The Great Chariot Race

Ben-Hur is one of the last great Biblical epics from classic Hollywood. Since there was a silent version of the 1880 novel released in 1925, that technically makes it a remake. One of the greatest remakes of all time. Since Ben-Hur was such a magnet for records, milestones, and cinematic firsts upon its release. In fact, Ben-Hur is one of my mom’s top favorite movies she’s ever seen. It was released in her birth year, 1959 (hence why I’m reviewing it on her birthday). I always knew I needed to see Ben-Hur, but the 3 hour & 44 minute runtime was daunting.

My lifetime knowledge of the Bible and seeing the silent film helped me to familiarize myself with the story. So I barely felt the extended runtime. Granted the length does include an overture and intermission. Ben-Hur was by far the biggest movie made at the time. Sets were the biggest ever built, props & wardrobe were in the hundreds, actors & animals were in the thousands, and all were established a year in advance. That’s not even factoring in the three month shooting of the great chariot race. I wish Christian epics like Ben-Hur still had this level of dedication. It’s a miracle everything came together so well…

Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur rides his chariot

Ben-Hur is the same story told in the novel and silent film, but changes were made in places. Most were done to increase the length and dramatic weight. Now characters are more complex with better character development. When you wanted a great Bible epic, you called Charlton Heston. It already worked so well in The Ten Commandments. It’s mostly the reason why Heston is one of my mom’s favorite actors. Since he appeared in so many of her childhood films. I value him too, so it increased my appreciation of Judah Ben-Hur. His life as a wealthy Jewish prince in Jerusalem is given more attention. Along with his close friendship with childhood friend turned Roman tribune Messala. You can really see the anguish between them, as they know they can’t be friends anymore. The ways of the Romans turn Messala towards evil. While Ben-Hur remains faithful to his Jewish people. His relationship with freed slave Esther is given more weight as well.

Ben-Hur is betrayed by Messala after an accident and separated from his mother Miriam & sister Tirzah. He fights back a bit more, but that’s not enough to save him from enslavement aboard a galley. The large scale rowing is just as grand as the battle that follows. Miniatures were used in that scene and I couldn’t tell the difference. Heston’s Ben-Hur is a bit more vengeful in his quest to return home. He’s adopted by the Roman Consul after he saves his life and a promising chariot racing career follows. Hugh Griffith received just as much admiration for his role as Judah’s spirited chariot sponsor. It’s only after thinking his mother & sister are dead that he pursues his vengeance against Messala. When in reality, Esther is the only one who knows they have leprosy. The most isolating disease anyone could get at the time.

The chariot race is one of the most epic climaxes ever filmed. The grandeur was so big that an ultra wide screen was needed. The race is fast paced excitement with very real danger. Racers flipped off their chariots, horses run into each other, and Messala popularized the bladed wheel method. He also cheats when he starts whipping Ben-Hur. The race may be won, but his family is still missing. What makes Ben-Hur truly important is the parallel between Judah and Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I of course recognize every important moment. From the Nativity to the Sermon on the Mount to the Crucifixion. Every scene filled me with emotion without ever seeing my savior’s face. My favorite scene will always be Jesus giving a thirsty Ben-Hur water. The Roman’s awestruck reaction is a nice touch too. The encounter drives Judah, but he does struggle with faith at first.

Esther listens to the Sermon, so she’s the one who encourages her husband’s step towards Christianity. They take his mother & sister to the heartbreaking Crucifixion where Judah returns the favor of water. My mom cries every time a miraculous rain storm cures them of their leprosy. Ben-Hur is truly a wonder to behold years later. So much detail was put into the multitude of sets. It may have been a massive film to complete, but William Wyler pulled it off. It helps that he was a Jew that understood the importance of the material. Despite its enormous budget, Ben-Hur became the second highest grossing film of all time. Encouraging it to win a record 11 Academy Awards. Best Picture, Director William Wyler, Actor Charlton Heston, Supporting Actor Hugh Griffith, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Special Effects, Film Editing, Music, and Sound Recording. The only Oscar it didn’t win was for Screenplay. Ben-Hur remains one of the grandest cinematic achievements of all time.

Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur rows the galley

Remake of: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

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