1959 • Ben-Hur

Charlton Heston went from the big top to the days of Jesus in the 50s.

“If they hadn’t knocked that rock off the roof, they could have avoided this whole [ugly mess]!”  That’s what I said as the 212-minute epic Ben-Hur came to a close Sunday, shortly after 12:45pm.

Saturday night around 11pm, Lauren and I were feeling extra awake, so we sat down to watch the next Best Picture on our list, and perhaps our final movie before the baseball season starts tomorrow and takes up our evenings basically every day.  We managed to watch the first disc before going to bed, then finished the movie this morning.

Ben-Hur is of course the epic tale of Judah Ben-Hur, who is sent to the “galleys” after accidentally knocking a piece of rock off his roof when new officer of the Roman cavalry Messala passes by, startling his horse and nearly killing him.  Though Messala knows this is on accident, he sends Ben-Hur, his sister, and mother away.

I guess I could ramble on and on about the twists and turns of this very long movie, but chances are you would be very bored reading about the plot.  Instead I’ll do it a little differently this time and point out my five most interesting point of the production as a whole.

1. William Wyler directed this movie, along with my two favorite movies in the Best Picture project so far, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs. Miniver. But I never would have guessed that.  Wyler is an obviously accomplished director, and though I admittedly know very little about the subject, is probably considered one of the all-time greats.  While the first two movies I mentioned feature war as somewhat of a subplot, Ben-Hur features battle scenes every few minutes, from the battles at sea to the famous chariot race.  Wyler’s gotta be my favorite director of this project so far.

2. Widescreen has never been so wide.  I mean, if we were watching this movie on my old 19″ TV, we would have seen mostly black strips on the top and bottom and a 3″ slit of movie in the middle.  Thankfully, our 42″ HD TV allowed for a more pleasurable viewing experience.  I looked it up and it’s true, this was one of the widest shots ever with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1.  That was unheard of then and is still considered extreme now.

3. It was long. It seemed less long because, a) I was drinking moderately heavily while we watched the first 2.5 hours and b) we watched it spanning two days.  But it was three and a half hours long.  Gone With the Wind and Titanic may be the only others of such length, but I am basing that on no actual facts.  I just checked, and um, this movie is nowhere close to the longets ever.  The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, made in 1928, is 27 hours long.

4. The chariot race scene was very, very well-done.  It was the only time in the movie I was on the edge of my seat.  Apparently the race scene took three months to film and required 8,000 extras, and to this day is the largest set ever constructed for a movie.  MGM shelled out a whopping $15M to produce the film, hoping to avoid bankruptcy, and I guess it worked.  The film grossed over $75M.  The scenes of some of the chariot drivers falling off their carts and being trampled by the horses were very realistic.  That was the best part of the movie.

5. The Simpsons spoofs are numerous.  I didn’t realize The Simpsons did a couple episodes with Ben-Hur spoofs.  Mr. Burns’ entry in the Springfield Film Festival features him in the role of Jesus, giving water to an ailing Ben-Hur, who says “You truly are king of kings!”  In another episode with the soapbox racers, Nelson has the drills on his wheels, hoping to destroy his opponents’ cars if they get too close, just like the chariot driver who busts some wheels off others’ chariots with this jagged metal drill device attached to his wheel.

Overall Ben-Hur was pretty good, I thought.  I have to break it down into scenes since the movie was so long.  The chariot race?  Classic.  The ship scenes?  Great.  The Jesus in the desert scene?  Good.  The leprocy scenes?  Meh.  It likely falls in the top six or seven, but Wyler certainly won’t be getting the top three movies on my list!

Next up, the 1960s with West Side Story. We were disappointed to find out Netflix doesn’t have three of the movies from the 60s in stock, including 1960’s The Apartment and 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. We will have to go back and watch those later in some other fashion.

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