My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Number 53: Ben-Hur (Best Picture Ranking)

The mother of all epics, winner of a record 11 Academy Awards, the true definition of the word ‘spectacle’ – Ben-Hur has certainly achieved a legendary reputation and even 50 years later, it’s still a must-see for movie fans everywhere. Is it a flawless classic? Certainly not but it provides a lot of fascinating moments and scenes.

The title role is famously brought to life by Charlton Heston. His is a curious performance. On the one hand, he could be compared to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind since both of these actors carry a massive production and a huge epic basically alone on their shoulders. Does that mean that both performances are on the same level? Again, certainly not. Vivien Leigh brought complexity, fire and energy to her part like no other actress could have and she also had the ability to keep Gone with the Wind alive and interesting for the entire running time. Charlton Heston plays a much simpler character, driven by desire for revenge, while not always being able to keep the movie on the ground and often getting lost in the production and his performance also cannot prevent a certain slowness that haunts Ben-Hur from time to time. But Charlton Heston’s performance is also curious for another reason: as long as one focuses on the movie itself, Charlton Heston is very serviceable, even good, but the moment one puts all the attention on his performance, his overall lack of charisma and acting talent become suddenly very obvious. It’s an interesting case of a performance that works perfectly fine in the context of the film but seems strangely insufficient judged on its own (Jane Fonda in Coming Home is another example for me). Hugh Griffith won an Oscar for playing an Arab sheik and the question is: why? He is entertaining and provides some laughs but fails to be either impressive or memorable, especially compared to the stand-out performance from Ben-Hur by Stephen Boyd who should have been the one walking away with an Oscar (at least he won a Golden Globe). His is a supporting performance that dominates the whole movie and steals every scene while never feeling dominant or attention-seeking. None of the female performances in Ben-Hur impress very much.

The overall story of Ben-Hur seems to be the predecessor of Gladiator – the story of a man who seeks revenge for the sorrow brought to him and his family. Ben-Hur is mixed with various religious themes – in fact, people on imdb even ask if a non-religious person can enjoy this movie. Well, I have to say that the religious motives don’t bother me – until the end when it all becomes too much. The birth of Jesus at the beginning or Ben-Hur meeting him are done rather beautifully and somehow religion perfectly fits into this big epic without appearing to be propaganda. Only at the end, the screenplay and William Wyler exaggerated it – after the chariot race the whole movie develops a feeling of ‘should be over in 5 minutes’ but it goes on for over another hour and the crucifixion of Jesus and the sudden healing of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister seem to come from another movie altogether. This long, overdone ending period of the movie is also the reason why Ben-Hur didn’t get a higher position. But before this downfall, Ben-Hur is a pretty terrific epic.

The story works just fine and never feels unnecessarily long but instead all characters and the plot get their chances to develop themselves quite nicely. Charlton Heston may have not been aware of the gay undertones in the story but, to be honest, the only way to make his first scene with Stephen Boyd more gay would have been to let them have sex right on his desk. The later scenes on the galleys are also thrilling and the whole plot constantly flows along without any interruptions. Of course, the highlight of Ben-Hur is the famous chariot race – and it’s one of the few scenes in movie history that is as good as its reputation. From the magnificent opening score to the sensational race, this is a magnificently done action sequence that a movie like Gladiator could only dream of.

Overall, a strong and memorable epic that maybe won a few Oscars too many but entertains wonderfully.


Louis Morgan said...

I enjoy this epic very much, and would put it above many films that have not yet appeared. The chariot race scene is incredible, especially when viewed in a theater. Also I did not feel the religious ending was at all forced, since it was indicated to throughout the rest of the film. I really would never call anything close to propaganda, I highly doubt the Jewish William Wyler was trying to convert anyone to Christianity.

dinasztie said...

This was my great-grandfather's favorite movie. :)

I liked this one but I would have voted for The Nun's Story.

Anonymous said...

Since when Vivien Leigh carries GWTW alone on her shoulders?Its not fair to say.Its Gable's film as much as hers.Its like people say A streetcar named desire is Brando's movie.Its Brando's movie as much as Leigh's.

Fritz said...

@Louis: I think you misunderstood me. I wrote that religion is a theme of the movie WITHOUT making it appear like propaganda.

@Anonymous: I agree that Streetcar is not Brando's movie alone but I stand by my opinion that GWTW is Vivien Leigh's show from start to finish as she is in it for almost every minute while Gable often comes and goes.

Anonymous said...

@Fritz:Even Leigh said that key to GWTW is Clark Gable.Vivien gets all the fireworks,but its Clark Gable doing heavy lifting.To be successful love epic has to be carried by two(or more)performances.(Titanic,Doctor Zhivago come to mind).Also,Rhett Butler is as iconic character as Scarlett and it has nothing to do about screen time.If any of the two made wrong step,GWTW could've been dated and laughable today.

Louis Morgan said...

Well I was more of referring to the fact that you mentioned it all, and that you said the film went overboard with the religious aspects at the end

Fritz said...

@Anonymous: I don't disagree that Clark Gable was very important to the movie and that a love story needs two great performances but I still think the movie is as much a character study of Scarlett as it is a love story and that's why I think Viven Leigh had the much more important role and was the one who carried the story. Still, Clark Gable obviously contributed a lot to the movie, too, no doubt about that!

Tom said...

I saw the ending differently and didn't feel it should have ended after the chariot race. He had to go back for his family. The healing at the end is the big payoff because the whole time we're wondering why we're seeing these scenes of Jesus throughout. At least that's what I got out of it.

Anonymous said...

"Does that mean that both performances are on the same level? Again, certainly not. Vivien Leigh brought complexity, fire and energy to her part like no other actress could have and she also had the ability to keep Gone with the Wind alive and interesting for the entire running time."

LOL, but that depends on script and director, not so much on actors. I don't know whether you know how making of a film works, but judging by your commments you seem to think acting is most important part of a movie. Honestly, they are not even close. Actors are as good as director is satisfied. Thats why Eastwood or Kazan are great directors. The most important thing for actor is to fit his/her performance in the movie.