100 – Ben Hur (1959)

Sheik Ilderim: One God? That I can understand. But one wife? That is not civilized. It is not generous!

 

Seen before?

R: Bits and pieces but never the whole way through.

F: No.

 

Thoughts?

R: When a film is over three and a half hours long and starts with a five minute overture it’s easy to imagine it’s going to waste your time. I didn’t feel like this wasted my time.

F: Agreed. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. When I saw the running time I thought it would be a slog but actually it’s so big and grand that it does kind of justify the length. That said, the last 40 minutes I could probably live without.

R: Absolutely. While the ending didn’t exactly ruin it for me it definitely took some of the shine off a film I was thoroughly enjoying. I said during the intermission (yes there is an intermission and yes we were grateful for it) that if Jesus comes along and solves all their problems that’s going to be a really disappointing way for the film to end. And (SPOILERS) that is pretty much exactly how it ends. The poster says “BEN HUR – A Tale of the Christ”. If the film had less of the Christ and more of Ben Hur I think it could have been a contender for my favourite film set in the Roman empire. As it is, that honour still rests with Gladiator.

F: I imagine they cut back the Jesus scenes in the 2016 remake although this is known as a biblical epic. They definitely won’t have cut the chariot race though! It being pre-CGI days makes it even more spectacular and I’m not surprised people got injured whilst filming it.

R: It is impossible to imagine how the chariot scene could be enhanced by CGI. It’s funny how a lot of the scenes that are just a couple of people talking in a room look a bit fake but that chariot scene looks more real than any action sequence I’ve seen in any film made in the 21st Century.

F: I would say it’s the highlight of the film.

R: Definitely,  in part because it’s one of the few times in the movie you get a break from the heavy-handed score. In almost every other scene the orchestra is telling you exactly what you should feel at any given time – for the chariot race you’re finally left to just enjoy the spectacle.

F: I think the score probably bothered you more than me. For me, it adds to the epic spectacle but it is a bit in your face at times.

R: That’s probably a fair assessment. What bothered me much more was how stupid the entire leprosy plot line is. Up until that point all the characters are behaving plausibly and you can understand their motivations.

F: I do understand that back in the olden days people with leprosy probably were outcast but the way this happens in the film does not seem realistic to me.

R: What did you think about Charlton Heston’s performance?

F: I think he’s really good in this but at times he feels a bit ‘American’ – his accent makes it sound like he’s just walked off the set of a western. I guess the accents in general are a bit of a mixture. A minor comment though in what I generally thought was a good, solid start to the top 100!

R: Yes this might have been the perfect film to start a list of 100 American films with: it felt like it encapsulated a lot of what’s great and not so great about American cinema. Most of the acting and Heston in particular I thought was superb – the religious propaganda not so much. Likewise the crowd and action scenes are spectacular and the kind of thing only Hollywood has the budget to pull off, but it’s also very Hollywood to cast all the baddies with English accents and have white actors in blackface. But ultimately if all the other films on the list are at least as entertaining as this (and happily we know they’re not all this long) then we’re in for a good time.

 

Is it worthy of the Top 100?

F: Yes I would say so. I’m interested to compare it to some of the other ‘epics’ in the list.

R: I enjoyed it. I can see it’s important. I certainly don’t resent it being here. But if I were picking my own 100 favourite American films I don’t think it would make the cut.

 

Up next:
99 – Toy Story (1995)
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