I love the Academy Awards and last year I realized how few of the “Best Picture” winners I’d actually seen. So I made it a goal to see all 83 winners and blog my thoughts about them along the way.

Why did it win? Should another movie have won instead? Has it become a beloved classic or do many of you not even recognize the title? I invite you, my friends and guests, to comment along with me. Do you agree/disagree? I should be fair and place a SPOLIER ALERT on this blog since I’ll be writing about various parts of the movie. So read at your own risk…

I have often told people that I have movie amnesia… I can see a movie and forget all about it years later. So for that reason, I am re-watching the 27 I’ve seen before. That said, if no one visits or reads my blog and I basically perform the online equivalent of talking to a brick wall, that’s fine; if for nothing else, it’ll be my own reminder. Enjoy!

And the Oscar goes to…

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ben-Hur, 1959

Rated G

I saw this epic masterpiece for the first time with my mother-in-law who told me it was her favorite movie. (I’m actually really surprised I hadn’t seen it before what with my Christian upbringing.) I was mesmerized and I now put it up there with the ranks of “Gone with the Wind”. For one, the story is riveting and long (too much detail to write in a blog post); the score beautifully entwines the story; the costumes are flawless; and the acting superb. Please take the time to see this if you haven’t already; Good Friday seems like an appropriate day.

This was actually a remake of the most expensive silent film ever made from 1926. (I can’t imagine sitting through this story in silence, even if it is an hour shorter.) Both were based on a novel from 1880 by General Wallace. Authors can actually thank him for their protection under the copyright law made by the Supreme Court ensuring rights for any film version made of their work. The award-winning Best Director of this version was the “Extras” director for the original directed by Cecil B. DeMille. As I reflect back on an opening scene, I remember it was written: “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”. Yes, Christ is a character in the story, but he’s only in a few (albeit, pivotal) scenes, he doesn’t speak, and the careful camerawork never reveals his face. It is truly the story of Judah Ben-Hur.

In a nutshell, it is peculiarly similar to the story of “Gladiator”. This is the striking story of a Jewish prince who defies a Roman tribune (and childhood friend), who becomes a slave, who then becomes a charioteer, (and then receives salvation).

Charlton Heston, who is known for playing historical figures (ie. Moses in “The Ten Commandments”), won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur; it was his only win and sole nomination in his career. He is perfect in the role even if he is the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed cast member. At the night of the award ceremony, fellow nominee James Stewart took him aside privately, shook his hand, and whispered, “Chuck, I hope you win. I really mean it.”... a testament to how notable both those men are.

The chariot race is one of the most famous and thrilling scenes from the film (and it’s all done with no background score). An amazing 15,000 extras were used for that scene alone. The arena was actually built on the outskirts of Rome. A unique “matte shot” covers the now “modern” Rome, but the amazingly tall statues are real and the stands are three times taller than those constructed for the Coliseum in “Gladiator” (before CGI). There is a legend that a man died making this film and one would assume it had to be the rider (stuntman) who is gruesomely run over by a passing chariot in the race. I rewound it because I couldn’t tell if that was a real person or a dummy. According to Filmsite.org, “There are contradictory reports about the fatality of a stuntman during the dangerous scene in the film, yet no published discussions of the film mention the accident, and Charlton Heston's 1995 autobiography In the Arena specifically stated that no one was seriously injured (beyond a cut on the chin) during the filming of the scene.” This is also confirmed on Snopes.com and in the special features of the FOUR-DISC Collector’s Edition of Ben-Hur that I currently own. So, it most likely was a dummy, or maybe that stuntman miraculously walked away with only a scrape on the chin instead of a broken neck.

This film was THE movie to see when it came out and was touted as the “entertainment experience of a lifetime”. Because of its unprecedented popularity and success, even the Japanese emperor at the time decided to leave his palace to see a movie in a theatre for the first time ever! Like it’s silent predecessor, this film was the most expensive film made at its time and it was the most honored film (with eleven wins and twelve nominations) until “Titanic” came along 38 years later, and then “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”. This epic was up against “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Anatomy of a Murder”, “The Nun’s Story”, and “Room at the Top”. I haven’t seen any of its fellow nominees, but I’m positive they can’t compare.


Obviously, the chariot race is the most mesmerizing scene (for reasons listed above). It’s hard to believe that Charlton performed all of his own stunt work in this race aside from one little shot (where he flips over the top of his chariot). The adrenaline’s in full effect and you can practically smell the testosterone.

Another scene I thought was visually stunning was the one below. (I could only find this shot, but I was more impressed with the opposite view- looking up the mountain at the droves of people.)

Ben-Hur passes a multitude settling in on a mountainside. It is clear they are assembling to hear Jesus preach. (I am unsure if it is representing the well-known sermon on the mount or the miracle of feeding five thousand with a few loaves of bread and fish.) I loved the colors and seeing this historical scene brought to life for me on the screen.


Forgiveness and mercy are far more healing than revenge. Ben-Hur learns this priceless lesson at the end of the story after spending so much energy on vengeance.


  1. Where does the name Ben-Hur come from? How many hours is the movie? Did you buy the movie before or after seeing it?

  2. I had to Google this answer for you: Ben-Hur means "Son of white linen" in Hebrew... not sure of its importance or symbolism in the film. It's 3 hours and 32 minutes. My mother-in-law bought it for us several years ago and I never got around to watching it. I wish I had sooner. I'm glad I own it now.