The terms “epic” and “spectacular” have been cheapened by overuse these past decades, but here is a movie that really deserves them. The story is well known, written by a former US Civil War general, Lew Wallace, while he was governor of New Mexico and otherwise preoccupied with the shennigans of Billy the Kid: Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish nobleman, is unjustly sentenced to the galleys by his childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), now a high Roman official in Palestine. Years later he manages to escape and returns to Palestine to find his mother and sister, condemned to prison with him, and to exact revenge on Messala. In paralell with Judah’s travails a young Jewish rabbi from Nazareth starts to preach a message of peace and justice.
The movie is rightly celebrated for two of its great set pieces – a sea battle, and even more spectacular, a chariot race. Legends abound around the race; allegedly the director William Wyler, insisted that Heston drive the chariot through the extended, hair-raising sequence: “You just stay in the chariot, Chuck. I’ll make sure you win the race!”
The more intimate scenes between the characters also resonate. Wyler and Boyd agreed that Messala’s motivation for turning on Judah was that on Messala’s return to Jerusalem Judah, his former lover, spurns a contination of their relationship. This is how Boyd plays the scene. Both Boyd and Wyler agreed however that the deeply conservative Heston would not be impressed with this reading and so didn’t deign to tell him. As a result Heston’s performance is solid mahogany in all his scenes with Boyd – accentuating, one can see, Messala’s hurt and frustration.
Its an amazing piece of work, all the more so for being achieved without the sort of computer generated imagery that is now commonplace in cinema. It will always remain a great way to spend an afternoon in front of the telly, but is even better if you get the chance to catch it in all its proper cinematic glory.