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Ben-Hur (1959)

Reviewed on 2008 April 5

I almost opted for a bare-bones DVD of this 1959 Best Picture Oscar® winner, but I decided that you only go around once on this ride, and dropped the money for the 4-disc collector’s edition. I’m really glad I did. I wasn’t too concerned with the extras because my main concern was getting the movie in time to watch with Mr. Shukti on his birthday, and when I got it home I discovered disc 3 had the 1925 silent version too. That’s the cinematic equivalent of finding a $20 in your coat pocket from last winter. This would make an interesting double-feature with The Ten Commandments — it’s got the same epic (or should I say EPIC) feel to it, but with more natural dialogue and less scenery-chomping.

Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy Jerusalem native reunited with an old childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is now a soldier of Rome. Messala thinks of Caesar as god and encourages Ben-Hur to betray his fellow Jews (and his God) by reporting any grumblings against the Roman Empire to him. For his own good, of course. Ben-Hur cringes when Messala says Caesar is god, and the idea of ratting out of own people is beyond disgusting to him. A horrible accident gives Messala the leverage he needs to punish his old friend for standing against the Empire, but Ben-Hur refuses to “help” Messala, even though he stands to lose everything.

He becomes a citizen of Rome, in a series of events that I wouldn’t dream of ruining for you, and vows his vengeance upon the cruel Messala. Several times throughout the movie his rage seems to be the only thing that keeps him going, and Heston’s acting here is some of his best work. Entwined throughout Ben-Hur’s story is the story of Christ, including the powerful scenes where their lives intersect.

This is one of those situations where I prefer the remake. The original silent movie is wonderful for the time, but it is distracting in a few places; I know it was a custom of the silent era, but Francis X. Bushman’s Messala had on so much makeup that he looked like he came from the Clinique counter instead of a Roman battlefield. The original also gave us a brunette as an Egyptian seductress, but then stuck a blonde wig on her too for a few hilarious bits. And a blonde Esther? May McAvoy was good — and pretty — but she looked like one of those Victorian Christmas cherubs after the makeup department worked her over. Haya Harareet’s Esther was beautiful, and she is a Middle Eastern lady. How cool (and great casting) is that? They are both classics but the 1959 version is the best, if nothing else, for Heston’s quiet fury as Ben-Hur.

Four chocolate morsels. Just reserve a large enough block of time to watch the whole thing.


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