Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
Still holding the record for the most wins at the Academy Awards with 11, tied with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King, Ben-Hur directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as its title role, defines the genre of biblical epic film.
Set during the time span that Jesus Christ was born and died, the story of Ben-Hur is at first one about a Jew resisting the invasion of Romans in Judea but also the tale of two childhood friends who grew up to be enemies. The most iconic scene of this epic is its chariot race shot during three months in an arena that cost 1 million dollars to build and that took an entire year to build. The special effects of the time were much more primary sot hey had to build the actual sets to make it look real. It is in fact very impressive and I hope that if you can watch it on the Blu-Ray edition it looks stunning. Even if some elements like the parade prior to the race isn’t historically accurate, it is one of the greatest editing achievements of all time.
It is also interesting to mention that it was a remake of the silent version of the film based on the novel of 1880 by Lew Wallace. Many elements like the birth of Christianity, the gay subplot of Judah (Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd), the resistance to tyrants of Rome by using the horses (gas) of the Arab man (Hugh Griffith) are some of the elements that characterizes the myth of the life in America. With Heston who is the typical hero of the biblical drama, read The Ten Commandments, you have a box-office home run and a grand slam at the Oscars. Especially, in the 1950’s.
Being a studio picture with so much money involved it is not surprising that it is technically innovative while being a carrier of conservatism. Let alone the fact that Wyler is a studio director with talent but he is not a Howard Hawks or a Alfred Hitchcock. He plays it safe with his themes and messages. Even if Wyler was not a true auteur, his films were well executed and always technically perfect. Entertainment is always there and he had a staple of quality. It secures a lot on this epic.
On a more personal note, my appreciation of Ben-Hur is divided between admiration of its visual perfection and bore on the conventional script and the forced religious glue that wants to be the prologue and epilogue of the picture. While being spectacular at moments and melodramatic at others, Ben-Hur plays on the edges of tragic and drama while wanting to be religiously significant. However, as perfect as the production is, its message is somewhat too bold and general overall.