best films.  I do feel that the term epic is tossed around too loosely.  Realistically, how many true epics have been made?  It’s not as many as every film trailer would have you believe.  While this may not be the first one, or maybe it was, I have no idea, this is an amazing film that takes you on a very lengthy and profound journey of betrayal, vengeance, acceptance, chariots, love, horses, whips, spears, and Pontius Pilate.

The story is there, very clearly, and it is like 3 and a half hours long, and it rarely got boring, which is quite the feat in my opinion.  Still, we have to talk about the acting.  Charlton Heston is one of those names, he’s a household name, or at least used to be, and then that *&^% Michael Moore did that whole Bowling for Columbine nonsense. Charlton won the Oscar here, and this film racked up awards left and right.  I don’t know whether he deserved it because, believe it or not, I am not well versed in films from 1959.  I will say that he delivers 70-80% of the time, and then he has a little bit of his cheesiness that was on full display in Planet of the Apes, for instance.  He did a really good job, and was a great lead.  Hugh Griffith, who played Sheik, won for best supporting actor.  Sheik was clearly my favorite character and I had hoped that he had at least received a nomination.  I felt that the people who played Messala, Esther, Pontius, Balthazar, Quintus Arrius, and especially Simonides, were all very good to great.  Messala, I feel, was the toughest role, and it showed, but it was well done.

The other aspects that I want to touch on before I get to my notes is the technical stuff.  Visually, this looked awesome, and I love how blue Heston’s eyes were in this.  Of course there is the chariot scene, which I would like to watch some special features on someday, as I can only imagine how hard that was to film.  The stuff on the ships was also really well done.  Then of course, there is the music, which feels like John William’s father or something did.  It was really something to just chill and enjoy.

Now onto my notes, and some of these will be in paragraph form, and some may just be random observations.  I apologize for the length of this, but it’s a long film, so just enjoy the time and effort here.

I admit, at first I found the whole star thing in the beginning very cheesy, and it initially concerned me about how this movie would go.  I was happy to see the 3 wise men, and this whole thing is about the days of Jesus Christ, despite him not really being a main character, his presence is felt throughout .  While watching, I looked up info on the 3 Wise Men and found that in Syria, they often say that there were 12.  So there’s that.

Every time I hear them say Nazareth, I wanted to sing “Love Hurts.

I still don’t know why Messala’s helmet’s red mane isn’t like everybody else’s unless it had something to do with rank.

I loved how irritating they made Rome in this.  They come off so obnoxious, with their taxes, and trumpets, and  just the domineering way that they handle things.

I liked the pep talk that Pontius had with Messala early on about how to break an idea, and how respectful he was early on.

OK, I hate to be that guy, and feel free to skip this part, but I have to discuss it.  Judah and Messala came off incredibly friendly.  Friendlier than any 2 dudes typically are in a film.  I am familiar with how men were portrayed at that time in Hollywood, and this seemed so over the top.  Naturally, I have this internal conversation, is there any way that they intended to make these 2 come off as gay or lovers or however you want to word it.  Obviously, that wouldn’t be the intention for a film of this nature, but man.  I did some research after the film and did find that I wasn’t the only person to question it.  While it wasn’t the intended purpose, my gaydar was going off.  The worst offense was Messala touching Judah’s arm and saying “Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?” followed by a giggle. I found this an odd choice in how they had these 2 act, and I know that it’s easily defensible, and it’s not a flaw, but a very curious choice is all I am saying, made more surprising by the nature of this particular film.

This whole thing with Messala trying to convince Judah to give in to the empire, it reminded me so much of the film Swing Kids.  The best part is that you can see both perspectives, whether you agree with them is a whole other thing, but that’s what makes a “villain” even better.  People are raised or brought up to believe one thing and another believes the opposite.  Both are just doing what they feel is the right thing.  This is actually why I still prefer Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in Gladiator as the antagonist.  While they are similar characters, at least Messala was doing his job and just trying to get a promotion.  Commodus just wanted what he felt he deserved but yet never earning it.

In a way, isn’t Messala’s story just as tragic as Judah’s?  Messala knows what he has to do and it is a lousy choice.  He did what was best for him, at the time, but still had to live with the decisions that he made.  By the time that he dies, you think about his journey.

They set up the Judah and Esther stuff so well in their first meeting.  She was quite the beauty, and I have to assume was somewhat of a famous talent for awhile based on appearance alone.  By the way, Simonides was my first of my favorite characters.  Something about him was incredibly endearing.  Also, how is it that Judah didn’t have a special lady friend at the beginning of the film?

I liked the death of The Governor, it was well set up.  I even moreso enjoyed when Messala investigated later and realized that what he was told was the truth, but at that point, he couldn’t go back without pretty much ruining his life.  I kinda thought that Messala was going to make Tirzah his woman, and maybe treat her to a life of luxury so much that she would betray Judah down the line.  But it didn’t go that way.  Also, I had to laugh when Judah is fighting the guards and gets hit in the head by the keys.  It was such a quick and practical thing.  Then these guys did a lousy job of handling Judah.  This made me incredibly happy to see Judah get his hands on a spear again. Messala was great with his back against the wall, very confident, which made him all the more despised.  His reasoning of how he was to show that he was not a man to be trifled with, and it was one of, if not the best scene in the whole film.

The whole dynamic between Messala and Judah remind me in some ways of Jean Veljean and Javert in Les Miserables, and that’s a great thing.

Jesus hooking Judah up with some water and showing no fear of the Romans was pretty solid.  Not only that, but it set up so much of the last 30-45 minutes of the film.  Plus, the one Roman in charge didn’t dare take on Jesus, and  it was odd, but cool to see.

The whole boat scene, I wouldn’t call it a scene, as I mean the whole boat part, this was easily my favorite part of the film.  Judah has this confidence, especially against Quintus.  I loved Quintus pushing the guys to their limit by increasing speed.  This also leads to my guilty pleasure character, the Hortator who just pounds the rhythm of the rowing. What a terrible job that is.  My arms got tired just watching him.  The smell in that room had to be absolutely awful too.  These are things I think about.

Quintus was a very interesting character and although his story was short, he may have had one of the best character arcs of the whole movie.  It was like watching wrestling when the bad guy finally sees the light and turns face and becomes the good guy and fights all of the heels.  Yes, I had to mention wrestling.

Judah’s meeting with Balthazar was short but it really got me wondering just how he would play a role later on.  Also, the mentioning of Alexandria, so now I must mention The Walking Dead and get all of my references out in short order. Messala was very similar to The Governor if you really thing about it, just saying.  I could make more comparisons, but I won’t.

Sheik is an instantly charismatic and fun character.  He was the perfect character for a film that needed that levity.  From yelling at the guy for hitting his horses, to having 8 wives, to him waiting for Judah to burp.  Then how he treats and talks to his horses, everything is just great here.  Aside from the boat stuff, this is my second favorite scene.

I approve that they kept the scenes between Esther and Judah short for such a long film.

Another great scene is when Messala and Judah see each other face to face after Messala gets the gift. Messala’s reaction is exquisite.  Messala still stands tall all things considering.  Judah’s confidence was off the charts here, and it may have been his best scene.

It was a shame to find out that Miriam and Tirzah became lepers, but I was surprised that they lived that long, and even more surprised that Messala didn’t kill them just to spite Judah and get in his head more.  Like kill them right in front of him.

Obviously I was a big fan of Sheik making bets with Messala.  He’s so charismatic, in a room full of like 30 men, he stands out and owns the moment.

Paragraphs later, I can finally discuss the chariot race scene.  It was great, of that, there is no real argument.  To just read all the interesting tidbits about it is awesome, and the music is great too.  I didn’t like how Messala had the Greek Chariot with the huge advantage.  It really didn’t make sense to me.  All of this time, I feel that Messala has still tried handling things like a man doing his job.  I a lot of people will disagree with me, but he had a certain bit of honor to him, and this struck me as unnecessary.  I feel that the scene would have been more effective if Messala was actually just incredibly good and skilled and then lost due to over confidence, or just lost a hard fought win.  The whip was cool, and when he hit one of the white horses, I half expected Sheik to lose it.  The overall scale of this scene is gigantic and should be a scene that everybody should see before dying.  I loved the EMT’s, as I will call them, for their hustle onto the field to get guys who lost their rides.  Pontius has some great lines like “I crown their god.”  Somehow, this whole thing ends in such  agrand fashion with Messala being so stubborn, refusing to get his legs amputated and save his life, and would rather face his nemesis as a whole man and then die.  He knew what he had done, I don’t think he ever intended on living beyond this.  His voice was so well done there, and then the big reveal to Judah that his mother and sister are still alive. Rather than make peace, he adds the “if you can recognize them” line and tells him that the race isn’t over.  That is how you go out like a hoss.

The whole Valley of the Lepers was a neat place, I loved how food was delivered, and it was an incredible set piece.  Later on, we see more of it inside the cave, and it’s well done.

Then we have the last great scene.  Pontius drops so many great lines on Judah, and is very blunt, but speaks a lot of blunt truth too.  My favorite lines were: “Where there is greatness, great government or power, even great feeling or compassion, error also is great. We progress and mature by fault. But Rome has said she is ready to join your life to hers in a great future.” and “Perfect freedom has no existence”. these lines have so much impact I believe, and it’s a short scene, but it’s like the final straw in some sense.  Great acting by both gentlemen.

Judah finally sees him mom and sister and wants to bring them to the miracle man, Jesus, but he has just been sentenced.  I found it to be a very interesting choice to never show Jesus’ face up close.  Most of you are familiar with how this story plays out, it’s obviously not pretty and full of despair, to say the least.  Then Judah finally realizes that he knows him and he tries to give Jesus water.  I was happy that they found a way to get that in.  Although unsuccessful, obviously it was the right gesture. I get why they did this, and showed the crucification, but it brings the movie to this standstill.  Then Judah and Balthazar had another very poignant conversation about Jesus and his purpose and whatnot.  This is where I would have stopped the movie, because it was such a profound conversation.

I get why they did the whole storm thing and whatnot, but I have to admit, it felt very tacked on.  Then Miriam and Tirzah are just magically cured, and I get it, but I didn’t like it.  For me, this is not a happy story, this is an absolutely sad and horrific story, and I feel that they added the stuff at the end to send audiences home happy, which makes sense.  From a storytelling perspective, it was unnecessary.  The Full House type group hug at the end, I just, nope.

Sorry for the length but it was a 3 hours and 42 minutes long movie.  The only thing left is for a rating, and I don’t know how to properly rate this.  For it’s time, it’s a 9.2, but we no longer live in 1959.  There are some small nitpicks, but the last 5 minutes or so, that’s where my biggest gripe lies.  Also, in fairness, it is a long movie so it gets the time to tell it’s full story.

Rating – 8.2 feels very fair to me.  The thing is, I simply don’t know how many more times I will watch it, but it was a great movie and incredibly well done.

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