The $15 million bet Metro topper Joseph R. Vogel and his associates put on a chariot race should result in the biggest payoff in the history of film business. “Ben-Hur” is a majestic achievement, representing a superb blending of the motion picture arts by master craftsmen. “Gone With the Wind,” Metro’s own champion all-time top grosser, will eventually have to take a back seat.
The big difference between “Ben-Hur” and other spectacles, biblical or otherwise, is its sincere concern for human beings. They’re not just pawns reciting flowery dialog to fill gaps between the action and spectacle scenes. They arouse genuine emotional feeling in the audience.
This has been accomplished without sacrificing the impact of the action, panoramic, and spectacle elements. As a matter of fact, the famous chariot race between Ben-Hur, the Prince of Judea, and Messala, the Roman tribune–a trademark of the Gen. Lew Wallace classic–will probably be preserved in film archives as the finest example of the use of the motion picture camera to record an action sequence. The race, directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, represents some 40 minutes of the most hair-raising excitement that film audiences have ever witnessed.
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Wisely, however, the film does not depend wholly on sheer spectacle. The family relationship between Ben-Hur and his mother Miriam and his sister Tirzah; his touching romance with Esther, the former slave; his admiration of the Roman consul, Quintus Arrius, whom he rescues after a sea battle; his association with the Arab horseowner, Sheik Ilderim; and his struggle with Messala, the boyhood friend who becomes his mortal enemy, make moving and heart-tugging scenes. And overshadowing these personal intimacies and conflicts is the deeply religious theme involving the birth and crucifixion of Christ.
That the story is never trite or corny, factors that have detracted from previous biblical films, is a tribute to the script and director William Wyler. A verteran director, although new to the spectacle film, latter succeeded superbly in bringing out every nuance of each individual scene and in eliminating the artificiality that is too often apparent in topical conversations between biblical characters.
Karl Tunberg receives sole screen credit, although such heavyweight writers as Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry also worked on the film. Fry, a respected British poet-playwright, was present on the set throughout the production in Rome.
Well-chosen cast contributes greatly to final achievement. Charlton Heston, the Moses of “The Ten Commandments,” is excellent as the brawny yet kindly Ben-Hur who survives the life of a galley slave to seek revenge of his enemy Messala and the Roman conquerors of Judea. Haya Harareet, an Israeli actress making her first appearance in an American film, emerges as a performer of stature. Her portrayal of Esther, the former slave and daughter of Simonides, steward of the House of Hur, is sensitive and revealing. Wyler presumably deserves considerate credit for taking a chance on an unknown. She has a striking appearance and represents a welcome departure from the standard Hollywood ingenue.
Jack Hawkins, as Quintus Arrius, the Roman consul who adopts Ben-Hur, adds another fine depiction to his acting career. Stephen Boyd, as Ben-Hur’s enemy Messala, is not the standard villain, but succeeds in giving understanding to this position in his dedication to the Roman Empire.
Martha Scott and Cathy O’Donnell are fine as Ben-Hur’s mother and sister who are miraculously cured of leprosy after they witness the cruxification of Christ. Hugh Griffith, as the Sheik Ilderim under whose colors Ben-Hur participates in the chariot race, is one of the standouts in the film. Other good portrayals are given by Sam Jaffe, as Simonides; Frank Thring, as Pontius Pilate, Finlay Currie, as the Egyptian who followed the star to Bethlehem, and Andre Morell, as Sextus. Credit is also due the rest of the large cast and the thousands of extras who appeared in the film.
The film, which took 10 months to complete at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, was photographed by Robert L. Surtees in Metro’s new Camera 65 process. The new process, shown in 70m, achieves a clarity and color definition that has been rare in film presentations. Surtees has accomplished wonders in filming the intimate scenes as well as the chariot race, the sea battle, the birth and cruxification of Christ, Caesar’s welcome of the hero Quintus Arris, and the various outdoor scenes of Rome and Judea.
The 300 sets, constructed under the supervision of art directors William Horning and Edward Carfango, are one of the highlights of the film, particularly the massive arena for the chariot sequence. The musical score by Miklos Rozza also contributes to the overall excellence of the giant project.
Not to be forgotten in the credits is the late Sam Zimbalist, who died of heart attack in Rome when the film was near completion. Ben-Hur is a fitting climax to Zimbalist’s career as a producer.
Metro undertook the venture at a time when the company was at its lowest ebb. The result is a complete vindication of the policies of Vogel and his management team.
The film runs three hours and 32 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
1959: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Charlton Heston), Supp. Actor (Hugh Griffith), Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction, Sound, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Editing, Special Effects, Color Costume Design.
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay