Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
Charlton Heston! Charlton Heston Charlton Heston Charlton Heston! Here is the complete list of things I learned from watching Ben-Hur:
- Chariot racing is awesome.
- Being dead is bad, but being a leper is way worse.
- Charlton Heston has some damn blue eyes.
Okay, fine, maybe I learned more than that. But I can’t say that I learned that being a slave in Roman times is not awesome, since it’s not really like I thought it would have been.
From the beginning: Ben-Hur is an three-and-a-half hour epic that takes place during the height of the Roman empire, precisely during the life of Jesus Christ. After the (ten-minute) overture, the film opens with Joseph and Mary returning to Bethlehem as ordered for the census. We see the Nativity, then move smoothly to Ben-Hur himself (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince in Judea. His childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman, has just returned as the new Tribune for the region (roughly middle management in the Roman government). They’re both super happy, but then, for some strange reason, Ben-Hur doesn’t want to take Messala up on his offer to betray his own people and spout the pro-Roman party line. They have a falling out and when Ben-Hur is involved in an accident that nearly kills a Roman leader, Messala takes the opportunity to thrown Ben-Hur into slavery. You will not be surprised to know that Ben-Hur eventually works his way back, at a higher status than before, to seek his revenge.
The story of Judah Ben-Hur himself (Charlton Heston) is interwoven with the story of Jesus Christ, in a way that’s remarkably un-preachy for a Biblical story. Jesus rises to prominence as a preacher in the background, and the characters in Ben-Hur’s world become interested in a totally realistic way. Ben-Hur’s love interest, Esther (Haya Harareet), for example, happens to attend the Sermon on the Mount and tells Ben-Hur about it. But it’s not portrayed in an overbearing “Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and we must follow him!” kind of way, it’s much more honest and subtle, like, “oh hey, there’s this rabbi and he’s preaching tolerance, and what he says makes a lot of sense. I think we should listen to him some more.” Unfortunately, right as they get interested, Jesus is tried and crucified, of course.
What’s surprising about it, and what makes it effective, is that they don’t load it down with historical context that the people in the moment didn’t have. It’s not The Persecution and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, it’s that his guy who seems to have some really good ideas, and was really nice to Ben-Hur specifically, is getting killed, and that’s not awesome. They never show Jesus’s face, but rather than that adding an unnecessary level of drama or intrigue, it successfully recasts him as this nice guy doing nice things comparatively anonymously. Which, for my money, pretty effectively strips away a lot of the baggage we’ve gained in the last two millenia. It’s remarkably refreshing.
The main reason to watch this movie, though, has nothing to do with lepers or Jesus. This chariot race, man. For serious. It’s the best chariot race I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure (disclaimer: it’s also the only chariot race I can remember seeing). The set they built covered 18 acres. It’s huge. It’s a nine-minute-long sequence and completely full of drama. Ben-Hur is racing against Messala (the guy who banished him to be a galley slave), but there are also eight other racers to get in the way add more things to worry about. Messala, at the height of his evilness, has giant nasty barbs sticking out from his chariot’s axles that destroy anything close enough to stick. It’s kind of like short track speed skating, except with horses and spikes and malicious intent. The scale of the thing is enormous, and it completely pays off.
The scale of the whole movie is insane, for that matter. I refer you to Wikipedia for all of the details, but here are some of my favorite tidbits:
- They built 45 real, working fountains for the villa, which used 8.9 miles of pipes(!).
- There were a hundred people employed just sewing the costumes, and 200 people building friezes and statues.
- There were more than 10,000 extras.
- More than a million props were made just for this movie.
- It took three months to film just the chariot race.
- They laid 1000 feet of track just for camera dollies.
- Charlton Heston spent three hours a day taking chariot-driving lessons for the chariot race.
So, what I’m saying is, if you have a spare three and a half hours of your life (or an hour and a half one day and two hours another day, which is what I did), Ben-Hur is actually a really entertaining use of your time.