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Ben-Hur, an astonishing 11 Academy Award winning historical film packs in its long run some of Hollywood’s most enthralling moments, particularly in the nail biting finish of an enthralling chariot race. The beautiful photography of the film fails, however, to compensate for some of the tediously lengthy scenes which are a drain on the audience.
The story, which may be a bit tediously told, is nonetheless, gripping. Ben-Hur [played superbly by Charlton Heston] is condemned to the galleys by the Commander of the Roman garrison, Messala [Stephen Boyd], a one time friend of Ben-Hur. Not only that, Messala imprisons Ben-Hur’s mother Miriam [Martha Scott] and his sister Tizah [Cathy O’Donnell].
The movie cuts to three long and gruesome years of slavery later—and after surviving a near collapse at Nazarath where he is given water by Jesus in the garb of a carpenter, Ben-Hur is assigned to Quintus Arrius [Jack Hawkins], the Roman Consul. Ben-Hur’s disciplined routine fascinates Quintus who later—after a sort of election win—not only adopts him as his son, but also petitions Emperor Tiberius [George Ralph] to offer him freedom.
Rich once again, Ben-Hur gradually adapts himself to Roman ways. He even masters the art of chariot racing, soon becoming a champion charioteer. However feeling homesick Ben-Hur prefers to come back to Jerusalem encountering on the way Balthasar [Finlay Currie] and the Arab Sheik Ilderim [Hugh Griffith] who requests Ben-Hur to drive his ‘quadriga’ in a race before Pontius Pilate [Frank Thring], the new Judean Governor. But on learning that Messala is one of the competitors in the race, Ben-Hur declines.
Home now, he meets the girl he silently loved, Esther [Haya Harareet], the beautiful daughter of his slave Siomonides [Sam Jaffe]. She was intended to be married off to another man and as her wedding gift Ben-Hur had released her from slavery long ago. But to his favor, he finds Esther is still unmarried and still in love with him, though he is told that his mother and sister were imprisoned during his absence and died. He vows to take revenge on Messala and accepts to participate in the chariot race.
And this is where the story picks up a bit of pace and action.
The chariot race begins. And so does the interesting part of the movie. Messala’s chariot fitted with blades on the hub, knifes the competing vehicles. One by one the racers fall. But in the final run to the win Messala trying to upturn Ben-Hur falls himself and gets fatally injured. Ben-Hur wins and manages to extract whereabouts of his family only to be told they are now in the valley of lepers. And the movie again loses its action, and thereby its charm.
Now we are shown somewhat lengthy and ennui entailing scenes of lepers, with the only saving grace, being the enriching and enlightening scenes of the march of Jesus to Calvary.
We view the dramatic collapse of Jesus in front of Ben-Hur and the latter’s failed attempt to give him water as he recognizes his earlier benefactor at Nazareth. Then follows the crucification alongside the falling rain which miraculously heals Miriam and Tizah. Jesus’s talk of forgiveness while on the cross, like his earlier sermon on the Mount impels Ben-Hur to forgo his hatred.
All this done, we have that final scene of Ben-Hur’s re-union with family and with Esther, but somehow again, it lacks the much needed emotional intensity.
In a nutshell, subtract the chariot race from the film and the aura gets real reduced!
On the whole, it was a truly ground-breaking movie for its time, but see it in comparison now, there is something missing. Nonetheless, Ben-Hur will always remain to be a classic historical film, and one of Charlton Heston’s best on-screen performances.
If you are in the mood for nostalgia, got a few hours to burn, and probably have a slow roast meat to cook, call your mates and watch Ben-Hur; it wouldn’t disappoint.