One of the great movie spectacles, BEN HUR is a tour de force for Heston. In remaking the silent classic (1927, with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman), quality-conscious director Wyler presented a modern interpretation of the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace. Majesty is in almost every frame of this film directed by Wyler, who tells the story in human, understated terms, except for the great chariot race, which was directed by action expert Andrew Marton. Everything about BEN HUR was enormous; more than 300 sets were employed, covering more than 340 acres. BEN HUR held the record for winning the most Academy Awards (11 won) for 38 years till 1997, tying with TITANIC and also in 2004 with THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING for that honor.
BEN HUR begins with Heston, (Judah Ben Hur) a wealthy patrician prince once friendly with the Romans occupying his country of Judea, turns against them in revolt after witnessing their many transgressions, particularly indicting the Emperor Tiberius, who has the Romans convinced they belong to a master race. Boyhood friend Stephen Boyd (Messala), now a Roman tribune, visits Heston to ask for the names of those leading the revolt. Heston refuses to identify the leaders, calling them patriots. Boyd leaves furious, now Heston's sworn enemy. Meanwhile, Sam Jaffe (Simonides) a loyal servant of the family, comes to visit and ask Heston for permission for his daughter Haya Harareet (Esther) to marry. Heston is struck by her calm beauty and gives his permission. Later that night, Harareet and Heston meet, talk and fall in love. He takes her slave ring and paces it on his finger, swearing undying love to her. Days later, the new Roman governor enters the city. Heston and his sister Cathy O'Donnell (Tirzah) watch his parade from a rooftop. O'Donnell accidentally brushes against a loose roof tile, which falls to the street, frightening the governor's skittish horse. The governor is thrown into a wall and injured. Boyd uses this incident to take his vengeance on Heston for not giving him the Jewish patriot's names. Boyd then promptly arrests Heston and his entire family for the incident on the rooftop not listening to Heston's pleas to spare his mother and sister from being punished too. Heston's mother, Martha Scott (Miriam) and sister are sent to prison while Heston and dozens of others are enslaved and taken to Tyrus. En route, in a small town named Nazareth, Heston collapses from dehydration, and a carpenter's son, Claude Heater (Jesus), gives him water. A Roman guard rushes forward, but when facing Jesus, whose whole presence seems adorned in blinding light, the soldier is dumbstruck and silently retreats. Heston is dragged on his way but not before gaining great strength at the sight of Jesus. Heston becomes a galley slave on a Roman warship commanded by Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius). In a test of wills, Hawkins spots Heston at the oars and has the 'drummer' keep the rowing pace at a fast rate. Hawkins gains a respect for Heston after seeing how he endured the fast pace rowing and realizes this man is a survivor. Heston is called for by Hawkins to come to his cabin. But before Heston arrives, Hawkins falls asleep. Heston stands over the Roman with an opportunity to kill Hawkins but does not--this farther impresses Hawkins. A few days later, Macedonian pirates attack the Roman warship. A fierce battle ensues and the Roman ship is boarded. Heston, who has freed himself and several other slaves as the ship begins to sink, runs on deck to see Hawkins fighting. Hawkins is knocked into the sea and is quickly pulled down by his heavy armor. Seeing this, Heston dives into the water and saves Hawkins' life. After being rescued at sea Hawkins, in gratitude, sponsors Heston in Rome, where he becomes a champion chariot racer in the great arena. Years pass, with the bond between Heston and Hawkins growing, Heston becomes the adopted son of Hawkins, as well as a worldly citizen of Rome, but he is obsessed and tortured with the thought of finding his mother and sister and returns to Judea. On his way home, Heston meets Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), who knows of Heston't success in the great 'Circus'. They discuss the up-coming race in Judea and Griffith wants Heston to enter the race with his team of white Arabian horses. Heston next visits Boyd, coming not as a slave but as the son of a Roman consul. Heston asks that Boyd find his loved ones, and Boyd agrees, realizing Heston now represents great power. At his home Heston sees Harareet (Esther ) for the first time since his return. He declares his love for her again but tells her that he is tortured by his family's imprisonment and has to get them released. She tells him that his mother and sister are dead; knowing the truth is that the two have been living as lepers, a condition caused by many years in prison, and do not want Heston to know of their plight. When hearing that his loved ones are dead, Heston explodes and decides to meet Boyd in the chariot race of Judea, a match long promoted by rich sheik Griffith. The archenemies meet in the arena and begin their wild race. Boyd destroys one chariot after another by cutting into their wheels with the blades fixed onto his axle. Great excitement ensues while the race is finally coming down to only Boyd and Heston left on the track. Boyd attempts the same maneuvers, almost destroying Heston's chariot. Boyd in a last attempt to cause Heston to crash, starts to strike Heston with his whip! Heston is able to grab the whip from Boyd. In the confusion Heston is almost thrown from his chariot but manages to climb back into it to continue the race. Heston regains himself and manages to lock the wheel of his chariot behind that of Boyd's, then rushes forward, pulling Boyd's chariot off its axle. Boyd's chariot collapses; he is dragged forward by his racing horses, bruised, bleeding; he rolls, a bloody pulp, into the middle of the track, where remaining chariots roar over him, while Heston goes on to win the great race. A great victory for the Jews! Taken to a room beneath the coliseum, Boyd lies dying. Heston comes to him and is greeted with hissing hatred as Boyd tells him that his mother and sister are not dead, that Heston is to "look for them in the Valley of the Lepers, if you can recognize them. The race is not over!"After giving this horrible news, Boyd dies. Distraught, Heston goes to the Valley of the Lepers, secretly following Harareet, who has been taking food to O'Donnell and Scott for years. Heston hides behind a rock, too emotionally torn up to face his family in this horrible place. Harareet sees Heston crumpled behind the rock crying and begs him not to make his presence known to his family, that they wanted him to remember them as they were not as they are now. Heston reluctantly agrees for the time being. Heston has now become a militant, ready to fight against Rome. Harareet is still in love with Heston, but his hatred for Rome stands between them. Harareet tells him of a new rabbi, Jesus, who speaks of love and peace. Heston is hesitant to see this rabbi speak. He has too much hatred in his heart for the Romans to hear about love and peace from a rabbi. Harareet goes to Jesus' 'Sermon on the Mount' and realize that this man must be the Son of God. Harareet tells Heston that Jesus could help his mother and sister and takes Heston to them. At the Valley of Lepers, Heston rushes forward and, despite his mother's wild protests, embraces his mother and learns that his sister is dying. He takes them to Jerusalem trying to find Jesus who was known as a great healer, but they find Jesus condemned to death when they reach the city. Heston watches as Jesus struggles through a crowd, carrying the cross upon which he is to die. Heston recognizes Jesus as the one who saved his life in the desert by saying,"I know this man!" Heston then tries to give Jesus water but is pushed away by soldiers, though Jesus sees him. The family leaves the city after Christ has been taken to his crucifixion. Heston follow Jesus and witness Jesus' death on the cross. At the moment Jesus dies a great darkness fills the sky and a thunderstorm breaks overhead. Taking shelter in a nearby cave, Scott and O'Donnell is covered by the rainwater pouring in. Scott reflects on the storm, "It's as though He was carrying in that cross the pain of the world. What strange darkness. His life is over!" During a flash of light, in shock they look at their flesh, which is no longer covered with sores. By a miracle they have been cured! As the storm ends Heston returns alone to his home. An inner peace has crept into his heart after witnessing the death of Christ. He no longer has hatred in his heart and knows that somehow he will find happiness again. As Heston enters his home, he is greeted by Harareet and embrace her with the love he has kept hidden inside for so long. They exchange a loving look which holds hope for a future together in love. Atop the stairs Heston sees his mother and sister. Cured!! He runs to them and embrasses them with all his emotions spilling forth. Heston cries as he kisses their face knowing that is is truly a miracle from God.
Heston is superb as the enlightened Judah Ben Hur. He shows massive emotion on screen and delivers his lines with strong conviction. Heston won the Academy Award for Best Actor, beating out the likes of Jimmy Stewart in 1959. Heston learned how to drive a chariot and drove the team of horses in almost all of shots used in the race sequence. The scene in which Ben Hur almost falls out of the chariot was done by stunt man Joe Canutt, son of Yakima Canutt. Veteran stunt man Yakima Canutt taught Boyd and Heston how to manage the cumbersome chariots for the great race. Heston's appreciation of 'Yak' Canutt runs to a strong friendship. Over Yak's fireplace there sits a horse's head sculpted by Heston. On the base of it is this inscription: To Yak, for making a half-assed horseman out of a horse's ass! Boyd is perfect as the sinister Messala, a role he never quite equaled. Hugh Griffith is wonderful as Sheik Ilderim, which he won Best Supporting Actor for. Though Tunberg receives lone credit for the script, a host of other writers contributed in one form or another, including such stellar literary lights as Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Fry. MGM lavished about $12,500,000 on this stupendous production, which brought them near bankruptcy, but the returns were staggering: a gross of $40 million and BEN HUR won 11 Oscars! The effort was worthwhile in every sense, resulting in three and one-half hours of unforgettable film and considered by most one of the greatest movies every made.
AWARDS: Best Picture
Best Actor - Charlton Heston
Best Supporting Actor - Hugh Griffith
Best Director - William Wyler
Best Color Cinematography - Robert L. Surtees
Best Film Editing - Ralph E. Winters, John D. Dunning
Best Score (Drama or Comedy) - Miklos Rozsa
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color) - William A. Horning, Edward C. Carfagno, Hugh Hunt
Best Costume Design (Color) - Elizabeth Haffenden
Best Sound - Franklin E. Milton
Best Special Effects - A. Arnold Gillespie (Visual), Robert MacDonald (Visual), Milo Lory (Audible)
Academy Award Nomination:
Best Adapted Screenplay - Karl Tunberg
BEN HUR is the greatest movie ever made as far as I am concerned. I can understand why it won 11 Oscars and has held that record for 38 years. BEN HUR is an inspiring film. It captures the plight of the Jewish people during this turbulent time in history. Chuck is magnificent in the film and the role of Ben Hur. He displayed raw emotion on screen which is felt as you watched the torment he goes through trying to save his family. Chuck shows not only a tough exterior but also a tormented and tender side when he is with 'Esther'. The chemistry between the two is electrifying which is only seconded to the friendship/hatred he shows for 'Messala'. The 'rowing' sequence in the Roman warship was great. When I first saw this film, during its re-release, I was a teenager and seeing Chuck row with those oars took my breathe away. He showed all the emotions of a caged up animal. Yet during the 'crucifixion' scene and re-uniting with his family at the end of the movie, Chuck showed such uninhibited emotion that it made me feel the same emotion he was experiencing. He did a wonderful job during the 'chariot race' sequence, which proved to me that this man really believes in emersing himself in his roles and is not afraid to do or learn anything for a part. This is a mark of true actor! It does not surprise me that Chuck won the Oscar for Best Actor for this role. Charlton Heston will always be remembered for his role in
BEN HUR for generation to come.