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  • Writer's pictureValerie A. Higgs

AFI #100: Ben Hur (1959)

Updated: Jan 23, 2023


As Jesus Christ reaches adulthood, two childhood best friends “break up” – one a Jewish prince, the other a Roman Tribune newly appointed to the region where they grew up. When they have a disagreement, the Tribune exacts his revenge when an unfortunate accident happens. He throws the prince in jail, along with his innocent mother and sister. The prince stews over this betrayal while serving as a gallery slave and, due to the kindness of strangers, rises from the ashes to seek vengeance upon his formerly beloved friend.

I hadn’t seen this movie in a long while – the first time I saw it was when I was a kid, and it was on television. I vaguely remembered it; the galley scene, the lepers, the chariot race – but I didn’t remember how it all hung together.

I believe I saw The Ten Commandments first, which introduced me to Charlton Heston, and I also vaguely remember thinking that Moses was in another movie.

For this challenge, I kind of dreaded having to watch the movie again since it was 3 hours and 42 minutes long. Wasn’t a fan of wasting an entire day off. I put this off long enough that I procrastinated by watching the movies for episode 2 and 3 first. It just seemed too daunting, and I was kicking myself a little for creating this challenge for myself.

I’m glad I did!

Ben-Hur was an Academy Award winning movie for both director William Wyler and composer Miklós Rózsa. It was considered Rózsa’s masterpiece and one of the longest films scores ever composed. I had forgotten how great the score was and I was happy that the movie had a proper Overture. Miklós won an Oscar for scoring one of my top three Hitchcock films, Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

I watched this on a day off for the Christmas 2022 holiday, so it’s a bit timely. The movie starts off with Jesus’ birth.

The production value was mind boggling. The chariot race scene apparently cost a quarter of the budget, which was a cool $4 million dollars. The set was amazing, the costumes wonderful, and the cast was pitch perfect.

The standout to me was Ben-Hur’s love interest, Esther, played by Haya Harareet, an Israeli actress and screen writer who just passed last year. The love she had for Ben-Hur and his family! Wow! I’m guessing that she was the ideal woman in the 1950s.

Speaking of the 1950s, I like the little eff you to McCarthyism when Ben-Hur didn’t name names to Messala.

The other notable feature was the intense homoerotic nature of Ben-Hur and Messala’s relationship. I kept hearing about it but didn’t notice as a child back in the late 1970s when I saw the movie. Watching it now, it really hit me between the eyes.

One of the things I like the most about watching “old” movies like this is you see where later directors come up with their ideas. The most direct homage to Ben-Hur is Gladiator. There were a few moments in the score during the galley slave scene on the boat reminded me of the war scene at the beginning of Gladiator.

A fun homage to Ben-Hur was in the movie Grease during the race scene. Let me know if you catch it.

I’m glad that I took the time to watch the movie, though I dreaded the length, and lost a little focus during a scene with Pontius Pilate. I mostly got on my phone or computer when I was trying to research something about the movie. Which is a nice switch.

The movie is long, but the music is great. There’s an intermission, so take your time. It’s worth it.

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