Even though I am sure I saw it (or at least parts of it) growing up, putting Ben-Hur (1959) into my DVD player, I had managed to keep myself ignorant of the details of the film’s plot. As such, despite the arduous running time, I was pretty excited to get into one of the most celebrated American films in history.
The scope of the film is obvious right from the start, even with the very slow start to the film. The film follows Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur, a prince/merchant who finds himself a slave. His stock rises and falls throughout the lengthy film. Even though the film looks really sharp though, the feel of it is that of a dated telemovie about Jesus you would buy from an infomercial. That music! Argh. It feels in many ways like it is an adaptation of a play. A bad play though, because the film is so stilted and lacking in any of the searing quality of adaptations of really great plays such as the works of Shakespeare. There are a couple of sequences that manage to distinguish themselves from the tepidness of everything else going on. Most notably the subplot of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister being lepers and his insistence on seeing them. I actually found those sequences quite intense and difficult to watch because of the emotion involved, which is so lacking from a vast majority of the film. For me though, the much celebrated chariot race sequence is not one of those that does not manage to rise above the mire. There was so much build-up to it and then it was just all a bit meh. There was no exhilaration there, not to mention I have definite concerns around the welfare of the animals used to film those scenes. So much of it is totally lacking in excitement because it is just a bunch of horses riding along beside each other and even the final highpoint of the race lacks any punch.
From my perspective there are two major issues that really affect this film. The first is the laborious pace. The film does not really seem to be telling a story that is truly that ‘epic.’ Rather, the scope that is teased early on by the film just turns into it taking so long to actually move anywhere. Think the opening 45 minutes of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), only worse. The second issue is that the narrative itself is totally unfocused. I mean what is the core narrative of Ben-Hur? Killing that dude in the chariot race? Finding Christ? I mean it is all pretty oblique and not only that, none of these narrative strands are either particularly engaging for the audience or well done. None of these issues are helped particularly by the performance of Charlton Heston. Never mind the fact that for me (and I suspect others as well), I cannot see him in a film and forget his turn in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002). He manages to get across some of the emotion of the film, but overall I don’t think this is a very good performance from Heston. He is too rigid and can’t inhabit the role like is required and like he managed to do in The Planet of the Apes (1968).
For a celebrated epic from the golden era of Hollywood epics, I found Ben-Hur to be a strangely flat experience. Riddled with issues, it is one of those films that you should probably see just so you can say you have seen it (plus I guess you may love it). But at around 4 hours in length it is a big time investment for little reward.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
2014 Progress: 3/101