Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Retro Review: BEN-HUR (1959)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we’ll be looking back at a classic film that was remade this summer... BEN-HUR (1959).

The 1959 classic Ben-Hur, the first remake of an adaptation from Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,’ is an epic historical drama that tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur as he goes from a wealthy and powerful position in Judea to Roman slave to champion of the chariot races. The story is interwoven with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This film is best-known for being one of three films tied for the most Academy Awards won by a single film of all time with 11. The film was directed by William Wyler and starred Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, and Sam Jaffe.

Some 67 years later, Ben-Hur manages to still be a pretty solid (albeit extremely long) picture with a scene that is definitively one of the most exciting ever committed to film. Looking positively on the story in Ben-Hur the film justifies its extensive runtime. It really tells a story with extremely broad scope, all of which is essential to appreciate the climax of the story and the heartbreak contained within. It is rare that a film achieves this and that is why, I think, Ben-Hur has stood the test of time.

In addition to the story, the basic execution in this film is all around decent. The performances are all fine (even if they aren’t great by modern standards). The way the film is shot is mostly effective and interesting. Otherwise, it is just a standardly efficient film which is nothing to shake a stick at (especially given how long ago it was made).

The biggest positive in this film is the chariot race scene in the final act of the film. This scene remains, to this day, one of the most exciting, heart-pounding action scenes ever committed to film. Even in the 2016 remake of this film they couldn’t remotely replicate the excitement from the scene, nor were they able to replicate the emotions you got from this sequence. You can tell that this chariot race is real. Real people riding real chariots behind real horses. It allowed for long shots that dramatically improved the audiences level of involvement in the scene. The scene also has delightful sound design that really envelopes the viewer and transports them back to the time of the Roman Empire in a real tangible way.

This film is far from perfect, and probably not deserving of being in a 'Best Of All Time' club. For starters, outside of the chariot race scene nothing in this film is special. None of it is awful, but it is incredibly average. This is deeply insufficient for a film of the perceived caliber of Ben-Hur, however. The film also feels like it shoe-horned in a few too many things, most significantly the Jesus elements. They really felt like they were not essential to the story being told and often detracted from the main storyline. In a film as long as Ben-Hur that is not acceptable and is a serious issue. I also felt like a lot of actors were hamming it up a bit and some of the drama was lost as a result.

Overall, Ben-Hur is a classic in the true sense and is definitely worth a watch. It has one scene alone that is so incredible that it really needs to be in the back of every cinephile’s memory banks. It is not a brilliant film though. It is an average film that came out at the right time with one incredible thing in it. Definitely check it out!

Ryan’s Score: 7/10

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