(director/writer: William Wyler; screenwriter: from the novel by Lew Wallace/Karl Tunberg; cinematographer: Robert Surtees; editor: Ralph Winters; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben Hur), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Martha Scott (Miriam), Cathy O’Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides); Runtime: 212; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Sam Zimbalist; Warner Bros.; 1959)

“Mostly tedious Sunday school tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A remake of the silent 1927 classic that starred Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. Both films were adapted from the 1880 novel by former Civil War General Lew Wallace. MGM poured in some $15 million on this lavish production, and it took in a staggering gross of $40 million. William Wyler (“The Big Country”/”Detective Story”/” Friendly Persuasion”) helms it as “Hollywood’s first intimate spectacle.” It’s about an Israeli prince, a rich man, Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), seeking revenge on his childhood betrayer, the new ambitious Roman tribune, Messala (Stephen Boyd), and crossing paths with the miracle worker Jesus Christ (face unseen). When Ben-Hur converts to Christianity, he makes room in his heart for forgiveness.

The wealthy Jewish ‘prince of Judea,’ Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), lives with his family during the time that the Jesus Christ movement was blossoming and the Roman emperor was Tiberius. Ben-Hur’s childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) is now an ambitious Roman tribune, second-in command, and visits Ben-Hur’s home bearing gifts. When Ben-Hur refuses to help Messala round up local Jewish dissidents on behalf of the emperor, Messala cools on his friend and brings Ben-Hur to the Roman courts on a trumped-up charge of attempting to kill the provincial governor. Ben-Hur is condemned to the Roman galleys, while his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O’Donnell) are imprisoned. But during a sea battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of commander Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who shows his appreciation by adopting Ben-Hur as his son and allows him full use of his stable of racing horses. Ben-Hur spends the next few hours of this mostly tedious Sunday school tale trying to locate his family or exact revenge on the emperor loving Messala.

There were a few exciting moments in this poorly acted and overlong melodramatic spectacle, such as the 40 minute climatic chariot race in the Roman Circus between Ben-Hur and Messala. John Wayne’s stunt expert, Yakima Canutt, is responsible in large part for how daring it looked. It was filmed by second-unit director Andrew Marton.

Ben-Hur had twelve Oscar nominations and won eleven. It was filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, and used 300 sets. Despite all the pageantry, it was Miklos Rozsa’s rousing score that kept me from nodding out.

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