Untimely Movie Review: Ben-Hur

There’s a moment, about two hours into Ben-Hur, when Charlton Heston’s title character tells Esther “We stood here before,” to which she replies “a long while ago,” and Heston responds, “Four years ago,” at which point I replied, “Feels longer.”

That’s the trouble with Ben-Hur: It’s truly epic.  It’s beyond epic.  The best and the worst thing about it is the sheer scope of the film.  The sets are incredible, the costumes fantastic, and the sheer scale of the some of the scenes are stunningly impressive, particularly for that era of filmmaking.

The movie also spans two blu-ray discs and clocks in at a little under four hours long.  Similarly, it suffers from some of the same problems as some of the other movies I’ve reviewed.  Despite the massive runtime, Ben-Hur seems rushed at points, while dragging extensively at others.

You know what, though?  None of that really matters in the end.  Because of one scene.

Even if the rest of the film had been bad (which it isn’t), or Charlton Heston’s performance hadn’t been great (which it was), the movie would have ultimately been a success thanks to the chariot race scene alone.

The film won a record 11 Academy Awards on 12 nominations in an era when films that were literally spectacular often cleaned up at the Oscars.  In that way, it’s harder to impress modern eyes that have spent decades absorbing effects-saturated blockbusters.

Yet, it’s difficult to explain in words just how absolutely intense, exciting, and downright insane that scene is.  Even putting aside the scale of the thing, and the way it was shot, and the incredible 8,000 extras involved, the sheer danger of it is staggering.

This is an instance where viewing a film from a 2019 point-of-view makes a difference.  Sitting in my living room today, I know that those are real horses on that track, not CGI phantoms.  I also know that safety regulations in the late 1950s were, uh, a bit more lax than they would be today, particularly with dozens and dozens of animals involved.

That’s what makes that scene even more amazing.

As it is, Ben-Hur is a worthwhile film, albeit a very long one.  Its three-hour, 44-minute runtime is only 14 minutes shy of the incredibly long Gone with the Wind.  It goes without saying that a movie winning 11 Oscars is reason enough to take a look.  But the ambition of the film—particularly the chariot scene—makes it near-mandatory viewing for any film aficionado.

________

The above represents the resumption of a series that I began nearly five years ago, but which has laid dormant for over three years.  I still have more than 30 films to go in this collection, but I’ll finish them all eventually.  Here are all of the previous entries in the series:

Grand Hotel (1932)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Wizard of Oz (1939)
Gone with The Wind (1939)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Casablanca (1943)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
An American in Paris (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gigi (1958)
North By Northwest (1959)

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