Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES (4-DISC SPECIAL EDITION): Commentary By Film Historian T Gene Hatcher With Scene Specific Comments From Charlton Heston; Music Only Track Showcasing Miklos Rozsas Score; Screen Tests; Vintage Newsreels Gallery; Highlights From The 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony; Theatrical Trailer Gallery; The Thames Television Restoration With Stereophonic Orchestral Score By Composer Car Davis; New Documentary Ben Hur The Epic That Changed Cinema Current Filmmakers Reflect On The Importance And Influence Of The Film; 1994 Documentary Ben Hur The Making Of An Epic Hosted By Christopher Plummer; Directed By William Wyler 1986 Emmy Award Nominated Documentary; Ben Hur: A Journey Through Pictures
I FIRST saw Ben-Hur – winner of 11 Academy Awards – more years ago than I care to remember but its impact remains as powerful today as it was then – though perhaps for reasons of an entirely different nature.
Then, I was studying Latin and the powers that were decreed that it would provide pupils with an accurate insight into the Roman way of life. Which, of course, it did. What they hadn’t bargained for was Stephen Boyd’s Messala proving such a distraction to a bevy of adolescent schoolgirls.
But I digress. For those who don’t know, Ben-Hur is primarily the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Prince of Judea who, betrayed by his boyhood friend, the young Roman tribune Messala (Boyd), is condemned to a life of slavery.
Against all odds, Judah regains his place in society and fuelled by hate seeks revenge.
But what makes Ben-Hur more than just an enthralling work of fiction, are the intricately woven threads of a far greater story – that of a young carpenter’s apprentice whose life ends so cruelly on a hill at Calvary.
Indeed, the crucifixion scene, though visually less disturbing than anything you might have seen in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, is nonetheless, an uncompromising portrayal of a violent death – one that even now, I find disturbing to watch.
It is, in fact, one of three outstanding sequences – along with the sea battle and, of course, the chariot race – that make Ben-Hur so memorable.
Filming, which began in 1958, was an epic undertaking and all the more remarkable given the year and the then relative simplicity of film-making techniques. The chariot race, for instance, remains one of the most thrilling sequences ever recorded.
But as you might expect, it took considerable planning. A full six months before the cast arrived at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, 78 horses from Sicily and the former Yugoslavia were assembled and trained by experts from the US. Their entourage included a veterinarian, a blacksmith, a harness-maker and 20 stable boys.
As for the actual filming of the race, it took a staggering three months.
Nor did attention to detail end there. Director William Wyler was determined not to have a clash of accents – something present-day film-makers could well-afford to emulate – and therefore used only British actors to portray ancient Romans, and Americans, for the most part, taking the roles of Hebrews.
Hence we see Jack Hawkins as Roman Commander Quintus Arrius, Stephen Boyd as Messala, Andre Morell as Sextus and George Relph as Tiberius; with America’s Charlton Heston as Judah and Martha Scott and Cathy O’Donnell as Judah’s mother and sister, Miriam and Tirzah.
The one notable exception is leading lady Haya Harareet, an Israeli actress playing Esther, the slave who receives her freedom as a wedding gift from her master, Ben-Hur. Also worthy of mention is the splendid Welsh actor, Hugh Griffith, as the lusty Sheik Ilderim who believes one God and 50 wives enough for any man.
Ben-Hur has, over the years, received its share of petty criticism; even a claim that the relationship between Judah and Messala was of a sexual nature. I can see no evidence to support this and can only assume that the ‘claimant’ has himself (or herself) sadly missed out on genuine friendship with someone of the same sex.
Although set a little over 2000 years ago, Ben-Hur is a story of people as human as any you might meet today – people, not only from different walks of life but of different faiths.
But its message is a simple one – good eventually conquers evil. It will leave you feeling uplifted yet at the same time slightly saddened by the realization that, in spite of so-called progress, human nature hasn’t really changed at all.