Blood, sweat, and tears
BEN.HUR Certificate A: Empire Director: William Wyler GENERAL LEW WALLACE called his famous book " BenHur "—with a sub-title "A Tale of the Christ " But it isn't. It is the tale of a mammoth quarrel between two young men: one a prince of Judah—Ben-Hur; the other Messala—a Roman warrior.
They knew each other in their boyhood when Messala's father was governor in Jerusalem. When Messala comes back to Jerusalem as a young man as commander of the legion preceding the new governor. it looks as though the two are going to resume their old friendship.
Messala has come primed with stories of the strong nationalistic feelings that are rife in Judaea—
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and he tells Ben-Hur that he looks to him to help him suppress them. Rome, he says. is astride the world like a colossus and it would he better to bow to it.
Messala turns out to be almost the most ignoble Roman of them all. All power has corrupted him absolutely. Ben-Hur refuses to spy on his own peopleand suddenly the two are open enemies.
When a coping stone from BenHur's palace falls right on the head of the governor as he is marching into the city, Ben-Hur is seized, condemned without a trial, and sent to work in the Roman galleys. His mother and sister are thrown into a dungeon. When they emerge years after, they have both become lepers.
So. from then on, we are occupied with Ben-Hur's determination to kill Messala. Three years in the galley do not wcakeh his resolve. When he finally gets back to Jerusalem he comes as a citizen of Romethe adopted son of the great Arrius (Jack Hawkins), commander of the fleet whose life he has saved when the galley was rammed in enemy action.
And so we come, after much storm and stress, to the great chariot race—with Messala, driving four black horses and a chariot with most unsporting steel spikes sticking out from the wheels (where was the referee'?). Also in the race: Ben-Hun's chariot with four magnificent white horses (and no spikes) and seven other teams.
The ignoble Messala (in the presence of 15,000 spectators and Pontius Pilate). not content with his wrecking tactics, begins to belabour Ben-Hur as their chariots career and collide and wheel madly around the track. Other chariots are overturned; their drivers topple out into the path of the mad charging remnants.. Stretcherbearers rush out under the hooves to bring them in. It's quite terrible and unbearable and thrilling.
Then the wicked Messala stumbles and falls. His mangled and, yes, bloody body is brought in. Writhing with hatred, over whelmed at the disgrace of a Roman being beaten by a Jew, he dies. No one who faints at the sight of mangled flesh and much blood will like this bit Harrowing.
Yes. There is lots of blood, sweat, and tears in this story of Jew and Roman during the reign of the Emperor Tiheritis when Christ had already begun his teaching. Judaea was regarded as no " plum" among Rome's colonial posts—and we first meet Pontius Pilate at a .sort of cocktail party in Rome where he is grumbling to someone and saying: "I'd really hoped for Alexandria?' He never loses that air of boredom—either at the chariot race or when he languidly washes his hands at Our Lord's trial.
This is not a religious epic. Episodes in the birth of Christianity are pin-pointed: the prelude of the Nativity; the visit of the Three Kings; a glimpse of St. Joseph at work (Laurence Payne); Christ, always seen back to the camera. on the Judaean hills; the final scenes at the trial; the way of the Cross when Ben-Hur rushes among the soldiery with a stoup of water to the fallen Christ. He follows and eventually stands at the foot of the Cross where he learns at last how to forgive.
There are, toe, the mechanics of the raising of the Cross—and the jolt as it falls into the socket. Brief but scarifying moment.
Spectacularly the film is a triumph for William Wyler and his team of cameramen. Apart from the great sweep over country and town, there is one new trick in which you seem to be hoisted on a swinging crane out from the walled city streets to the hill beyond— almost the effect you get in Cinerama. Some shots are held too long—like the galley scene (I felt quite sorry for the actors, let alone the men they were supposed to be). But quite terrific is the shot below decks when the ship is rammed, the men chained to their oars and drowning, the splintering wood. the chaos.
I have said before and I'm saying again that the wide screen with its mammoth close-ups is no friend to the actor. In fact, it often kills acting stone dead. Charlton Heston makes a fine-hewn, heroic figure of Ben-Hur, but neither he nor Stephen Boyd (Messala) can quite overcome this handicap. Hugh Griffiths as a very urbane sheikh of Araby does fill the wide open space with his glorious, sly sense of fun. and so does the fine, patriarchal figure of Finley Currie as Balthasar.
The women are all good—Haya Harareet, beautiful if somewhat static as Esther; Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell as mother and sister—comely to begin with, later shuffling into dusty death in the Valley of the Lepers.
Four hours counting a short intermission. Is it too long? Maybe. But I don't think the length of this unique film is going to keep anyone away—and WG.M. confidently expect it to run for the minimum of one year in Leicester Square. Don't miss it.