Most major holidays give film fans an opportunity to open their vaults and rewatch a few yearly favorites. Everyone has their favorite holiday movie to watch during the Christmas season, a favorite scary movie to watch around Halloween, and an ideal romantic film to celebrate Valentine’s Day; you might even supplement your New Year’s Eve with a screening of When Harry Met Sally… or The Godfather: Part II. However, the Easter holiday can be a bit more challenging, as the subgenre of “Easter movies” isn’t quite as diverse. Unless you want to waste your time on a kid-friendly Easter bunny movie like Hop or the forgotten Best Picture nominee Chocolat, there’s only one Easter movie worthy a damn. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in luck, because 1959’s Ben-Hur remains one of the greatest movies ever made.
Although a 1925 film of the same name had told a simplified version of the same narrative epic, director William Wyler put together a production so ambitious that it risked the future of the industry. Between elaborate action sequences, numerous locations, dozens of original costumes, and painstakingly crafted architecture, Ben-Hur needed to invest in getting its historical details accurate in order to tell its incredible story. Loosely adapted from Lew Wallace‘s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Ben-Hur explores the relationship between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has since become a staunch advocate of the Roman Empire. As the two former brothers fall into conflict, Wyler explores the rise of Jesus Christ (Claude Heater) as a backdrop.
The accolades and acclaim that Ben-Hur has received rival those of any other historical epic. The film won eleven Academy Awards, setting an all-time record that would later be tied by both Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; it was also selected as one of the ten greatest films of all-time by the American Film Institute in 2007. While many of these accolades are certainly in part due to the film’s groundbreaking technical advances, there’s a difference between Ben-Hur and the more obliquely religious historical epics like The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, or Jesus of Nazareth. Regardless of your religious affiliation, Ben-Hur is an astounding piece of blockbuster entertainment that is still being imitated to this day.
Despite Its Grand Scope, ‘Ben Hur’ Focuses on Intimate Relationships
What’s fascinating about Ben-Hur is that it’s somewhat of an anomaly in Wyler’s directorial output; while Wyler could certainly wrangle together impressive casts and work with extensive budgets, his previous acclaimed work included romantic comedy classics like Roman Holiday, civil dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives, and period romances like Wuthering Heights. This knowledge of authentic character relationships allowed him to reframe the Ben-Hur narrative as a story of two best friends turned into sworn enemies; the tragedy of the story is seeing Ben-Hur grow into a messianic hero representative of democracy, while Messala succumbs to his greed and grows to represent imperialism.
While Wyler has never been shy about bringing political connotations to his work, Ben-Hur isn’t as directly metaphorical as what Dalton Trumbo and Stanley Kubrick did with Spartacus. Instead, it’s the genuine compassion and chemistry between Heson and Boyd in the early moments that make these archetypal characters come to life. The film doesn’t skimp on the period-accurate dialogue, but the infatuation that Ben-Hur and Messala show for each other felt more openly compassionate than many other period pieces.
‘Ben-Hur’ Uses an Inventive Structure
Ben-Hur and Messala are framed as pillars of opposite parties; while the opening moments are dedicated to showing their political leanings, they’re also important in surrounding the viewer in the spectacle of the production. Wyler chooses to frame many conversations like a filmed stage play, taking note of all the elaborate work done on the lavish sets meant to emulate the height of Roman wealth. This makes it all the more shocking when we’re whisked away to the sea when Ben-Hur is betrayed and sold into slavery.
The betrayal itself is shocking on the aesthetic level, as the contemplative political discourse scenes are replaced with grueling shots of a tortured Ben-Hur. He is trying to retain his honor and dignity amidst the grunt labor on Roman Consul Quintus Arrius’ (Jack Hawkins) flagship, and Wyler does a great job at showing how the former Prince has learned to ground himself now that he’s given no automatic respect because of his birthright. Heston’s performance is often broad, but there’s a casual sense of decency that he brings to the role that makes him such an iconic screen protagonist. It’s a classic example of showing, not telling; after hearing Ben-Hur state his beliefs to Messala in the opening, he has to prove that they work in practice.
Yes, Ben-Hur is a long movie at 212 minutes, but Wyler keeps the momentum going at a constant pace as he intertwines the different stories. As Ben-Hur finds success as a chariot champion after being named a war hero, we see him building his skills and training for a standoff against Messala that we know is coming; at the same time, Messala’s action in Rome show that without the guidance of his friend, the Empire has fallen deeper into bigotry and militarism. The ongoing narrative of Jesus’ life and how it mirrors Ben-Hur’s is presented in an inspirational, yet historical context; it’s decidedly effective as a framing tool regardless of the viewers’ religious beliefs.
The Spectacle in ‘Ben Hur’ Is Unparalleled
It would be impossible to talk about Ben-Hur without mentioning the chariot race. The final chase sequence between Messala and Ben-Hur is still one of the most propulsive, emotionally charged, and technically impressive action scenes of all-time; no amount of CGI could ever match the practical work done here. It’s also important in establishing Ben-Hur as a “crowd pleaser,” and not just a work of historical text meant to be shown in Sunday Schools. The inclusion of such a game changing set piece as the conclusion to a narrative of revenge certainly inspired other historical epics like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven.
Yet, few films have ever captured the same emotional and technical qualities that make Ben-Hur so special; as the 2016 remake proved, you can’t simplify the betrayal at the heart of the story and rework the chariot scene with slow motion and hope to have the same desired effect. There are some classics that don’t hold up, but Ben-Hur hasn’t aged a day. If you have the Easter weekend to do so, then a 3 and a half hour investment of time is certainly worth it.