Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
The first time that I ever saw William Wyler’s remake of Ben-Hur was on an Easter weekend sometime in the waning years of the 1980s. I saw the movie on the same weekend that I saw the other Charlton Heston biblical epic, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. This may have been a big mistake. Both films tell a similar story at about the same length with the same star in the lead and both with a theatrical passion and fire that wouldn’t be present today.
I’ve seen The Ten Commandments probably 15 times since I was a kid, but I have only returned to Ben-Hur once. I find the latter to be a little dull. Sure the battles at sea are thrilling as is the climactic chariot race, but even the film’s defenders have to admit that much of the dialogue and the performance are wooden and kind of dull. For me, the movie stands in the shadow of DeMille’s earlier film. The Ten Commandments tells a better story, with a better through-line and I find the power struggle between Moses and Ramses II to be far more compelling than the one between Judah Ben Hur and Massala (though the buried sexual tension is a pip, mostly due to the fact that Heston wasn’t in on it).
It’s not that I don’t like Ben-Hur, it’s just that I find the drama a bit of a snooze. I have to wade through a lot of dialogue and personal crises to get to the action scenes, where the movie picks up. Sure, it’s gorgeous to look at and it is photographed beautifully, but I struggle with it story-wise. Maybe that’s just my problem. I don’t know.