Ben Hur

AFI Rank: #72
Year Released: 1959
Director: Charles Brabin
Actors: Charlton Heston

We've been rewatching all movies on the AFI top 100 list and Ben Hur was one I greatly looked forward to. Released in 1959, it had earned the #72 spot on the top listing. I love movies about the Roman Empire, and I love classic movies. So this seemed like a perfect pairing. Undoubtedly I'd seen Ben Hur several times in my life, but not in a while. It was time to appreciate it fresh.

Then the movie began with a fairly ludicrous scene of a spaceship-like star flying across the sky, stopping over a barn, and sending down a light tractor beam, apparently to suck up the inhabitants. I realize this was supposed to be the Star of Bethlehem, but the effect was laugh-inducing. Again, I've been watching numerous classics, so I understand that they had challenges in how they could convey scenes. Still, I haven't had this kind of reaction to any other movie I saw. This clearly fell into the "silly" category.

That inauspicious start did not bode well. We have the characters of Ben Hur and his childhood friend Messala who is now a powerful man in the Roman empire. Messala gets about five minutes of being decent before he becomes the Arch Enemy. The portrayal of Messala as outrageously inept in manipulating his friend makes one wonder how he got to his position of power. Ben Hur's equally immature reaction makes one wonder how he survived as long as he had in a Roman town.

And it continues. Sequence of events feel very heavy handed and forced for plot reasons. Ben Hur gets back home and his beloved lies to him about his mother and sister being dead, all simply because they're ill? Yes, I know they had lepers and leper colonies, but they weren't as reviled as the movie makes them out to be, and many loved ones chose to go with their partners to the colony to be with them there. Certainly they weren't places where "nobody has a name"!

Some of the ship scenes are ludicrous. The crew has been to sea for years - they know about naval combat. An enemy ship is coming for them - so they stop rowing? That's a sure way to die! If they had simply rowed, they would have shot ahead of the enemy ship and escaped damage. It made no sense.

I'm not sure what the term for "black face" would be when applied to an Arab, but I found the portrayal by Hugh Emrys Griffith - a **Welsh** actor - of a heavily made up dark skinned sheik to be fairly upsetting. Surely they could have had actual Arabs playing those parts? If not, they could have done a much better job with make-up. It looks almost like a caricature done with shoe black.

The famous chariot race scene is always good to watch, even if now it reminds me of Grease with the identical spinning tire-cutters. I do realize that Ben Hur came first. Still, it's hard to watch one now without thinking of the other. There are even YouTube videos showing them side by side.

We have Messala's death, which really doesn't give much of a message at all. Ben Hur still hates him, Messala still thinks he did what was right.

And then Jesus is slain, and the two women are instantly healed for really no reason at all. As a reward for Ben Hur beating Messala in the race? Because they happened to be in the square when Jesus was sentenced?

There are so many other movies about Jesus that I think tell the story much more profoundly. Ben Hur had me shaking my head too many times to fall into a category of a movie that I'll want to see again any time soon. I realize that when it was made in 1959 that it was probably the best effort to date. However, now I think that we can see the characters as fairly wooden, and the plot forced.

I realize I will be penalized by Ben Hur adorers for having issues with the movie. I apologize that I did not have the same reaction. I really did want to love it.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100