Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Classic Movie Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

This is a sheer Hollywood Epic and deserves its place in cinematic history! 
Ben-Hur (1959) Poster
This film is Based on a world famous classic Novel written by an American Civil War veteran, General Lew Wallace. Wallace decided to write a novel based during the Roman Empire and placed the setting of the story in-between the life and death of Jesus Christ. The book was a huge success reprinted many times over. Fast forward to 1926 and we have the first film version of Ben Hur (I shall review this too at some point so won't talk much about it here). The film was a massive success for MGM, so much so that when color cinema had took off and cinema goers were enjoying long epics again (Giant comes to mind a few years earlier) they decided to remake this film. Wow did they push the boat out with this one. Director William Wyler manages to craft a pure Hollywood Epic, that set the standard for Oscar winners (it won a record total of 11 Awards).

The film starts with what must be "The Greatest story ever told" the birth of Christ, we see the great star shinning over Bethlehem, the three Kings and the Shepard's. This scene ends and we are introduced to Ben-Hur. Ben Hur meets his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) whom now happens to be of high position in the great Roman Army. In a story that was strongly borrowed by Gladiator in the year 2000, Ben Hur is forced into the gallows and ends up fighting for his life, because his "Friend" refuses to help him for his selfish gain. Ben Hur is played by the legendary Charlton Heston, this must be his most famous role of all time (maybe joint with Planet of The Apes). He plays this character with so much strength and conviction, yet when we see him shackled he comes across vulnerable, and we feel for this once proud man.

You can tell Ridley Scott watched this film many times before making Gladiator it shows in his own masterpiece. The sets are so huge and must of cost a sheer fortune, if Cleopatra made 20th Century Fox nearly bust a few years later, this must of done similar to MGM. Everything looks so expensive and huge, life size ships simply destroyed in battle (tho some shots are used with models, that still look good), the costumes (especially the roman amours) are just beautiful and so vibrant. Scenes are just full of extras, which is really sad for cinema today, because these days of filling screens with people have been replaced by CGI (Computer Graphic Images). Same as these huge sets they built (some even just painted on backgrounds) I adore seeing things like this, they make the film look more crafted and "made" as art should be. After all the MGM motto above Leo the Lion is: Ars gratia artis, "Art for Art's sake".What must be the greatest part tho is the huge set built for the chariot race, The arena was a huge set that took a whole year to build and was over 2000 meters long!. It is real shame because like I have said before, all this would be done with CGI now, I would love a return to where people hand crafted sets and really worked 24/7 to get these beautiful sets made because, it really shows the care and attention they have creating movies as art. The race itself just has you glued to the film, its breathtaking to see. The action is just so relentless and does not let up, pure cinema history.

One clever piece of the movie making is how Charlton Heston costumes change to help put across the image of when this character has lost or gained power, for example, in the Gallows he is in rags, where as before he was in rich robes and later on in the chariot race he is once again in expensive robes to show that he has gained power once more. These robes in the race have a beautiful blue cloak making him standout. In my view the blue represents a metaphorical rebirth of this man after all he has lost and gained, and how he now has to fight for his cause.

The Cinematography is absolutely great, many scenes depicting various scenery of the country side of Nazareth (hope that is spelt right), are just mesmerising, the location scout must of been on top of his game, topped off with the masses of extras, and sprawling sets its just top notch. The color jumps out at you the Golds and the Reds of the costumes are just spectacular. Even simple sets like the Roman palace gardens and even interior of tents are beautifully crafted. This film didn't just influence Gladiator it also must of influenced Cleopatra a few years later, especially in the battle scenes on the boat, looks very similar to that particular film.
 

The music composed by Miklos Rozsa is breathtaking, he somehow knows just when a certain score is needed, he never intrudes on acting performances, somehow letting the music be another actor, so to speak. At the ending Ben Hur witnesses something that you just know is going to come because of the setting of the story, its a beautiful moment once again played by Heston the look in his eyes as he tries to return a favor that a complete stranger did for him earlier in the film.We witness a very last miracle just after these scenes are played out and before the ending credits.

The before mentioned chariot race, is by no doubt the highlight of the film, the sheer scale and scope of the arena, the action and drama of it, there is nothing like it in cinema. To finish off No Ben Hur means No Gladiator, it is that important and influential.The Power, The Drama, The Intensity, Charlton Heston's performance, The Color, The Spectacle, You need to see this film, yes its long but its worth it.
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