Ben Hur (1959)

Ben Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler.

In the genre of spiritually-moving epic spectaculars, what else comes close to Ben Hur? One of my favorite films, I love it all except for the smooching scenes with the horses. The sea battle is often praised, but the ship models are a bit weak.

It's a transitional film. You can still see the tradition where the actors dress up and bluster their lines, but they have added new emotional sensitivity, an amount of realistic sweat and dirt and blood, and a dimension of suffering seldom seen before. How many epic spectaculars end on such a moving note of redemption: "And I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand."

They say the better the villain, the better the story. We might add: the better the villain's death, in which case Stephen Boyd could take the trophy. He goes out ugly here. George MacDonald Fraser wrote that he seemed born to wear Roman armor.

The famous chariot race is still astonishing film-making. Miklós Rózsa's tremendous score is his best, and that is saying quite a lot.

Photographed by Robert Surtees.

I've read the book and it's tough sledding. Before the film era, it was often played on the stage, including huge treadmills for full-speed chariot races. I would like to have seen that.

In the thumbnails below, look at the different ways the 2.76:1 aspect ratio is used. Sometimes it is filled up, sometimes an isolated face appears in the center. Such a luxury of space without seeming lost or unbalanced.

Available on Blu-ray, but the thumbnails are from the DVD.