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BEN-HUR (1959)

A rich, Jewish merchant in Jerusalem, who is unjustly condemned and sent to row in the galley of a Roman military ship, vows to return to Jerusalem to get revenge against the corrupt Roman who sent him there.

The cast includes: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, and Frank Thring.

This 3 hour 20 minute film is one of the most honored films ever made. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 11 including Best Picture, Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith), Best Director, and Best Music.

Directed by: William Wyler.

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The film opens with the New Testament Christmas story, with the wise men following the star of Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. The plot then skips to around the time of Jesus Christ's ministry years, where the story of Judah Ben-Hur begins. A just, kind, fair-minded, observant Jew, by the name of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), is living a very comfortable life in a fashionable home in Jerusalem, with his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), and servants, Simonides (Sam Jaffe), and his lovely daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet), whom Judah secretly loves. Judah had made his money from his trading business, as well as inheriting family money. He was well-respected and held in high regard by his fellow Jews.

One fateful day, Judah's childhood Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives back in town, having been appointed to be the commanding officer of the Roman Legions. Their joyful reunion turns sour when Judah refuses to tell Messala the names of those Jews who are openly unhappy with Rome's occupation and rule. During a welcome parade for Messala, a lose tile falls from Judah's roof, and nearly hits Messala. Taking this opportunity to get rid of Judah, Messala condemns Judah as trying to kill him, and throws Judah's family into prison, even though Massala discovers for himself that the whole tile incident was an accident, as Judah has claimed.

Judah is sent away in chains with other hapless prisoners, driven through the desert on his way to his new occupation of rowing in the belly of a Roman ship. When his hot, water deprived group makes it to a small village, his path first crosses Jesus Christ (Claud Heater). After hearing Judah's plea for God's help, when denied water by a soldier, Jesus makes a wordless connection with Judah, while giving him some water, a lot of comfort and the will to live, to courageously survive the hard times ahead of him.

After rowing in the galley of Roman Ships for 3 years, Judah saves the life of the ship's commander, Quintus Arriss (Jack Hawkins), and finds himself in Rome, first as Quintus's servant, who races successfully in the chariot contests. Judah winds up being adopted by Quintus, putting him in a position to return to Jerusalem to hopefully rescue his mother and sister, and wreak revenge on his foe, Messala.

This powerful, if lengthy screenplay was based on the novel by Lew Wallace, and was written by Karl Turnburg and Maxwell Anderson. This story skillfully intertwines the teachings and power of Jesus, with the life trials, the attitudes and decisions of Judah and his family, as they are willing to learn from and meet Jesus, accepting his help, and believing in him at the end. Traditionally shown at Easter, it has a terrific spiritual punch, much enjoyed by people of Christian faith.

The casting was superb, and the amount of talent gathered in this epic really brings the screenplay to life, giving Director William Wyler plenty to work with. William Wyler did an outstanding job directing this great epic, being one of his best efforts.

Charlton Heston gives the audience one of his absolute best performances, as he brings his character, Judah Ben-Hur, to life, and excels in this difficult part, convincingly showing Judas' strength, courage, compassion and perseverance, and his ultimate final victory when he is able to let go of his hatred of Rome. He convincingly portrays his character's attitude changes as he experiences various incidents and situations, and ultimately is transformed because of Christ. He gives an especially powerful performances in his wordless scenes with Jesus.

Stephen Boyd does a terrific job as Massala, Judah's friend, who is fully corrupted by Rome, and comes back to Jerusalem as a man without a moral conscience, firmly believing that the ends justifies the means, and tries to destroy an old friend to benefit himself. By doing so, Massala hoped to put fear in the hearts of the Jews in town, to stop trouble before it starts and control the resentment aimed at the Romans, which would secure his political position in Jerusalem.

Heston and Boyd's scenes together are very well done, especially the last chariot race, where they battle each other as they race. Both men did most of their own chariot racing, leaving only the most dangerous scenes for the stunt men. Their last scene together is powerful as well, as the dying Massala gives Judah some bombshell, heartbreaking news.

Hugh Griffith does a marvelous job playing Sheik Ilderim, the Arab, who convinces Judah to race his Arabian horse children in the chariot contest in Jerusalem, to get back at Massala, instead of trying to kill him outright.

A favorite sequence of scenes with Hugh Griffith is when his character has his horses come directly into his main tent to say goodnight to him, and meet Judah.

Another favorite sequence of scenes has got to be the last chariot race. This famous 17 minute chariot race has never been topped by anything else in film. It takes your breath away, as real galloping horses, and real chariots dramatically thunder around the circular track, with a huge cast of extras in the audience. The whole sequence takes you back in time to the Roman world, as you experience the pageantry, the wild excitement, and the life-threatening drama of the Chariot contests, where anything was allowed. To cause more mayhem, Massala used a chariot that had wickedly sharp knife-like curbed spikes sticking out of his wheels, designed to cut off his opponents' wheels, as he pulls up beside them.

Also, the last 30 - 40 minutes offer powerful, spiritual moments for Christian believers and others who admire Jesus Christ. Judah once again has a face to face, wordless encounter with Christ, when he is the one to give a small comfort to Christ. The uplifting ending is a glowing testimony to the power of Jesus Christ.

The marvelous, full-body orchestra musical score won the Oscar for the great composer, Hungarian-born Miklos Rozsa, who had a long and successful career composing many musical scores for both small and large Hollywood films. His wide variety of musical score have won many Academy Award Nominations and a few Oscars as well. Rozsa, like Bernstein, started his musical career off by composing classical music for violin, and orchestras. Miklos Rozsa's music was written in the European Romantic tradition, making him popular indeed in the Hollywood arena.

To fully appreciate and enjoy the glorious cinematography, by Robert Surtees, it is best to see Ben-Hur in a 70 mm. screen theater, where the great vistas, and all the glorious detail can be noticed and enjoyed.

Ben-Hur was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 11 including Best Director (Wyler), and Best Music (Miklos Rozsa). Stephen Boyd was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to his co-star Hugh Griffith.

Ben-Hur has been rated G, though it may be too long in parts for some children, and the rough treatment of Jesus at the end may be too intense for very young children. Otherwise, it is a terrific family movie event that reinforces and showcases the Christian faith.

If you enjoyed BEN-HUR, you may like BEN-HUR (1925), THE ROBE, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, KING OF KINGS, EL CID, SPARTACUS, and/or THE GLADIATOR.