Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur; drama, USA / Italy, 1959; D: William Wyler, S: Charlton Heston, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Marina Berti

Judah Ben-Hur is a rich merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. He is disappointed that his old friend Messala, who became a commanding officer of the Roman legions, changed and now thinks Judea should stay under Rome's occupation. When parts from an old roof fall from Ben-Hur's house near the new governor, Messala uses that as an excuse and sets Ben-Hur to the galleys and throws his mother and sister to prison. After 3 years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur survives the sinking of his ship and saves his master Quintus Arrius. The thankful Arrius names him his son, and he returns to Judea. There, with the help of the sheik Ilderin, he wins in a chariot race, while Messala dies in an accident. Ben-Hur then discovers his mother and sister have became lepers, but they are healed when Jesus Christ dies on a cross.

"Ben-Hur", winner of 11 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes and one BAFTA, is a flawed epic with slightly dated features, but with still enough energy and spark to captivate even today's audience. Surprisingly, it is actually a Jesus Christ story where Jesus is actually a supporting character in the background of the main story, the one about the injustice carried towards Ben-Hur, but in the end it connects with her and naturally gives a positive religious context - though it is burdened by being too preachy in the last 20 minutes of its running time, especially in some contrived symbols involving Hur's conversion to Christianity. It is a four hour long film that demands patience and the first half an hour drags too obviously, but once the story gets going it raises a few interesting points about corruption of power, loyalty and the triumph of love over revenge. And curiously enough, the best, most touching parts are the one involving water: when a thirsty Ben-Hur is walking together with other prisoners in the hot desert, the Roman soldiers stop to drink from a well. The Romans give every prisoner water, except Ben-Hur because Messala exclusively ordered it so. But then a man, whose face is never seen, gives him water too - it is Christ. A Roman soldier spots that and wants to stop him with force, but when Christ looks him directly in the eyes he just stops, enlightened, not having the heart to do anything bad. Wyler directed that scene just right, with care and understated magic, and the result is truly memorable.

Excellent Hugh Griffith almost steals the show in the supporting role of Sheikh Ilderim, who is a refreshingly energetic and direct character: a small comical sequence, after a meal, has him waiting for a confused Hur to do something, until the protagonist realizes he should burp in order to show the Sheikh that he enjoyed the food. The more dramatic moments stand out, though, especially in the sequence where an angry Hur demands to know if his mother and sister are still alive after five years in a dungeon by Messala, and the viewers are revealed their fate as lepers. The highlight is arguably the epic, 10 minute-long chariot sequence, realized almost without any dialogues, which is almost as gripping and thrilling as a Hitchock film. However, after that race, the rest of the film's 40 minutes are like an anticlimax, dragging too much at times, since the inner story arc was concluded by that point. Among the epic Bible films of that time, "Ben-Hur" is too masochistic at times in overemphasizing suffering, and the acting is wooden by the '50s standards, whereas the story clumsily trips over some religious dogmas near the end, but it offers just enough awe to impress due to its emotional personal story.

Grade:+++

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