To hell with Gladiator.
Scratch that. Ben-Hur is no stupid gladiator movie. As the title sequence tells us, this is ‘A Tale of the Christ,’ an unabashed religious fable, albeit one that only shows its hero from the back.
Of course, Jesus is not the real subject of this tale, it’s Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince living in Judea, played by the incomparable Charlton Heston. Ben-Hur lives high on the hog, here in the year 26, as we’re told. And he’s a good guy, nice to his slaves and everything. But woe be unto Judah when the Romans step up their military presence in his territory. Despite their being led by his old friend Massala (Stephen Boyd, who never starred in another big hit after Ben-Hur), tensions run high, and when some tiles accidentally fall from Ben-Hur’s roof, nearly hitting the new Governor of Judea, Judah is quickly sentenced without trial to hard labor, rowing in the galleys of the Roman navy.
From prince to slave he goes, and because of his endless compassion, Ben-Hur finds himself legally adopted by a Roman nobleman whose life he has saved years later. He practices his charioteering, and soon enough he is at liberty to avenge not only his imprisonment, but that of his mother and sister as well. That vengeance, as any moviegoer knows, takes place on the chariot course in a sequence so famous, dramatic, and long it consumes 10 chapters of the film’s 61-chapter DVD release.
At 3 1/2 full hours of running time, you aren’t likely to find another G-rated film that kids will hate more than Ben-Hur. Even as an (ostensible) adult, I’m torn on the film. It’s not particularly well-written. The music is heavy-handed and grates on the ears. The story is far-fetched and lacks proper editing. And it’s 3 1/2 hours long.
But don’t mind me. Nominated for 12 Oscars, Ben-Hur won 11, a record. Shot on 65mm super-widescreen film, it is one of the most resplendent films you’ll ever see (check out the new DVD release if you don’t believe me — it also includes a documentary about the making of the film and a commentary track by Heston, not to mention an old screen test with Leslie Nielsen as Massala). And Heston is unforgettable (the rest of the cast is another story). Moviegoers agreed, when Ben-Hur‘s grosses saved MGM from bankruptcy. (Warner Brothers has the rights now.)
All told, I’m content to let the overly dramatic theatrics of Ben-Hur fall by the wayside (case in point: after four years in prison, Ben-Hur’s sister and mother develop leprosy — and who do we know that can cure leprosy, hmmmmm). Instead, I’ll sit back and take my place in the stands for that thundering chariot race. Hell, that’s better than a cruddy, overrated gladiator picture any day.
Ride ‘em, cowboy.