I’m actually kind of upset with myself because, at one point, I was planning on spending all of February watching TCM’s 31 Days of Oscars and reviewing all of the best picture nominees that showed up on the channel. Unfortunately, I ended up getting busy with other things (like Shattered Politics, for instance) and it was only tonight that I finally got a chance to sit down and watch TCM. Oh well, maybe next year! But for now, I’m just going to watch and review as much as I can before the month ends.
With that in mind, I just spent four hours watching the 1959 best picture winner Ben-Hur.
In many ways, Ben-Hur feels like a prototypical best picture winner. It’s a big epic film that obviously cost a lot to produce and which features a larger-than-life star surrounded by a bunch of a memorable character actors. It features two spectacular set pieces and some human drama that’s effective without being particularly challenging. It’s a film that deals with big themes but does so in a rather safe way. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a film that, today, is often dismissed as being old-fashioned and simplistic and yet it’s still a lot of fun to watch.
Opening with no less of an event than the birth of Jesus, Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Jewish aristocrat who, as a young man, was best friends with a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd). When Messala is named as the new commander of the local Roman garrison, he is upset to discover that Ben-Hur is more loyal to his religion than to the Roman Empire. Feeling personally rejected by his best friend (and perhaps more, as there are a lot of theories about the subtext of their relationship), Massala frames Ben-Hur for the attempted assassination of Judea’s governor.
Over the next 220 minutes, we watch as Ben-Hur goes from being a prisoner to a galley slave to the adopted son of a Roman general (Jack Hawkins) and finally one of the best chariot racers in ancient Rome. Throughout it all, he remembers a mysterious man who once attempted to give him a sip of water. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur’s family has been imprisoned and afflicted with leprosy. Appropriately, for a film that opened with the Nativity, it ends with the Crucifixion, during which Ben-Hur’s struggle to save his family also comes to a climax.
Ben-Hur is undoubtedly flawed film. (Among the film that were nominated for best picture of 1959, my favorite remains Anatomy of Murder.) The film runs about an hour too long, some of the supporting actors give performances that are a bit too over-the-top, and the entire film is so reverential that in can be difficult for modern audiences, especially in this age of nonstop irony, to take it seriously. In the lead role, Charlton Heston is always watchable and has a strong physical presence but you never quite believe that he’s the thinker that the script insists that he is. There’s nothing subtle about Heston’s performance but, then again, there’s nothing subtle about the film itself.
And yet, if the film struggles to connect on a human level, Ben-Hur still works as a spectacle. The gigantic sets and the ornate costumes are still impressive to look at. The film’s two big action sequences — a shipwreck and the chariot race — are still exciting and thrilling to watch. Ben-Hur may be dated but you can still watch it and understand why it was so popular with audiences in 1959 and, though I may not agree with a lot of the decisions, I can see why the Academy honored Ben-Hur with a record 11 Oscars. It’s the type of spectacle that, in 1959, could only have been found on the big screen. By honoring Ben-Hur, the Academy was honoring the relevance of the Hollywood establishment.
In the end, Ben-Hur may not hold up as well as some best picture winners but it’s still worth watching.