For some unknown reason (critic’s intuition), I purposely decided to select Ben-Hur as my concluding review of every Best Picture since the Oscars began (cross-references below).
Seen for the first time in 2022 (somehow I missed the opening in 1959…), it proved to be a worthy, if uneven, conclusion to JWR’s years-long project.
Despite its humungous length (replete with “Overture”, Intermission” and “Entr’acte”—nowhere to be found these days), the film is memorable for its visual appeal (sets, costumes, literally cast of thousands), but most certainly comes up short due to the melodramatic narrative (based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; screenplay by Kael Tunberg with assists from a quartet of others, notably Gore Vidal—too many writers can spoil the broth), overflows with far too much unlikely coincidence, predictable outcomes (who else could win the famous chariot race?) and ever-so-convenient miracles.
Not to be far off the production mark, composer Miklos Rozsa produced one of the cheesiest scores ever, featuring soaring strings and a chorus most suitable as accompaniment to the right hand of God (tellingly, Jesus—Claude Heater—is mostly seen from the back whether providing much-need water, delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or taking his turn on the cross in a much more believable way than Mel Gibson—cross-reference below).
In the acting department, Charlton Heston in the title role is all brawn and action, with real emotion MIA (sporting spears instead of leading the NRA’s pathetic lobby to help Americans continue to kill each other at random). As his Roman nemesis—consul of Judea, Messala—Stephen Hawkins has his best moments in the bathhouse scene… Jack Hawkins is stoically sturdy as Quintus Arrius (but believing he IS a Roman Consul is entirely out of the question in the era-true costuming—as are many of the Caucasian conquerors—too white by half in skin tone). Finlay Currie’s Balthasar (one of three kings bringing gifts to Mary and Joseph in the starry prologue) is pitch perfect. For balance, Hugh Griffith is a hoot as the wily Sheik Ilderim.
Playing Ben-Hur’s mother, Martha Scott is merely so-so; Cathy O’Donnell as sister Tirzah doesn’t fare much better, but their scenes (notably in leprosy valley) don’t give them much scope). The love interest, Esther (Haya Harareet) is yet another pawn in the drama who does everything asked of her without ever lighting the flame of real passion.
Clearly, director William Wyler put spectacle ahead of storytelling which paid of handsomely both at the box office (what the Academy covets most) and awards everywhere.
But now, as Putin pummels Ukraine for his fragile ego (just as the Romans assumed it was their destiny to conquer anyone else but true patriots), and COVID-19 takes its deadly toll as the leprosy pandemic of the 21st century, this film seems more like something to watch with the sound turned off than celebrated as epic, (far too long), storied filmmaking.
Hopefully, Putin will meet the same fate as Messala: killed while cheating in a race that is supposed to be honest and fair. JWR