Movie of the Day: Ben-Hur (1959)

31 Jan


Ben-Hur is a big movie. Really big. Epic. Tremendous. It’s the kind of oversized, overproduced montobulous epic that made Hollywood’s Golden Age so glorious. So, why am I not all that crazy about it? Everything is here. There’s a bravura sea battle, that great chariot race, over-the-top performances by Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins. It’s all here, but revisiting the film recently I couldn’t overcome the feeling that for long stretches, it tends to drag.

No one at the time would have agreed. Ben-Hur cleaned up at the box office that year and made an equally massive sweep of the Oscars, winning 11 awards, more than any picture in history, a record that would stay until Titanic equaled it 38 years later. Fittingly, and not surprisingly, the only award it didn’t win was for screenplay, which didn’t get a nomination.

Ben-Hur is one of those movies that people like to on general principal. The proof is how routinely it winds up on lists of the greatest movies of all time, and I think that stature may come from the film’s epic sweep – it is a glorious film to behold. I will never say that it is a bad movie, but I won’t say that I’m likely to spend an evening with it.

I don’t hate the film; I just find that it doesn’t rise to greatness. Possibly with an hour or so cut I could start to enjoy it more, but the other night I had to strain to keep from reaching for the remote when the narrative started to repeat itself. For me, the movie is like eating a plate of broccoli – it is good for me but I’m not having it for a midnight snack.

Like all big epics from Hollywood’s golden years, Ben-Hur tells a simple story inside an enormous canvas. It’s the story of a Jewish prince who gets screwed over by his Roman friend and becomes a slave only to come back years later to get his revenge. That isn’t much on which to mount a three-hour movie, and BOY can you feel it taking it’s dead-easy old time getting there.

I don’t know, maybe it’s the experience, maybe it’s watching it on television and not on a big screen. Every experience has been the same. I’ve seen the movie at least three times in my life and entering into it, I always have hope that the grandeur will envelope me, but then I inch into the second hour and I need a break. Ben-Hur is just a movie I have a hard time warming up to.


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