1959 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #248: Ben-Hur (1959)

Obviously this blog has already covered many iconic films most of which have gone on to win the Best Picture prize. It has also allowed me to fill in a lot of gaps in my cinematic viewing as there are many classic films that I have never watched. One such film is Ben-Hur, which grabbed the top prize at the 1960 Academy Awards. Obviously I was aware of the film’s iconic chariot race but at the time I didn’t realise how much of it relied on the characters’ religious beliefs.

In fact some of the early scenes in the film revolve around us seeing Joseph and Jesus at the former’s carpentry warehouse. However, as you probably guessed, the film is mainly based around Charlton Heston’s titular character. At the beginning of the film, Ben-Hur is a wealthy prince who is glad to have his old friend Messala back in town as the new Roman tribune. However, the two fall out after Ben-Hur doesn’t give Messala the names of the Jews who criticise the Romans. As revenge, Messala condemns Ben-Hur to the galleys after a roof slate falls during a parade for the Romans. Now a slave, Ben-Hur finally gets to prove himself when their ship is attacked by Macedonian forces and he frees the boat’s commander Arrius. Ben-Hur stop Arrius committing suicide and the two are later rescued, with Arrius successfully petitioning for Ben-Hur’s freedom. Arrius then adopts Ben-Hur as his son and treats him to the finer things in life but Ben-Hur eventually decides he needs to return to Judea. On return to his hometown he meets his old slave’s daughter Esther who informs him that his mother and sister have died. In actuality, the pair have contracted leprosy and are now living in a commune, but they don’t want Ben-Hur to know about it. Filled with rage, Ben-Hur agrees to compete in a chariot race for wealthy Sheik Ilderim so he can defeat Messala once and for all. After being successful in the chariot race, Ben-Hur sees Jesus perform the Sermon on the Mount and later witnesses his crucifixion. He also attempts to give Jesus water, as Jesus had given Ben-Hur water earlier on, and in return for this Jesus miraculously cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister.

Ben-Hur is definitely a film that is of its time. I think if it came along today then it wouldn’t receive the same praise as it did back then. Indeed Ben-Hur has gone down in Oscar history as one of three films, along with Titanic and Return of the King, to win 11 awards. Among these was a Best Actor Award for Charlton Heston who essentially played the same role as he did in The Ten Commandments. Heston’s brooding Ben-Hur was certainly compelling but I feel he over-did his performance at some points. Hugh Griffith, as Sheik Ilderim, was also rewarded with the Best Supporting Actor Award for what was a primarily comic turn. Indeed I believe the best performance in the film came from Jack Hawkins as the emotionally tormented Quintus Arrius. I felt Hawkins excelled in the scenes in which his ship comes under attack and he attempts to kill himself only to be freed by one of his slaves. Obviously the film is best remembered for the chariot scene and I felt that was visually spectacular. Indeed, this was what I’d been waiting to see and it didn’t disappoint with both director William Wyler and cinematographer Robert L Surtees going out of their way to make this scene completely thrilling.
Elsewhere I really enjoyed the scenes in which Ben-Hur was a slave on the boat and found the award-winning Art Direction was also in full force during the section of the film that was set in Rome. I have to say though, and I know this may be seen as heresy, but I felt that the film took a good while to get going and could’ve been trimmed down by at least thirty minutes. Having said that, I can at least argue that Ben-Hur deserved its Best Picture Oscar as this was a visually-stunning and bold epic which audience wouldn’t have seen at the time. While it’s far from perfect, it has enough going for it to be a rightful winner and I have no problem with this being one of the eighty or so Best Pictures that I will encounter on this blog.


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