William Wyler’s 1959 “Ben-Hur” is a film that generates respect, if not adulation. And there is no reason to feel guilty about not loving this mammoth epic. Gary Giddins, writing in the now-defunct New York Sun, probably summed it up best: “Watching ‘Ben-Hur’ all at once is like sitting down to a 10-course meal and finding that every course consists of potato dumplings, except for the seventh, which is strawberry shortcake (that would be the chariot race).”
Yes, “Ben-Hur” is certainly an eye-popping spectacle of old-school cinema that throws in everything but that proverbial kitchen sink: pageantry, seething melodrama, thousands of extras, huge sets, a touch of vague religious piety and a surplus of testosterone-fueled action. The chariot race is the crowning achievement here – not directed by Wyler, but by Andrew Marton with invaluable input by Yakima Canutt – and any student of action filmmaking needs to watch this sequence to understand the basics of editing, sound effects and stuntwork.
But despite the over-the-top production design, “Ben-Hur” takes itself much too seriously in presenting Lew Wallace’s overcooked Sunday School lesson. Anyone expecting the typical campy fun of the sword-and-sandal genre will be in for a rude shock as this solemn odyssey drags on for a grueling 212 minutes. (As with most widescreen epics, this film loses a lot when its 70mm panorama is telescoped for TV viewing.)
Charlton Heston’s stolid central character is something of a bore – the star was years away from developing his self-deprecatory teeth-gnashing style – and it is easy to look beyond him and witness the luscious scenery being vigorously chewed by veteran British hams Jack Hawkins, Finlay Currie and (caked in Al Jolson-worthy blackface) Hugh Griffith.
“Ben-Hur” has returned via something called the “50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” on Blu-ray and DVD. (It is actually the 52nd Anniversary, but who’s counting?) This is the rare presentation where the special features are more interesting than the main attraction: a restored version of the rarely-seen 1925 MGM silent version of “Ben-Hur” along with documentaries on Heston and the making of the 1959 production, along with highlights from the 1960 Academy Award telecast that was dominated by “Ben-Hur.” But, really, can anyone with seriously claim that “Ben-Hur” was better than the other four films that were up for Best Picture – “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Room at the Top,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Nun’s Story”?