Directed by William Wyler with Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith, color, 212 minutes, 1959
Charlton Heston in the chariot race
By Carter B. Horsley
When it was released, Ben-Hur was a very big and long deal.
review of the film at his website, derrickwinnert.com, Derrick Winnert
declared that "Unfortunately, this incredibly popular and sincere 1959
of the 1925 Ramon Novarro silent epic Ben-Hur about the conflict of the
and the Romans at the time of Christ just plain hasn’t aged too well."
"Now it seems arid and stuffy. But it was a sensation in its
day, and swept up 11 Oscars (the all-time record holder until equalled in 1998
by Titanic), including best film, director, actor (Charlton Heston), supporting
actor (Hugh Griffith), colour cinematography, art direction, sound, scoring,
editing, special effects and costumes. Painstaking director William Wyler’s outrageously over-long
film...hasn’t worn at all well, and a lot of it is stodgily
filmed and boringly written. In a bit of a snub by Academy voters, Karl
Tunberg’s screenplay, based on the book by Lew Wallace, was its only nomination
that didn’t turn into an Oscar, but then James Cameron’s for Titanic wasn’t
even nominated. Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal and Maxwell Anderson all worked to
improve Tunberg’s work, which Wyler had labelled ‘awful’ and ‘horrible’.
"However, the MGM production is the best money...could buy. Charlton Heston is
seen at around his best, very noble and heroic as the rich Jewish prince and
merchant Judah Ben-Hur, who becomes a converted Christian, is betrayed by his
boyhood friend, Roman commander Messala (Stephen Boyd), sold into slavery, is
eventually freed and seeks revenge. And the cast of Boyd, Haya Harareet (Esther), Jack Hawkins
(slave owner Quintus Arrius), Hugh Griffith (as a very Welsh Sheikh Ilderim),
Martha Scott (Miriam, mother of Hur), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie
(Balthasar / narrator), Frank Thring (Pontius Pilate),...all turn
cartwheels to make it work, even some of them who are desperately miscast and
"On the visceral epic front, it still delivers its magic. The
second unit boss Andrew Marton-directed chariot race against Boyd’s Messala,
now deadly rival of the vengeful Ben-Hur, plus the great sea battle still
thrill (though even so aren’t as spectacular as in the 1925 Fred Niblo
version). Yakima Canutt’s stunt work on the race is still incredible. There are
15,000 extras in the chariot race sequence, filmed on an 18-acre site, over
five weeks. Technically it looks pretty shaky now, even though it won
the best special effects Oscar. But there’s fine work on the cinematography by
Robert Surtees, score by Miklos Rozsa and set designs/art direction by Edward
Carfagno, Hugh Hunt and William Horning.
"It was a big gamble for MGM – it was the most expensive film then made – that paid off handsomely, earning $75 million....Gay actor Rock Hudson turned down the role of Messala because of its gay subtext, which the very heterosexual actor Heston always denied existed. Writer Vidal said he persuaded Wyler to direct Boyd to play Messala as if he were a spurned gay lover. Wyler agreed and told Boyd to play the role that way, but they decided to keep Heston in the dark about Messala’s motivations. This story is told in the 1995 film The Celluloid Closet. In 2012 Raquel Welch claimed that Boyd (her co-star on Fantastic Voyage) told her he was gay after he rejected her advances....Paul Newman turned down the star role, saying he didn’t have the legs to play Ben-Hur!"
Boyd, in fact, is superb as Messala with no hint of gayness.
Tim Dirks provided a fine and lengthy review at his filmsite.org website:
"Ben-Hur...is MGM's three and a half hour, wide-screen epic Technicolor blockbuster - a Biblical tale, subtitled A Tale of the Christ.
Heston, left, and Boyd, right, in the chariot race
"Director William Wyler's film was a
retelling of the
spectacular silent film of the same name (director Fred Niblo's and
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)). Both films were adapted from the
(first published in 1880) by former Civil War General Lew Wallace.
been an 'extras' director on the set of DeMille's original film in the
era. MGM's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), featuring a cast of
cost about $4 million to make after shooting began on location in
1923, and starred silent screen idols Ramon Novarro and Francis X.
This figure is equivalent to $33 million today - it was the most
film ever made.
"This remake of the novel was inspired by
the fact that three
years earlier, Cecil B. DeMille and Paramount
had remade the 1925 version of his film as a successful 50's epoch
tale titled The Ten Commandments (1956). The heroic figure of Charlton
(an iconic and righteous Moses figure) would again be commissioned to
lead role in this film of a Jewish nobleman (the Prince of Judea) -
role was turned down by Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson and Paul Newman. In
plot, prince Judah Ben-Hur was enslaved by a Roman tribunal friend
homosexual subtext provided by co-writer Gore Vidal), but then returned
later to seek revenge in the film's centerpiece, a chariot race....
"The colorful 1959 version was the most
expensive film ever
made up to its time, and the most expensive film of the 50s decade. At
million and shot on a grand scale, it was a tremendous make-or-break
MGM Studios - and ultimately saved the studio from bankruptcy....It took six years to prepare for the film shoot, and
half year of on-location work in Italy, with thousands of extras. It
featured more crew and extras than any other film before it - 15,000
alone for the chariot race sequence.
"Ben-Hur proved to be an intelligent,
exciting, and dramatic
piece of film-making unlike so many other vulgar Biblical pageants with
Hollywood actors and actresses. Its depiction of the
Jesus Christ figure was also extremely subtle and solely as a cameo -
showed Christ's face but only the reactions of other characters to him.
"It was one of the most honored,
award-winning films of all
time. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best
(Charlton Heston - his sole career Oscar), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh
Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Color Cinematography,
Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film
Color Costume Design, Best Special Effects, and Best Screenplay
Karl Tunberg). It was the first film to win eleven Oscars - it lost
only in the
Screenplay category due to a dispute over screenwriting credits
Anderson, Christopher Fry, and Gore Vidal were all uncredited). Titanic
and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) are the only
tie this phenomenal record, although unlike this film, they came away
any acting Oscars....
Stephen Boyd on his chariot
"The chariot race sequence in the Circus
Maximus (an amazing
replica of the one in Rome)
is one of the most thrilling and famous in film history....The site of the race, the Circus Maximus in Jerusalem
(Judea), was constructed on over 18 acres of backlot space at Cinecitta
and the filming of the sequence took about five weeks. Except for two
most spectacular stunts, both Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd did all
own chariot driving in the carefully-choreographed sequence...."
centurion informs Messala that 'there's
outside' who wants to see him. The other Roman soldiers are surprised
see Messala agree to greet a Jew, a potential enemy of Rome. Messala
has respect for the influential
Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and tells his centurion:
'This was his country before it was ours. Don't forget that.' The two
men have been like brothers, and they are reunited....They challenge
each other to a friendly
javelin spears into the point where two wooden beams cross in the
exclaiming: 'Down Eros, up Mars!' Their aim at the crossbeam and
their friendship is 'still close...in every way' after so many
years....Messala realizes it will be a difficult
to govern and asks for Ben-Hur's help and advice. Ben-Hur is opposed to
domination and suggests: 'Withdraw your legions. Give us our
freedom.' But Messala cannot - he is second in command to the new
who will arrive in a few days with two more legions....'There is
rebellion in the wind. It will be crushed.'...Ben-Hur believes in the
Hebrew people of
'I believe in the future of my people.' Messala asks that Ben-Hur, an
admired and respected aristocrat, speak out against rebellion and
resistance to Rome
that would only end in the extinction of his people. But Ben-Hur finds
difficult to join in a pact against Jewish rebels. Messala realizes the
difficulty of what he asks, as he pours wine for a toast: 'It's an
world, but in it there's one sanity, the loyalty of old friends. Judah,
believe in one another.' They cross arms and drink to that pledge.
"The next day, Judah's mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) also receive Messala warmly in their home, almost as one of their family. Messala presents a Libyan brooch to Tirzah. Likewise, Ben-Hur gives Messala a valuable white Arabian horse as a token of their friendship....
Stephen Boyd, left, and Charlton Heston, right
"Messala also asks about their previous
and inquires which of his friends are strong opponents of Roman rule.
effect, Messala asks Ben-Hur to turn traitor on his people, and reveal
names and identity of Jewish underground resistance leaders - referred
refuses to betray his compatriots and coreligionists by becoming an
in an act of friendship. In return for bringing order into Judea
with Ben-Hur's help, Messala promises him advancement in the eyes of
Emperor Tiberius. To Messala, the Emperor 'is God, the only God, he is
power, real power on Earth.' Ben-Hur responds by pledging his
to his own people, refusing to become part of the Roman world: 'You may
conquer the land, you may slaughter the people. That is not the end. We
rise again.' Judah
turns against Messala with an angry denounciation: 'Rome
is an affront to God. Rome
is strangling my people and my country and the whole earth, but not
tell you, the day Rome
falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never
"Messala offers an ultimatum - be with him in helping to eliminate rebellion or against him. 'If that is the choice, then I'm against you,' Judah affirms....
"A caravan returns from Antioch
and Ben-Hur's servant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and his daughter Esther
Harareet) arrive at the household. Judah
grants her permission to marry a merchant in Antioch, offering her
freedom from slavery as
a wedding present. Later in their darkened upper room in the tentative
scene, they share a few memories of their childhood and he offers her a
thought before she departs:
Judah: If you were not a bride, I should kiss you goodbye.
Esther: If I were not a bride, there would
be no goodbyes to
"After they kiss each other, she wipes a
few tears from her
"Shortly thereafter, the new Roman governor
Doro) rides in a heavily-guarded parade into Jerusalem. Townspeople
watch quietly from the
rooftops and streets as the provincial governor marches through the
the house of Ben-Hur on the parade route, Judah watches with Tirzah
roof of their palace. When Tirzah leans forward over the rail to get a
view of the governor, she accidently loosens a heavy roof tile which
off. It falls to the ground below, spooking Gratus' horse, throwing him
wall and injuring him. Although it is clearly an accident, and Judah
to take the blame, it is interpreted as an assassination attempt.
Messala's command are ordered to break into the palace and they arrest
and his entire family as rebels. Messala goes to the roof alone to
tiles and accidently dislodges pieces of the tiles himself, realizing
Judah told the
"In prison, Judah
learns he is to be taken to Tyrus to become a galley slave without a
makes a daring escape from his guards, forces his way into Messala's
with a spear, and is allowed to speak. Ben-Hur demands that Miriam and
be freed, accusing Messala of being evil....
"'I wanted your help. Now you have given it
to me. By making
this example of you, I discourage treason. By condemning, without
an old friend, I shall be feared.'
"A heartless Messala plans to frame them,
to make an
'example' of the family to advance his own position in the new
government. In utter frustration, Judah begs for their freedom but is
denied. He threatens to spear him unless he frees Miriam and Tirzah.
counters with a promise that they will be put to death that day (nailed
crosses in front of him) unless Judah
surrenders. In anger, Judah
hurls his spear into the wall next to Messala. As he is taken away, he
revenge on Messala: 'May God grant me vengeance. I pray that you live
I return.' Messala replies, mockingly: 'Return?'...
"Ben-Hur is sentenced into exile to the
slave galleys, and
forced to join other prisoners chained together on a forced march
desert in the searing hot sun to Tyrus. Along the way under the heat
many prisoners die. When they stop enroute at the small town of Nazareth
for water, the
slaves are permitted to drink only after the soldiers and their horses
finished. The guards allow all the slaves to drink except Judah. As he
lies in the sand, collapsed from dehydration and crying 'God, help
me,' a hand (from the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth) quietly reaches
him with a gourd of drinking water and defies the centurion's orders.
uplifting dramatic moment, Ben-Hur is protected from harm from the
Roman guard. Ben-Hur gains fortitude and strength from the encounter.
"Over three years later, Ben-Hur has
toughened, surviving the
galley slave ordeal so far. He is one of over 200 galley slaves
shackled to an
oar in a Roman galley flagship. A new Roman officer Quintus Arrius
Hawkins) arrives on board to take command. Below deck, Arrius surveys
health and condition of the slaves, and he speaks to Ben-Hur,
condemned galley slave number Forty-One. Arrius realizes much about
character after whipping his back, realizing that his hate has kept him
"'You have the spirit to fight back but the
good sense to
control it. Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-One. That's good. Hate
man alive. It gives him strength.'...
"Arrius notices Judah's prominent attitude
sends for him to learn about his background during his relief period.
asserts that he is not ready to die - the god of his fathers will save
Arrius offers to take Judah
to Rome and
train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Ben-Hur believes that his
a purpose, that his God will free him to take revenge on his enemy for
wrongfully condemning and imprisoning him and his family. Forty-One's
stubbornness and hate have kept him alive while other men have perished
"In one of the more spectacular scenes in
the film, the
Romans fight against Macedonian pirate war ships in an exciting sea
battle. Arrius orders that Judah's
leg be unchained during the coming battle to give him a chance to
Their ship is rammed, oars are smashed, bodies are splintered, and
is boarded. Judah
breaks loose, strangles one of the guards and retrieves the keys, frees
his fellow prisoners from their chains, and goes on deck to find the
galley ship boarded by pirates in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the
"Ben-Hur miraculously saves the life of
Quintus Arrius who
has been knocked overboard and quickly sinks with his heavy armor. Judah
to a piece of floating debris and prevents him from drowning. They view
flaming wreckage. Thinking he has been humiliated in a defeat, Arrius
commit suicide but Judah
Arrius: Why did you save me?
(answering with another question) Why did you have me unchained?
"Arrius is not allowed to repeat his
suicide attempt, and
begs: 'Let me die.' Judah
repeats back the words he has heard so often: 'We keep you alive to
this ship. Row well and live.' A Roman ship picks them up, and they
that the Roman fleet was victorious, although five ships were lost.
tells Ben-Hur: 'In his eagerness to save you, your God has also saved
Roman fleet.' Arrius offers Judah the first drink from a cup of
Ben-Hur and Arrius
"Quintus Arrius celebrates victory with
Ben-Hur in Rome, riding side-by-side
with him in a golden chariot to an appearance before the divine Emperor
Tiberius (George Relph). Although the emperor is aware that Judah was a
galley slave, condemned as a threat
to a Roman governor years earlier, Judah is given to Arrius as his
slave. Ironically, Judah
becomes an expert charioteer in the great circus (arena), one of the
Roman arts of war that he once rejected. In gratitude, Arrius legally
him as his foster son and rewards him with his freedom. He also is
control over his stable of racing horses.
is devoted to Arrius, and attains worldly citizenship, money, position,
praise, he cannot forget his homeland and his family's fate. He tells
that he must leave and return to Jerusalem.
Months later, on his long journey on the return to Judea, Ben-Hur meets
Balthazar (Finlay Currie) of Alexandria (one of
the three men who followed the Bethlehem
star and put gifts before a newborn baby).
Sheik Ilderim with his four horses
"Balthazar introduces him to
- a wealthy, bearded Arabian horse trainer Sheik Ilderim (Hugh
is training his four splendid white horses for the upcoming chariot
races. Judah impresses
the Sheik with his 'keen eye' and knowledge of horse racing. The
sheik attempts to talk Ben-Hur into being his charioteer: 'Would you
my four run as one?' Judah
is invited into the Sheik's tent for refreshment and to tell of his
"The polygamous sheik is dismayed that
Ben-Hur hopes to have
only one wife some day: 'One wife? One god, that I can understand - but
one wife! That is not civilized. It is not generous.' With a clap of
hands, the team of four Arabian horses, called 'beauties,' are
invited into the tent like his 'children,' members of the family. [In
Wallace's novel, the names of the white horses are specified (they are
after stars): Altair, Aldebaran (the youngest), Antares, and Rigel.]
curiosity is aroused when he learns that Messala will race in Jerusalem's
circus. The Sheik tries to
capitalize on Judah's
interest and asks again:
"Judah Ben-Hur, my people are praying for a
man who can drive
their team to victory over Messala. You could be that man! You could be
to stamp this Roman's arrogance into the sand of that arena. You've
horses. They need only a driver who is worthy of them. One who would
with love and not the whip. For such a man, they would have raced the
would rather confront Messala on his own: 'I must deal with Messala in
Balthazar: And your way is to kill him. I
see this terrible
thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur. But no matter what this man has done
you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably....
"Returning to Jerusalem for a
homecoming after seven years, Judah
enters his neglected and overgrown home. In the shadows he sees Esther,
startling her when he identifies himself: 'Esther, it's Judah.' She
cannot believe he is alive. He learns that her father, his old steward,
Simonides, was imprisoned and nearly killed by Roman torture. Ever since then,
they have been living there in hiding as recluses....
"The next day, Messala is interrupted in his home during whip
practice" by Judah who tells him that when he had condemned to the galleys, his ship had sunk and he saved the consul's life.
"Judah then boldly confronts him and asks about his mother and sister, threatening: 'Find them Messala! Restore them to me, and I will forget what I have vowed with every stroke of that oar you chained me to.' He demands that Messala trace his loved ones and learn whether they are still alive in prison. Judah will return the next day for the news: 'Don't disappoint me, Messala.' An aide is dispatched to the citadel to find out and is horrified to find that they have contracted leprosy after years of being kept in solitary confinement deep in Roman dungeons. Miriam and Tirzah are ordered to be freed, but moved as outcasts to the Valley of the Lepers, outside the city...."In the Roman baths, the sheik promotes the upcoming chariot race, taunting the Romans by wagering with 'no limits' his entire fortune, a thousand talents. The Prince of Hur has agreed to compete against his bitter rival by driving the Sheik's chariot with four beautiful white horses. The Roman tribune Messala accepts the four to one betting odds against the Jew. Ben-Hur seeks vengeance by shaming and defeating Messala, and the Sheik by bankrupting him. At the Sheik's camp, Ben-Hur trains, practices, talks strategy to the horses, and develops a loving relationship with them.
Ben-Hur wins the race
"As they enter their racing positions, Messala warns: 'This is the day Judah. It's between us now.'...Messala has outfitted his chariot with revolving blades at the end of each axle, effective in chewing the spokes of the wheels of other chariots. Before the memorable and spectacular 11-minute chariot race scene, the charioteers parade around the ring in a display of pageantry. The setting is majestically impressive with a central divider strip composed of three statues thirty feet high, and grandstands on all sides, rising five stories high...."The eager horses and chariots are held back at the starting point until the signal to begin the race is given....The climactic ending to the race occurs when the chariots of Messala and Ben-Hur, in hateful rivalry toward each other, run neck-and-neck and slash at each other. Messala tries to destroy Ben-Hur's chariot by moving close with the blades, but as the wheels lock and he loses one of his wheels, Messala's chariot is splintered. He is dragged by his own team, then trampled, and run over by other teams of horses. Defeated, he lies bloody in the dirt, his body broken and horribly injured....
"On his bloody death bed in a room beneath the coliseum, Messala has sent for Ben-Hur, delaying an operation to amputate his legs that will attempt to save his life. Messala hisses: "I don't receive him with half a body." Visited by Ben-Hur, the unrepentant Messala honors him:
Messala: Triumph complete, Judah. The race won. The enemy destroyed.
Ben-Hur: I see no enemy.
Messala: What do you think you see? The smashed body of a wretched animal! Is enough of a man still left here for you to hate? Let me help you...You think they're dead. Your mother and sister. Dead. And the race over. It isn't over, Judah. They're not dead.
Ben-Hur: Where are they?...
Messala:...Look for them in the Valley of the
Lepers, if you can recognize them. (grabbing Judah's clothing) It goes on. It
goes on, Judah.
The race, the race is not over....
rushes to the hideous Valley of the Lepers on the outskirts of the city to
search for his family members. He is warned to stay away by attendants dropping
food to the outcasts with a pulley apparatus: "Are you a madman? Keep well
out of this place." He discovers Esther with Malluch delivering food for
Miriam and Tirzah.
Judah: (grabbing Esther) Why did you tell me they were dead?
Esther: It was what they wanted. Judah, you must not betray this
"In his first view of them, the sight is so painful that he hides behind a boulder. He weeps when he hears Miriam ask Esther: 'Is he happy?' Esther assures Miriam: 'Yes, he is well....' Overcome, Judah cannot speak to them. When they have left, Esther advises him: 'You can go back...They have one blessing left. To think you remember them as they were and live your own life. Forget what is here.'Ben-Hur: I have just come from the Valley of Stone. My mother and sister live what's left of their lives. By Rome's will, lepers, outcasts without hope...Their flesh...carries Rome's mark...the deed was not Messala's. I knew him, well, before the cruelty of Rome spread in his blood. Rome destroyed Messala as surely as Rome has destroyed my family.
Pontius Pilate: Where there is greatness, great government
or power, even great feeling or compassion, error also is great. We've
progressed and matured by fault. But Rome
has said she is ready to join your life to hers in a great future...not to crucify
yourself on a shadow such as old resentment or impossible loyalties. Perfect
freedom has no existence. The grown man knows the world he lives in, and for
the present, the world is Rome.
"Ben-Hur prefers to stay with his own people: 'I am
Judah Ben-Hur.' The ruler re-asserts Roman authority:
Pontius Pilate: I become the hand of Caesar, ready to crush all those who challenge his authority. There are too many small men of envy and ambition who try to disrupt the government of Rome. You have become the victor and hero for these people. They look to you, their one true god as I called you. If you stay here, you will find yourself part of this tragedy.
Ben-Hur: I'm already part of this tragedy....
Esther: I know there is a law in life. That blood begets more blood as dog begets dog. Death generates death. The vulture breeds the vulture. But the voice I heard on the hill today said, 'Love your enemy. Do good to those who despitefully use you.'
Judah: All who are born in this land hereafter can suffer as we have done.
Esther: As you make us do now! Are we to bear nothing together, even love?
Judah: I could hardly draw a breath without feeling you in my heart. Everything I do from this moment will be as great a pain to you as you have ever suffered. It is better not to love me!
Esther: It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of
him? You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for
evil. Hatred is turning you to stone. It's as though you had become Messala!
I've lost you Judah.
"At the Valley of the Lepers, Esther tells Miriam that she is
impressed by the preacher's words and miracles, and wishes Miriam and Tirzah to
accompany her to see the new preacher in Jerusalem.
Then, she learns from Miriam that this is not possible - Tirzah is dying.
Ben-Hur rushes forward despite his mother's protests. He also hears that Tirzah
is dying. Seeing Esther's faith in Jesus of Nazareth's message: 'Life is
everlasting. Death is nothing to fear if you have faith,' Judah is
persuaded to help take them to the great teacher.
"In Jerusalem, they
fortuitously arrive just in time to hear that 'the young rabbi' from Nazareth is on trial, now
a political prisoner of the brutal Romans. Pontius Pilate condemns him and two
other common criminals to death, washing his hands afterwards. Jesus is paraded
through the streets - he struggles through the crowd, carrying a heavy cross on
his back, ready to be crucified and put to death. Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus as
the one who had previously given him a cup of water when he was on the slave
galley march: 'I know this man!' The moment of recognition occurs as
the shadow of his cross passes over him as Jesus is on his way to Golgotha. Jesus stumbles in front of them....
follows along behind, and as the carpenter once gave Ben-Hur water in Nazareth, so does Ben-Hur
offer the agonized 'King of the Jews' water when he falls again. With hundreds
of others, including Balthazar,
The King of the Jews being nailed to a cross and the agonizing crucifixion.
Ben-Hur asks Balthazar: 'What has he done to merit this?' Balthazar
explains: 'He has taken the world of our sins unto himself. To this end he
said he was born, in that stable where I first saw him. For this cause, he came
into the world.'...
"In the grand and moving apocalyptic finale of the film, Miriam, Tirzah, and Esther are walking back to the Valley of the Lepers. Miriam and Tirzah have been transformed by their experience:"They take shelter from an approaching thunderstorm in a cave....Blinding lightning and a bluish light illuminates their faces in the darkness, and their sores disappear. Ben-Hur's mother and dying sister are cured, healed of the disease of leprosy."
In his September 21, 2011 review for blu-ray.com, Jeffrey Kauffman provided the following commentary:
"A strange confluence of sociopolitical forces and technological innovations led to the 1950's being the preeminent decade for epic Biblical dramas on film. As television made more and more inroads on the box office receipts of big screen fare from Hollywood, executives were desperate for a countermeasure to stem the tide. Perhaps that desperation put them in a prayerful mood, for stories from the Bible, or which were at least tangentially related to stories from the Bible, seemed ideally suited to a whole gamut of new technologies which were in themselves designed to lure people away from their miniature flickering black and white living room screens.
"Widescreen processes like Cinemascope and multi-channel recording techniques that at the very least offered two track stereo (and often much more than that) literally and figuratively surrounded the viewer with pomp and pageantry. But epic productions haven't always been able to magnetically attract audiences, and there was something else at work in the fifties which was a symbiotic part of that decade's ascendancy of Biblically oriented fare and the immense success it enjoyed.
"While the decade hadn't yet erupted into the out and out nuclear fear that accompanied the Cuban missile crisis in the early sixties, when we actually did face nuclear holocaust, there can be no underestimating the psychological impact of the development of the hydrogen bomb and the Soviet Union's surprisingly fast ability to "catch up" to the West in destructive capabilities. The anti-Communist paranoia also led to a culture intent on conformity and assimilation, one which seemed perfectly personified by the 'grandparent' Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Part of that conformity was of course a conformity of belief and religious practice, and that no doubt helped to bring audiences to Biblical film dramas, as if attending these spectacles was a religious rite in and of itself.
"While Biblical dramas
had of course existed from virtually the dawn of film, from The Robe onward,
the fifties saw one gigantic production after another which sought to cash in
on religious sentiment while making the most of widescreen framings and
multi-channel sound design. It's perhaps no mere coincidence that the
apotheosis of this trend should have come at the decade's end in 1959, with William
Wyler's mammoth Ben-Hur, which is of course subtitled A Tale of the Christ.
While Biblical dramas certainly continued to be produced well into the sixties
(and occasionally beyond), the luster was obviously off as early as 1961's King
of Kings, while at more or less the same time we faced nuclear annihiliation in
the Cuban missile crisis less than stellar efforts like Sodom and Gomorrah were
briefly visiting cineplexes. By the time The Greatest Story Ever Told and The
Bible bombed in the mid-sixties, the handwriting was clearly on the wall, like
some scribbled prophecy from the Book of Daniel. But everything that the
fifties stood for and hoped to achieve in the genre of Biblical drama came
together in, well, a miraculous fashion in Ben-Hur, one of the most eagerly
anticipated Blu-ray catalog releases of this year, somewhat beyond the film's
advertised '50th anniversary'.
"M-G-M was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in the late 1950's, despite prestige (and often very successful) releases like 1958's Gigi. It was therefore a significant gamble when the studio put up the then unheard of sum of close to fifteen million dollars to underwrite the gargantuan production that Ben-Hur promised to be. It's hard to realize now, given the vantage point of what the film has become since its release, that there were really no guarantees for Ben-Hur, despite its impressive pedigree and its previous success as both a stage play and a silent 1925 film. (It's interesting to note that General Lew Wallace's original source novel took a few years to really ignite, and it wasn't until almost a decade after its initial printing that the book became an international sensation in the late 1880's). But looking back now Ben-Hur, much like Gone With the Wind a generation earlier, was a prime example of the stars aligning more or less perfectly to create a mammoth spectacular that virtually oozed filmcraft from every frame."
however, needs to be seriously cut. The scenes with Heston, Boyd
and Griffiths are superb as is the arrival of Arrius in Rome.