|Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston|
In 26 A.D. the Romans have taken over Jerusalem. Jewish Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is reunited with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), but earns his enmity when he refuses to help him in the Roman cause. When some tumbling masonry accidentally falls onto a Roman dignitary from a spot where Ben-Hur and his family are watching, Messala has all of them arrested, with Ben-Hur becoming a galley slave, and his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell) put in a dungeon and contracting leprosy. After an epic sea battle, Heston becomes adopted by the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and becomes known as an expert charioteer. Now Ben-Hur is ready to face his most hated enemy in the arena, leading to the chariot race to end them all. Ben-Hur could have been trimmed of an hour without losing any of its entertainment value, and while it has a strong story it survives on the strength of its set-pieces: the galley slave sequence; the sea battle; the crucifixion; and especially the outstanding chariot race which the whole movie leads up to. Heston [Bad for Each Other] is not bad as Ben-Hur, although it could be argued that he doesn't so much become the character as turn Ben-Hur into Charlton Heston. On the other hand, Stephen Boyd [Fantastic Voyage] gives the performance of a lifetime in his ferocious portrait of Messala. [Some, including the late Gore Vidal, have insisted that Messala's anger towards his old friend is caused by a frustrated homosexual attraction as, according to them, there seems no other good reason for his hatred -- as if his Roman pride and ambition, barely-suppressed anti-Semitism, and his unpleasant character couldn't be enough?] Haya Harareet [The Secret Partner] plays Esther, who loves Ben-Hur; she is capable but had few other credits. Ben-Hur is unnecessarily bloated, but it does boast attractive [if sometimes too prettified] settings, excellent matte paintings, generally skillful direction from Wyler, and fine photography by Robert Surtees and others. A scene with some beautiful trained Arabian stallions doesn't advance the story but one can see why it wasn't cut. Yakima Canutt, who co-directed several cliffhanger serials, worked on the chariot sequence (although it may be inaccurate to say that he "directed" it). Oddly enough, Wyler's The Big Country, also starring Charlton Heston, is more entertaining.
Verdict: Misses being a masterpiece, but has many fine moments. ***.