I was fortunate enough to start enjoying movies during the mid to late fifties. This was the heyday of the now almost extinct type of film, the epic. Sure, there was the recent success of Gladiator but back then, as TV threatened the movie audience, filmmakers worked at producing bigger and better films. At the height of this trend was the monster hit Ben-Hur. With its cast of thousands, literally, this sweeping drama covers the life of Christ in contrast to the life of a rich Jew, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). As with every aspect of this film the story is grand and sweeping. Typical of most films of this genre the movie begins with Judah on top of the world. He is a prince of his people, extremely rich and very influential. A devoted family man that loves his widowed mother and sister he is even well loved by his slaves. Things start to change for Judah when his childhood friend, Messala (Steven Boyd). Messala, a Roman, had just returned to Jerusalem after being named second in command to the Roman presence there. At first it appears that the old friendship was to be quickly renewed but all too soon a rift appears between the two men as Messala tries to enlist Judah to spy on his people. His life begins its downward spiral when the new tribune of the land makes his ceremonial entry into the city. Judah and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) are watching the procession from their rooftop. Tirzah accidentally dislodges a tile, which falls and injures the tribune. Judah takes the blame and is convicted, sent to the Roman galleys while his mother and sister are initially sentenced to five years in prison but after the return of Judah they are condemned to existence in a leper colony. While on the galley Judah meets the commander of the ship, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Here, once again, is another turning point. The faith of Judah is so strong that it impresses Arrius and after a battle Judah saves the life of the Roman. Judah is freed by the emperor, adopted by Arrius and returns a free man to his homeland. On the way he meets a Sheik (Hugh Griffith) that befriends Judah and talks him into racing his prize horses. This sets us up for one of the truly most memorable moments in the history of film, the chariot race. Woven into this tale is the life of Jesus Christ. While his face is never seen, his presence is reflected throughout the film. It binds the story together and provides a moral compass without being preachy.
What can be said about the acting here other than classic. While there are several moments that a modern viewer will consider hammy, you have to remember that this is what was expected back in the late fifties. Heston is at his top form in this film. His command of his craft is excellent. The best scenes are those opposite Hawkins and Boyd. The synergy between the actors is incredible, they bring out a level of performance not often seen today. This film was produced in an age when movies were all out affairs. There is literally a cast of thousands hired as extras. It was also a time when the studios practically owned the actors and placed as many of their top performers in a single film. They just dont make them like this anymore.
William Wyler directed this famous epic, a film that made the AFI top 100 films list. With a style and flair rarely seen today, Wyler immerses the audience back in time. Directing a cast ot thousands cannot be the easiest task for any director but Wyler was at the peak of his game while making Ben-Hur. His framing of the scenes is masterful. This is a film that requires the full 2.76:1 aspect ratio. When Judah and Messala begin to oppose each other Wyler places them literally on opposite sides of the frame. As one speaks you can see the reaction of the other. He also was able to switch between close ups and wide pans without losing one iota of the pacing of the film. And speaking of pacing, few directors can manage a 221-minute movie that does not drag for a moment. Wyler had a career that spanned decades. Among my personal favorites was the Letter with Bette Davis and Detective Story with Kirk Douglas. Any film by this director is pure gold.
The DVD version of this film marked the forth time I have owned it. I had a pan and scan then a letterboxed version from cable, then bought the Prologic remixed VHS special edition. The DVD presentation is the way this film has to be seen. The movie was filmed in a roadshow variation of Ultra Panavision. This rarely used format provided 2.75:1 anamorphic video with over a two-fold squeeze. The original prints had a five-channel audio that has been remastered to full Dolby 5.1 for this disc. The sound is not as directional as most DVDs today. It truly surrounds you from the first notes of the overture. The rock bottom bass takes over the room as the speakers create a seamless sound field. The chariot race will excite even the most jaded viewer as the horses seem to race around your living room. This is not a film to watch late at night unless your nearest neighbor is miles away. The video is spectacular. The print this DVD was produced from was amazingly clear for a film that is over forty years old. There were a very few film artifacts but absolutely no compression defects. Along with this film, the DVD-18 disc has a commentary feature by Heston and a making of featurette. If you are a collector of movies your collection is hardly complete without this film. This is a classic for the whole family to enjoy together.