In this remake of the 1925 classic, Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish Prince who’s screwed over by his childhood friend (and former lover?), the Roman Sextus (André Morell). Sent to row on the galleys he seeks to return to Judea to avenge his sister and mother, and on the way he bumps into the self-proclaimed King of the Jews, and I don’t mean Woody Allen.
In the epic story of a Jew taking on the Romans, this comes just ahead of Spartacus, but while Spartacus is simply about a member of an enslaved population taking on a mighty enemy, Ben-Hur has a more overtly religious element to it, taking place against the backdrop of Jesus’s roaming around the Holy Land. Like The Life of Brian, this story takes place in the same time and place as the New Testament, but only features Jesus in occasional cameos.
For this reason it’s a better film than, say, The Ten Commandments, which is simply a cinematic adaptation of a Bible story. Having a plot driven by the arbitrary interventions of an all-powerful being is simply not as interesting as a tale of ordinary people overcoming oppression through their own steam. Ben-Hur hints at the spiritual, but the bulk of the story is grounded firmly in the temporal.
Like the other epics of the era, the scale of this film is still dazzling, from the vast sets to tens of thousands of extras. The most spectacular moment is the chariot race, taking place in what was the biggest set ever constructed at the time. Heston’s experience with chariot racing in The Ten Commandments pays dividends as he’s filmed racing round the track, clearly not on a blue screen.
Next time you hear a film described as ‘big’ think of Ben-Hur. It may just be dwarfed in comparison.