I read Lew Wallace's novel, 'Ben Hur- A Tale of the Christ' long before I saw the movie- an abridged version when I was a child and then the real thing when I was a bit older. The book is better than the movie. Which is not to say that I dislike the film: I really enjoy it actually and own the big-boxed 50th anniversary limited edition (pictured). Which gives me ten bonus geek points...in any case, the movie is epic in every sense of the word and is my number one choice for Easter viewing.
Which is not to say that there aren't some flaws in it- there are, admittedly, quite a few . To begin with, the story is pared down considerably for the movie. This is of course necessary: the film is already extremely long.There's a reason- besides the obvious one- why movies like 'Ben Hur' and 'The Ten Commandments' are shown on holiday weekends... it's the only time people can actually sit down and watch them. So cuts were necessary, but the problem is,some of the parts they chose to cut are very important to the story, and the movie suffers from their loss. For example, one character was left out of the narrative completely, and because of this absence, an entire subplot, including the conclusion of the story, had to be omitted since it couldn't work without this person. The final scene of the movie has always struck me as being abrupt and a little unsatisfying, due in no little part to the entire ending being lopped off. As well, some other characters are under-developed or changed completely. This may be partially because of time restraints, or in some cases the limited range of the actors.
I suppose that the two actresses in the roles of Miriam and Tirzah do the best they can with limited screen time and dialogue, but they're pretty much non-entities and it's hard to feel emotionally invested in them. Most of the sympathy we feel in response to their misfortune is linked to its effect on Ben Hur.
So why do I love 'Ben Hur' in spite of its flaws? Well to start with, this movie is an amazing accomplishment. They very literally don't make 'em like this anymore. They couldn't afford to. Made in the pre-CGI era, the scenes, sets, sea battle, and most of all, the race were filmed with real people- the crowds in the arena actually were crowds. And it is a huge, huge spectacle. Speaking of the chariot race...wow. Just wow. It takes up twenty minutes of screen time, but you would never think it; it's so tense, exciting, and plain great that it just flies by.
In addition, Lew Wallace's story is so powerful that it survives being carved up, with most of its fundamentals in tact, though somewhat simplified and diluted. It touches on universal, age-old themes of betrayal, corruption, loss, revenge, redemption, forgiveness, and faith. And since it deals with issues that are faced by every generation, it asks questions that we still struggle to find answers for today. For example, should a subjugated people try to affect change from within the system- politically and economically- or resort to violent methods to achieve freedom? Or, who is most harmed by revenge- its victim or its perpetrator?
In conclusion, I would say that, while 'Ben Hur' is not a perfect movie, it is an amazing one. And whether you watch it solely for the action scenes, or look for deeper meaning in it, you won't be disappointed. If it moves you to pick up the book, so much the better.
F Y I
* For the chariot race scene, they brought in 15,000 extras to fill the stands in the arena.
* William Wyler won the Oscar for Best Director for Ben Hur. It was his third- he also won for 'Mrs. Miniver' and 'The Best Years of Our Lives.'