Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Ben-Hur

Film #245

THE PLOT

When a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge.

Year 1, Day 246

BEFORE: Previously scheduled for Oscar month back in January, the epic Ben-Hur is finally making it’s way to the top spot. At 212 minutes with overture and intermission, Ben-Hur returns to the realm of lengthy historical dramas. This genre has produced many great films already in the marathon (see: Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi) so I’m very optimistic going in. I believe I’ve seen parts (or all?) of the famous chariot race before but the rest of the film remains a big mystery to me. All I can say is I’m excited.

AFTER: One thing is certain about Ben-Hur: the high production value and accompanying record budget does not go unnoticed. But while the film is visually and technically impressive, it is just way too long and drawn-out.

Ben-Hur is often cited as one of the most influential films in cinematic history with the cinematography, editing, soundtrack, and many other elements leading the way in what was possible in a film. For comparisons sake, Lawrence of Arabia (which was released three years later in 1962) can be seen as highly influenced by Ben-Hur both in terms of scope and visual style. Looking at any of these films today, Ben-Hur specifically, it might seem old-hat and commonplace to frame things the way they did or edit in cutaway shots to give the viewer a sense of time. It’s important to keep things like this in mind, especially when watching older movies that can easily bore - myself included - because they don’t look and feel the same way movies do today. Ben-Hur straddles that line between being able to watch the film and accept it for what it is and having to remind yourself that fifty years ago this stuff was hard to do.

But where I was left disappointed was the unnecessarily long length of the story. Typically, I’m always the one defending long runtimes and that if anything films should be longer so we can see more of the characters and the world they inhabit. I already mentioned Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi, both 3+ hour films, which I very much enjoyed. Of more recent memory in the debate on length, yesterday’s It’s Complicated (only a measly two hours) was one I argued for in the opposite direction - to make it shorter. I cite these examples so you’re aware that I’m not opposed to long films, just that they should warrant their runtime.

The length of Ben-Hur suffers from two areas: drawn-out scenes and a story that is too broad. By drawn-out scenes I mean that quite often there is far too much action and dialogue to cover the purpose of a scene. For example, one of the first scenes where Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) meets childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). This scene’s purpose is to establish that Messala is now a tribune (read: officer of the Roman army), Ben-Hur is a leader in Judea, and while friendly, the two have differing views on how to handle the rebels in town. Five minutes should be adequate to show all this, maybe ten minutes at a stretch. But this scene lasts a whopping twenty minutes. There’s a time and place where added time is needed to fully explain what’s going on or to build a mood but in this instance, and many others in the film, less would be much more effective. As for the broadness of the story I simply mean that there are a lot of self-contained stories that could serve much better individually than combining them into this one long all-encompassing film. Ben-Hur is a film about Ben-Hur and the trials he goes through, his family’s well-being and treatment, Ben-Hur’s conflict with Messala, and on top of all that it’s also “A Tale of the Christ” - the subtitle to the novel which the film is based off of. Each of these stories could be their own films (not that I’m advocating each should, but could) and with this refined focus would bring a much more condensed and, probably, a more entertaining film.

What this all comes down to is this: Ben-Hur is a well-made film that, for the most part, stands up even in today’s cinema, but with a sprawling and drawn-out story, it’s hard to recommend; even if you have four free hours to spare.

RATING: 3 out of 5