Monday, November 16, 2009

#100: Ben-Hur

Counting down the 10th anniversary edition of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies of All Time list is a difficult venture. Doing it in one year is even harder. When #100 is a three and a half hour epic, even getting started proves arduous. I can't say I was particularly excited about watching the 1959 Charlton Heston film, Ben-Hur, but now that it's over, I'm delighted to say that it was all I could have hoped for.

The tricky thing about the AFI Top 100 list is that the criteria that must be met for a film to reach it doesn't necessarily mean it has to be "good." Look at The Jazz Singer for instance. That film was on the older version of the list for technical achievement (it was the first talking picture), but ask critics what they think and more than a few will express their disapproval. Well, Ben-Hur meets the criteria and then some. It isn't only a technically sound film or only an Academy Award winner or only a box office giant. It's also a thoroughly enjoyable movie on top of all that and it still stands up today. Given how short our society's attention span has become, the fact that I made it through this movie without keeling over is something. The fact that I was enamored with every facet of it is even more amazing.

Ben-Hur is an epic for the ages, a film filled with so much grandeur you'll swear you're staring into the heavens, which is appropriate given the subject matter. In the film that takes place during the days of Jesus Christ, a Jewish man named Judah Ben-Hur, played by the great Charlton Heston, is seized by the Roman Empire after refusing to work as their informant by going against his own people. Flash forward years later and he's on a galley rowing to and fro at the request of the men on board. He is their slave, but soon a fight between ships breaks out and he breaks free, but not before saving the life of Roman Consul Arrius, played by Jack Hawkins, who takes him in as his son.

So much more happens than what I've detailed above, including a run in with Christ, a search for Judah's mother and sister and a spectacular chariot race late in the movie that works as a catalyst for Judah's revenge against his former friend, Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, but it would be impossible to fit it all in here. Ben-Hur is a multi-layered movie with a narrative as gripping as any I've seen and the three and a half hour runtime is justified because there isn't a single scene that could have been taken out.

Every facet of its production is simply mind blowing. The sets are extravagantly detailed and extras go as far as the eye can see. This movie was a gamble in more ways than one. Setting aside the fact that the film was a last ditch effort to pull MGM away from the brink of bankruptcy (which it did with an impressive box office intake), it also risked being overpowered by its elaborate design. The message and meaning of the picture could easily have been stripped away, but it isn't. The embellished design worked only as another piece of the puzzle in its prodigious scale. Nothing is taken away because of it.

Ben-Hur may have religious connotations, but it isn't necessarily a religious movie. What it does is center itself around Jesus Christ, but never focuses on him (in fact, he's only in a handful of scenes and you never see his face). This is a movie that can be enjoyed by Christians, atheists, agnostics or the undecided. Tack onto this amazing performances from the entire cast, an engaging musical score and a truly phenomenal chariot race late in the picture that is impressively shot and surprisingly heart stopping and you have a wonderful cinematic achievement.

If #100 is this good, I can't wait to see what the rest are like.

-Joshua Hylton

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