Play It Again – Ben-Hur


By Glenn Dunks
February 18, 2014

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. Hey, whatever. It fits! As we near the Oscars, we’re looking back on some Best Picture winners.

The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” refers to movies like William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Winner of eleven Academy Awards, this 1959 epic encompasses everything about classic filmmaking that is so rare in today’s cinema. However, simply having the scope and grandeur of old Hollywood, plus the reputation of a classic, doesn’t make it impervious to criticism, and viewing it in a modern day context is fraught with unintentional (and even some intentional) hazards.

Charlton Heston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of Jerusalem whose childhood friend and tribune of the Roman army, Messala (Stephen Boyd), wants him to betray his Jewish brethren. Accused of attempted murder, Judah is punished with slavery and finds himself on a crash course (literally and figuratively) with revenge over his old mate and the parallel story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.


While kudos must inevitably be paid to the famed and extraordinary chariot race that is the focus of the film’s post-intermission second half – it remains a thrilling, jaw-dropping sequence of action, movement and effects – the story is rife with problems, not least of which is that this tale of a Jewish man who sees the errors of his hate-filled ways and converts to Christianity is a blatantly offensive stab at revisionist history.

Luckily, the picture was given an uncredited re-write by Gore Vidal, which helped give Ben-Hur gay undertones that scream out to a modern audience with their humorous scenes of near-naked, oiled up muscle men grunting and growling as if they’re in Caligula, and subtext so obvious it has become commonly-accepted text.

Ben-Hur was the biggest Oscar champion for nearly 40 years until Titanic, and then The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, equalled its mammoth statue haul. Considering its status as a best-selling book and a box office king that’s hardly surprising. However, looking at it through fresher eyes today, Wyler’s drama of Jesus Christ comes off as a sinewy steak: it’s big and robust, but tough and over-cooked. At 212 minutes it is far too long, and large swathes of the action appear redundant or unnecessary. “Bigger than Ben-Hur!” they say. That may not be a compliment.


Ben-Hur is available on Quickflix.

2 Responses to “Play It Again – Ben-Hur”

  1. ‘this tale of a Jewish man who sees the errors of his hate-filled ways and converts to Christianity is a blatantly offensive stab at revisionist history.’

    I’m sorry, but in what way is this revisionist history? Judah Ben Hur is a fictional character who witnessed part of the beginning of Christianity. If no one had changed their minds and switched from Judaism to Christianity then we would not have Christianity.

    You can make many claims agains Ben Hur but I don’t see revisionism as being one of them.

    Please do enlighten me.



    PS I do not follow either Judaism or Christianity but I am curious.

  2. I logged on with the wrong account details for the above comment but I stand by what I said.



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