'Ben-Hur': THR's 1959 Review

1959 - "Ben-Hur" - H 2016
Courtesy of Macmillan
Millions and millions, who know the General Lew Wallace work through his novel, the stage plays and the silent film, will find new entertainment, meaning and inspiration here. Millions of others will be delighted, entertained, rewarded.

On Nov. 18, 1959, MGM unspooled a 217-minute Charlton Heston film with an "unprecedented" $15M budget. Ben-Hur, which claimed 11 Oscars at the 32nd Academy Awards, became one of the defining movies of the era. The Hollywood Reporter's original review deemed the title the "greatest of all spectacles":

NEW YORK — An extraordinary motion picture, greater in dimension and significance than any similar film of our time, Ben-Hur is more spectacular than any of the previous spectacles. More importantly, it is at the same time a highly rewarding dramatic experience, rich and complex in human values: a great adventure, full of excitement, visual beauty, thrills and unsurpassed cinema artistry.

This is high praise but this work deserves it, for it enriches the screen, will enrich the lives of audiences all over the world and should reap a rich harvest in goodwill and financial returns for the entire film industry.

The story of Ben-Hur and his feud with Messala is fictional, but the authors and director of this film have presented this fiction in the best realistic tradition. Through a close study and revelation of character they have given meaning and understanding to a period and a society in which many peoples were alienated from each other. The implications of the story, the relationships of the characters and the feuding forces within the society of the time have many parallels in life today. The film speaks out with the full force of inspired conviction and passionate concern for the doings and destiny of man.

Unprecedented Cost

The unprecedented $15,000,000 production cost is all there on the screen in a prodigious array of breathtaking spectacle, wonder, splendor, unforgettable sights and sound. As many as 8,000 extras are on film at one time, not to mention hundreds of horses, camels from Africa, 50 ships built specially for the sea battle, 18 chariots and 300 different sets recreating the glory that was Rome, the grandeur that was Jerusalem. The magnitude of the physical and technical production is unsurpassed.

A sequence as thrilling as any ever put on film is the chariot race, staged by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. This will be discussed for years and years for its pictorial and dramatic excitement, its precision — like wheeling of 36 horses pulling nine chariots and its tense mob scene reactions. The sea battle between the Romans and the Macedonians, with the unusual shots of the galley slave rowers, is another vivid highlight of the production.

Excellent Acting

But, only 45 minutes of this three-hour-and-37-minute epic are devoted to spectacle, and director William Wyler never lets spectacle and size interfere with the elemental passions and conflicts of his human story. The spectacular aspects emerge naturally from the story — the time and place and the customs of the society in which the characters live. Spectacle is never permitted to stop or cloud the story, most of which is told in close shots featuring closely observed details of the principal characters, their joy, pain, defeat, victory.

The action takes place between the time of the birth of Christ and his crucifixion. And, within this framework, there is a gallery of memorable performances which distinguish the film and the careers of the participants. Charlton Heston completely identifies himself with the inspirational role of Judah Ben-Hur, his dramatic struggle against the tyrannical subjugation of the Jews and his triumph in finding a meaning of life. Stephen Boyd, as the tribune Messala, is a savage protagonist, treacherous in his personal relationship with Judah. Jack Hawkins, as Quintus Arrius, the admiral of the fleet who is saved by and then befriended Ben-Hur, gives an excellent portrayal of an understanding member of the Roman ruling class.

Haya Harareet as Esther gives a striking, seemingly guileless performance as Ben-Hur's former slave and romantic interest, friend of the family and a Jewish convert to Christianity. Sam Jaffe stands out sharply in his natural assumption of the role of Simonides, steward to Ben-Hur and father of Esther.

Among the other excellent characterizations are those of Hugh Griffith, as Sheik Iderim; Martha Scott, Ben-Hur's mother; Cathy O'Donnell, the sister; Finlay Currie, Balthasar, the wise man; Frank Thring, Pontius Pilate; Ady Berber, Malluch; Andre Morell, Sextus; George Relph, Tiberius; Terence Longdon, Drusus; Laurence Payne, Joseph; and Marina Berti, as Falvua, the wanton.

Tunberg Screenplay Soars

Karl Tunberg has provided a soaring, many-faceted screenplay tracing the birth of Christianity out of the conflicts between the pagan Romans and the Jews. His was the major contribution, but it is brilliant and poetic enough to allow credit for the contributions of Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson and S.N. Behrman without detracting from Tunberg's work.

Miklos Rozsa's score, ranging from triumphal marches to Hebraic chants and organ music, adds sweep to the pageantry and sets the proper mood for the dramatic scenes.

The creative camera work of Robert Surtees is of great stature, with almost every frame a perfect composition, brilliantly lighted like Renaissance paintings. Here, too, an outstanding contribution has been made by Technicolor, Camera 65 and Panavision in the big-screen process that is both flawless and gives a perfect illusion of depth and reality.

Also in the prize category class are: the art direction of William A. Horning and Edward Carfagno, colorings of Charles Hagedon, set decorations of Hugh Hunt, and special effects of A. Arnold Gillespie, Lee LeBlanc and Robert Hoag. Exceptional jobs have been done by film editors Ralph E. Winters and John D. Dunning and makeup supervisor Charles Parker.

The genius of this inspirational tribute to man is William Wyler. But mention must also be made of producer Sam Zimbalist, who shaped the final effort during his years of work prior to his death. And special mention must be made of MGM president Joseph Vogel and studio head Sol C. Siegel for their faith and courage in this monumental undertaking. Millions and millions, who know the General Lew Wallace work through his novel, the stage plays and the silent film, will find new entertainment, meaning and inspiration here. Millions of others will be delighted, entertained, rewarded. — Jack Harrison, originally published on Nov. 18, 1959.