Ben-Hur Part 1: The History and Personal Reviews

I have always loved movies.  Even as a child.  I had several movies that as a child I watched over and over again.  It is a relatively long list.  However, I think if you were to tally the amount of times I watched each movie I am fairly certain that you would find in the top 5; Superman, Star Wars, Iron Eagle, The Ten Commandments and Planet of the Apes. From those last two you could probably figure out that, even though Charlton Heston was before my time, I knew who he was and I viewed him with the same love that a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s would have viewed him.  I knew his voice, I knew what he looked like, I knew how he acted.  It is baffling then, that I made it to my 30’s without ever seeing Ben-Hur in its entirety.   I do remember going to the Video Rental Store (you might need to look it up to understand what I mean by Video Rental Store) and seeing that huge box that consisted of two VHS tapes and a beautiful cover. I remember picking it up several times just wondering what was inside.  I even remember renting it a few times but I know I never watched it.  Something always came up.  Something that would prevent me from sitting down in front of the only TV set we had with a VHS player for 3 hours to watch this film.  I grew up knowing the name of Ben-Hur.  I grew up knowing it had something to do with Chariot racing.  I grew up knowing it stared Charlton Heston but that was it.  I am fairly certain that I was in my 20’s before I found out that Jesus played a part in the movie. I think I was also in my 20’s when I discovered that the movie was based on a Novel.  How could this be? It is one of the highest selling novels of all time!  I found a copy of Ben-Hur several years ago at a garage sale.  It was fifty cents. I picked it up.  It was an impulse buy but this past year I became extremely thankful that I did.  I finally read Ben-Hur.  I read it before ever seeing any of the movies.  After reading it I proceeded to find every incarnation of this story.  I have now seen ever adaption put to film and below you will find my review of each one.  This Blog post will be divided into two part.  The first part being my review of these adaption and the second part will consist of my dream plan for the remake.

1880 – Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace

Here is what started it all.  The original novel by General Lew Wallace, a Civil War veteran.  I knew going into reading this book that Jesus played a part and that the most famous scene was the chariot race.  I devoured this novel like few others! What a fantastic story! The scope of the writing and the story are so huge yet the characters are so compelling.  It is written in such a way that you feel very connected to Judah Ben-Hur yet you get this feeling that he plays a part in a much larger story that he himself can’t see.  It is magnificent and I highly recommend it.  If you have never seen any of the following movies I urge you to go and read this book before you watch any adaption.  Some of the following I feel did the story justice, some of them did not. However, none of them completely capture the magnificence of the story.  That is not a slam on any of the following but rather a testament to how grand this novel it.  It is impossible to create a movie that is as wonderful as this novel… so…. Yeah, I am a fan.

A novel that some credit as the first “Christian fiction” sure makes me wonder how we got all these Amish romance novels and so few epic novels!

1907 – Ben Hur –  Directed by Sidney Olcott

The first attempt to bring this story to film was in 1907.  Film was young.  Film makers where just beginning to understand this new format and that fact is very evident in this 15 minute combination of random, unconnected shots of people standing around or walk that are then pieced together with title cards that give you a very general outline of what the scenes are suppose to represent.  They needed to do that because without those cards you wouldn’t know.  The outline was so brief that you would do better by reading the listing of chapters at the front of the novel.  There was no mention of Christ, that aspect was left out completely and the movie ends with Ben-Hur winning the chariot race.

This movie is a part of cinematic history, as it was made without the film rights.  It was an important case that lead to the 1909 copyright law.  Over all, this film is nothing special.  I would personally rather watch a fire place then watch this version ever again.

1925 – Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ – Directed by Fred Niblo

I knew how many people hold the 1959 version in very high regards.  What many do not realize is, that the 1959 version was a remake of this 1925 movie.  This movie was every bit as wonderful as the 1959 version, if you can view it for what it is.  The chariot race that is much talked about from the 1959 version was actually almost a shot for shot remake of the chariot race from this version.  So if you were impressed with it for 1959, how much more would it have been impressing in 1925.  It was the most expensive movie ever made of its time and during its first run actually ended up losing money.  A few years later it returned to theaters and had better luck, pulling the total to a bit of a profit.  This version put MGM on the map and set them on track to become the large studio they are today.  Many plot points that were left out of the 1959 version where included in this version and I have to say that the portions after the chariot race were more in line with the novel then the 59 one was.  In the novel the chariot race takes place at the midpoint of the story, not towards the end. If you can deal with the fact that this is a silent film made about 90 years ago, I think you would consider this a real treat as it is a fantastic telling of the story.

1959 – Ben-Hur – Directed by William Wyler

Here is the movie everyone has told me about.  The one that surprises people when I used to say I never saw it.  Let them be surprised no more! I have seen the masterpiece known as Ben-Hur from 1959 and it certainly lives up to the hype! They just don’t make movies like this anymore! And I think that is a shame! All you need to do is watch it and you realize this wasn’t a movie, it was an event! A cinematic experience! Oh, what I wouldn’t do to go back in time and watch it in theaters in 1959.  The electricity in the room must have been awesome! The colors! The scope! The music! How could such an experience have been created in 1959? It gives film makers little excuse today.

It was again, the most expensive film of its day.  It was also the winner of 11 Academy Awards which was a record held for decades until Titanic tied it in 1997.  Yep, Titanic tied it, but did not break that record.  This movie pulled MGM out of serious financial problems, once again, Ben-Hur helps make MGM what they are today!

If you have not seen this film, do it.  If you watch one version on this list, make it this one!

2003 – Ben Hur (animated) – Directed by Bill Kowalchuk

I won’t spend too much time on the next few movies.  This film was not made for the cinema and really it doesn’t seem to be made with much heart at all.  The animation is horrible, the story rushes through.  I had hopes that this might be a good way to introduce my son to Ben-Hur, but it was not.  If he saw this version he might get the impression that Ben-Hur is a boring story.

2010 – Ben Hur (miniseries) – Directed by Steve Shill

Don’t bother! Seriously, there are times this doesn’t even feel like the story of Ben-Hur.

2016 – Ben-Hur – Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

This has a lot to live up to.  For almost 100 years the movie of Ben-Hur was done perfectly for the cinema.  To mess up now would mean that you did something that no one has done in 100 years.  Yes poor versions were made, but none of them had the force behind them that a Blockbuster movie has.  I have high hopes.  Some of those hopes are that they look to the 1959 version and the 1925 version to let them know the legacy they are getting themselves into but I hope they look to the 1880 novel to adapt the story.  I would like to see a retelling that strives to be closer to the novel than any version before it. I hope they take as much care as generations before have done.  I hope they show as much passion for the source material as the previous cinematic versions showed.  I hope they realize that both the 1959 version and the 1925 versions had off the chart cinematic scores.  An average score will not due.  The music must be magnificent.  The scope must be huge.  It must be wonderful! These are my hopes for the 2016 versions!

If anyone involved in the making of the film would like any ideas of how to make this remake special, check out Part two that I will post in a few days!

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2 thoughts on “Ben-Hur Part 1: The History and Personal Reviews

  1. Great write-up Kevin. I loved hearing your story of watching movies as a kid. A lot of those were my favourites too. I’m definitely going to put the 1925 version on my watch list.

    That was quite a strong statement about them not making movie events like that anymore. Unless you just meant it as a figure of speech. It would be an interesting top ten to put together: movie events of the past 20 years (the kind that will stand the test of time like Ben-Hur has.)

    Love it Kevin.

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  2. Troy, I saw your comment last night while sitting up with a crying baby. I am having a blast in my new role as father, and oddly enough, none of this is sarcasm.

    I thought a lot about my bold statement about how they don’t do events like these anymore. I wondered if I was using hyperbole or not. I am conflicted. On one hand I know that every year there seems to be the “event movie.” Right now it seems as it is mainly comic book movies or young adult novel adaptions. But how many of these films push the limits. You could make a case for Avatar or Gravity, or even Interstellar. Sure, I guess depending on your definition of “Event” these movies could fit the bill and I could not argue my point with any ground to stand on. So, in a way, I guess I was just using it as a figure of speech but I concede that point reluctantly.

    This is probably a relative thing, but I feel Hollywood is missing the Sword and Sandal genre. It is missing these huge, historical pieces that are not just aimed at a specific demographic like Twilight. They are missing out on the timeless stories. It seems they look for what is trendy instead of what will stand the test of time. Ben-Hur is one of the best selling books of all time, it continues to sell even today.

    I think another aspect of this that comes to mind is less about the movie and more about the movie going experience as it is today. Today, you can jump in your car, go see what is playing, sit in the theater and watch whatever fluff your particular theater puts on between shows. Then the trailers begin, you sit through 3 to 6 trailers then the movie starts, you watch then go home. But When Ben-Hur was in theaters you got dressed up, sometimes even better then if you where going to church. You went to a showing, and you didn’t have many to chose from. You sat in the theater while on the screen was the title card from Ben-Hur while music from the composer of the movie played. It was a specific piece, written for the purpose of playing while people walked in. I can imagine this would have been the most fun portion of the score for the composer to write. I wish that with every CD of a movie score was included a 4 to 7 minute song that was written just to be listened to and not to go alone with a specific scene in a movie.

    So, I guess part of why I feel the way I do is more about how we watch movies. It would be fun if a theater had an event night, where we would do things this way. It would be a fun way to see the Remake of Ben-Hur, wouldn’t it?

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