Made in Spare Time

(#100) Ben-Hur: The Movie

Kicking off this 100 Movies, 100 Props project in truly epic fashion, we have Ben-Hur. When I say epic, I mean quite literally that this film is tagged in the genre of “epic”. At a running time of 3 hours and 32 minutes, this film covers it all. There’s romance, action, drama, revenge, a prison-break, and we even get to meet Jesus Christ in the flesh. Once the movie gets going, it is a non-stop thrill-ride that just keeps going.

Ben-Hur title card

I can definitely see how the voters that decided on this AFI Top 100 list made sure to keep this somewhere on the list. Even if it’s at the bottom at #100.

I’m not going to lie. The film does have some pacing issues, which I feel like is a problem with any movie that stretches to the three hour mark and beyond. I don’t know if I’m just impatient and used to modern day blockbusters hovering around two hours or if there is such a thing as “too much movie.” Certain scenes make their point quickly but then drag on for a few more minutes of repetitive action that don’t really add much to the movie but help stretch the overall running time. More so, the last act of the movie kind of feels tacked on like an afterthought. After we finish out the huge climax that is the chariot race, the remainder of the movie cools down to a lot of talking and sobbing that feels out of touch with the rest of the movie.

Besides the inconsistent pacing, I thought the overall story was fantastic. Amongst all the visual spectacles, there is a storyline that I thoroughly enjoyed. In the beginning of the movie the titular Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, greets his childhood friend Messala who has just arrived back in Jerusalem as a Roman commander. Passions flare as Ben-Hur and Messala have different viewpoints on how the area should be ruled. Messala, being a Roman commander, looks to quash any potential rebellions against Rome while Ben-Hur wants to maintain the freedom of the people of Judea.

If you’re averse to spoilers, I’d stop reading here.

Their long-lasting friendship is torn apart after several roof-tiles are mistakenly knocked off of the House of Hur and nearly kill the new Roman Governor of Judea. Ben-Hur’s family is quickly arrested, denied a fair trial, and sentenced for the attack on the Governor.

This is when things get spicy.

Judah Ben-Hur escapes from his jail cell, confronts Messala in his chambers while wielding a spear, and demands his mother and sister be released from custody. This goes as well as one would think and Ben-Hur is quickly shooed away to being a rower in the galley of a Roman warship while his mother and sister are locked away in a dark, damp dungeon. Ben-Hur is kept in the dark about his family’s whereabouts and doesn’t even know if they’re dead or alive.

On the way to the galleys, Ben-Hur is chained in a long line of fellow prisoners and marched across hellish conditions. Exhausted, delirious, and dehydrated, Ben-Hur is denied water while stopping through the small town of Nazareth. While the Roman guards yell at the locals to not give Ben-Hur any water, one man defies the guards and gives him a nice big cup of cool water. No kidding… Ben-Hur gets some water from Jesus Christ.

While in the galleys on the warship, Ben-Hur meets Roman Consul Quintus Arrius.Historical note for some context: a Consul was the highest elected position in the Roman Republic. After a sea-battle with some Macedonian’s, the ship that Ben-Hur and Quintus Arrius are on begins to sink and Ben-Hur manages to escape from the decks below and save Quintus Arrius from drowning.

The Roman Consul can’t thank Ben-Hur enough and eventually goes so far as adopting Ben-Hur into his family. Ben-Hur is thankful but his quest that began during the first act of the movie still nags at him. Worried if his mother and sister are still alive, he sets off towards Jerusalem to track them down.

On the way, Ben-Hur meets a sheik who tries to convince him to drive his horses in an upcoming race in front of the new governor of Judea. Ben-Hur initially declines but changes his mind when he learns that Messala is also going to be in the race. In fitting fashion, Ben-Hur will race with sheiks white horses while Messala races with his “black devils.”

This is when we get to the scene that impressed me even on the living room TV. The chariot race is just under ten minutes long and damn is it a cool sequence. This is something that simply wouldn’t be pulled off in any modern movie. The race track is a huge set and there are dozens of horses pulling chariots along the track and the camera stays right in the action the entire time. There are some pretty gnarly injuries during the race and plenty of dramatic crashes.

I had to take the time to research about this race while writing this article because it was that impressive. This race alone took 5 weeks to film and cost $1 million! Seven thousand extras filled the stands. And it really shows. The scope of the sequence is awesome and the filmmakers did an amazing job capturing it all.

In the end of the race, Judah Ben-Hur defeats Messala and Messala ends up being trampled by other horses in the race. I wasn’t expecting to see a bloodied and bruised close-up of Messala after all these injuries. Amongst the otherwise pretty tame film, his injuries, and the sounds Messala makes while trying to deal with the doctors as he’s dying, were pretty gruesome. And to cap it off for Messala being the true villain of the film, his dying words to Ben-Hur are to tell him that his mother and daughter are alive… but they’re now lepers!

After this epic climax, we start downhill in the movie and the rest of the movie really just doesn’t live up. We get into a telling of the Trial of Jesus Christ but for some reason it doesn’t feel as dramatic as the rest of the movie. Ben-Hur eventually meets up with his mother and sister, who are in fact lepers, and like I said before there’s a lot of crying and dramatic despair.

In a last ditch effort, while Ben-Hur’s sister is dying, Judah and his family seek out Jesus Christ when they find out they’re too late and he’s already carrying the cross through the streets. Judah Ben-Hur remembers the face of the man who gave him water years before as he was being marched to his punishment aboard the warships. He returns the favor and manages to get Jesus a drink of water while he’s collapsed carrying the cross. In the end, Ben-Hur witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his mother and sister are miraculously healed.

I really wasn’t kidding when I said that this movie is epic and covers a TON of events in the life of Judah Ben-Hur.

All-in-all, I gotta say that this was one hell of a ride that I’m happy I got to witness. Now I get to work on part two of my project! It’s time to make a prop to memorialize my viewing of this grand movie. Tune in next week to see what I made and how I made it!