Photo: CC, Reynold Brown.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Why it’s famous:

Despite the fact that expensive Hollywood blockbusters are a dime a dozen these days, Ben-Hur still stands apart from the crowd more than half a decade later. Starring Charlton Heston as the exiled Jewish prince who swears vengeance on his Roman oppressors, this biblical epic established a cinematic scope and scale that still hasn’t been topped to this day.                                                                              

This is because director William Wyler didn’t have access to modern special effects, and had to make do with physically building gigantic sets and commissioning thousands of extras in order to do this classic story justice.

Why you haven’t seen it:

For those who can’t get past the more antiquated aspects of old-school Hollywood filmmaking, this movie is a hard sell.

Case and point: even though Heston and co-star Hugh Griffith picked up Oscars for their work here, some of the acting on display is still pretty hammy by today’s standards, with plenty of corny lines and dramatic head turns that wouldn’t be out of place in a Spanish telenovela.

Why it might be tough to get through:

Clocking in at nearly four hours, this movie’s run time may be daunting for some modern audiences, especially those who are used to seeing their big tent-pole movies being sliced up into two separate parts (Hunger Games, Harry Potter).

Why you should watch it anyway:

Unlike the latest cash-in remake, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur didn’t need half-assed CGI or a bad Morgan Freeman wig to create an epic feel.

All the filmmakers needed was a cast of thousands, a then unheard of $15-million budget, a bombastic score, and a polished script based on an 1880 novel by Lew Wallace.

Oh, and there’s also the fact that the whole project is anchored by a legendary screen actor like Heston, who Forrest Gumps his way through biblical events with the right balance of poise and gravitas.

Famous lines:

Judah Ben-Hur: (After he is exiled from Jerusalem) May God grant me vengeance! I will pray that you live until I return!

Quintus Arrius: (Addressing an enslaved Ben-Hur) Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.

Judah Ben-Hur: You may conquer the land; you may slaughter the people. But that is not the end. We will rise again.

Fun facts:

This is the first film to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a feat only achieved by two films since: Titanic and Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King.

While some may bemoan the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur, the 1959 version is itself a remake of two different silent films (released in 1907 and 1925, respectively).

Legendary “spaghetti western” director Sergio Leone served as an uncredited second unit director for the film’s famous chariot race sequence.


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