Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring, Terence Longdon, George Relph, André Morell
Written by: Karl Tunberg, based on a novel by Lew Wallace
Directed by: William Wyler
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 222
Date: 11/18/1959

Ben-Hur (1959)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Hur' Own Story

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In William Wyler's Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston plays Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur. His former childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) now works for the evil Roman emperor. When Judah refuses to help Messala with some underhanded deeds, Messala betrays him and has him thrown in prison. He escapes and spends the rest of the film looking for his mother and sister and plotting his revenge against Messala. Occasionally he crosses paths with Jesus Christ (played by an uncredited actor).

The movie is very long and works in fits and starts, veering into silliness from time to time. There were several uncredited script polishers, including Maxwell Anderson and Gore Vidal. But what anyone really remembers about Ben-Hur is the celebrated chariot race. The action scenes here are beautifully shot and extraordinarily clear, especially compared to the choppy and muddy Gladiator, to which Ben-Hur is often compared. Heston and the crew were not computer assisted, but were out there racing chariots in real life.

I'd never seen Ben-Hur on the big screen and I tried to watch it on television once, to no avail. It just did not work on the small screen. So I was skeptical about the DVD release. But moments after I loaded it my player, I was thoroughly impressed. This widescreen transfer just sparkles, the sound thunders, and the movie's epic feel comes through even on the tube. (The disc also contains an hour-long documentary about the film's history as well as a delicious early screen test with Leslie Nielsen playing Messala.)

Of course, Ben-Hur still holds the record for the most Oscars won by a single movie, with eleven (though "Titanic" tied the record in 1998). One went to Heston for Best Actor, and British actor Hugh Griffith also won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Sheik Ilderim. The other Oscars include Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume, Visual Effects, Editing, Music, and Sound. Wyler won Best Director (his third out of 12 career nominations), and the movie won Best Picture (somehow, Some Like It Hot was not nominated!). The only lost Oscar was Best Screenplay, which went to Room at the Top.

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