The Best Picture Winners: Ben-Hur (1959)

| November 10, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I first experienced William Wyler’s mammoth remake of Ben-Hur on an Easter weekend when I was a teenager – unfortunately it was the same weekend that I also viewed Cecil B. DeMille’s mammoth, but far more dramatically satisfying, biblical epic The Ten Commandments.

The two films tell similar stories about men (both played by Charlton Heston) who are born the privileged son of royalty and both of whom end up slaves – although Moses goes willingly and Judah Ben-Hur does not.  It may not have been wise to experience both films in such proximity to one another due to those similarities and the fact that (and permit me a minor sacrilege) I think DeMille was a much better and much more focused director for a movie of this size.

I don’t mean that to say that Ben-Hur is a bad movie, but given a chance to spend an evening with one or the other, I find the plight of Moses to have a bit more heft.  Ben-Hur, to be fair, is an impressive looking production.  I can’t overlook the bravura of the sea battles, the chariot race, the over-the-top performances by Heston, Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins. Yet, I also can’t overlook the fact that the screenplay drags – it won a record-breaking 11 Oscars but fittingly the screenplay wasn’t even nominated.

To my frustration, I find that Ben-Hur routinely ends up on lists of the greatest movies of all time, and I think that stature may come from the film’s epic sweep – it is a glorious film to behold. Yet, with that dry screenplay, the movie plays for me like a plate of broccoli – I know that it is good for me and on that basis I kind of reject it.

I have a suspicion that the film’s epic sweep and glorious production values, have unconsciously given people the license to canonize it.  I will never say that it is a bad movie, but I won’t say that I’m likely to spend an evening – -or an Easter weekend – with it anytime soon.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.