It’s the only Easter movie worth watching

Most major holidays give moviegoers a chance to open their coffers and rewatch some annual favorites. Everyone has their favorite holiday movie to watch during the Christmas season, a favorite horror movie to watch around Halloween, and a perfect romantic movie to celebrate Valentine’s Day; you could even complete your New Year’s Eve with a screening of When Harry met Sally… Or The Godfather: Part II. However, the Easter holidays can be a little tougher, as the “Easter movies” subgenre isn’t as diverse. Unless you want to mess around with a kid-friendly Easter Bunny movie like Hop or the forgotten Best Picture nominee Chocolate, there’s only one Easter movie worth its salt. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in luck, because the years 1959 Ben Hur remains one of the greatest films ever made.


Although a 1925 film of the same name told a simplified version of the same narrative epic, the director William Wyler mount a production so ambitious that it risked the future of the industry. Between elaborate action sequences, numerous locations, dozens of original costumes and meticulously crafted architecture, Ben Hur had to invest in the accuracy of its historical details in order to tell its incredible story. Loosely adapted from Lew Wallace1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Story of Christ, Ben Hur explores the relationship between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton-Heston) and his childhood friend Messala (stephane boyd), who has since become an ardent defender of the Roman Empire. As the two former brothers come into conflict, Wyler explores the rise of Jesus Christ (Claude Driver) in background.

The distinctions and acclamations that Ben Hur received rival those of any other historical epic. The film won eleven Oscars, setting an all-time record that would later be equaled by both Titanic And The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; it was also selected as one of the ten greatest films of all time by the American Film Institute in 2007. While many of these accolades are certainly due in part to the film’s groundbreaking technical advancements, there is a difference between Ben Hur and the more obliquely religious historical epics like The Ten Commandments, the greatest story ever told, Or jesus of nazareth. Regardless of your religious affiliation, Ben Hur is an amazing piece of hit entertainment that is still imitated to this day.

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Despite its wide scope, “Ben Hur” focuses on intimate relationships

Cast of Ben-Hur (1959)
Image via Loew’s, Inc.

What is fascinating Ben Hur is that it’s something of an anomaly in Wyler’s directorial output; while Wyler could certainly put together some impressive actors and work with big budgets, his acclaimed previous work included romantic comedy classics like roman holidayscivil dramas like The best years of our lives, and period novels like The Wuthering Heights. This knowledge of authentic character relationships allowed him to reframe Ben Hur narrative like the story of two best friends turned into sworn enemies; the tragedy of the story is to see Ben-Hur become a messianic hero representative of democracy, while Messala succumbs to his greed and grows up to represent imperialism.

Although Wyler was never shy about bringing political overtones to his work, Ben Hur is not as directly metaphorical as this Dalton Trumbo And Stanley Kubrick made with Spartacus. Instead, it’s the genuine compassion and chemistry between Heson and Boyd in the opening moments that brings these archetypal characters to life. The film doesn’t skimp on period dialogue, but the infatuation that Ben-Hur and Messala show for each other felt more overtly sympathetic than many other period pieces.

‘Ben-Hur’ uses an inventive structure

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur
Image via Loew’s, Inc.

Ben-Hur and Messala are portrayed as stalwarts of opposing parties; while the opening moments are dedicated to showing their political leanings, they are also important in surrounding the viewer in the spectacle of the production. Wyler chooses to frame many of the conversations like a filmed play, taking note of all the elaborate work done on the lavish sets intended to mimic the height of Roman wealth. It makes it all the more shocking as we are taken to sea when Ben-Hur is betrayed and sold into slavery.

The betrayal itself is aesthetically shocking, as scenes of contemplative political speech are replaced by grueling shots of a tortured Ben-Hur. He tries to keep his honor and dignity amidst the hard work of the Roman consul Quintus Arrius” (jack hawkin) flagship, and Wyler does a great job of showing how the former prince has learned to ground himself now that he no longer has automatic respect due to his birthright. Heston’s performance is often broad, but there’s a laid-back sense of decency he brings to the role that makes him such an iconic screen protagonist. This is a classic example of showing, not telling; after hearing Ben-Hur declare his beliefs at Messala during the opening, he must prove that they work in practice.

Yes, Ben Hur is a long film at 212 minutes, but Wyler keeps the momentum going at a steady pace by interweaving the different stories. As Ben-Hur finds success as a Tank Champion after being named a War Hero, we see him develop his skills and train for a showdown against Messala that we know is coming; at the same time, Messala’s action in Rome shows that without his friend’s guidance, the Empire had sunk deeper into sectarianism and militarism. The continuing account of Jesus’ life and how it mirrors that of Ben-Hur is presented in an inspiring, yet historic context; it’s decidedly effective as a framing tool regardless of viewers’ religious beliefs.

The spectacle of ‘Ben Hur’ is unprecedented

It would be impossible to talk about it Ben Hur not to mention the chariot race. The final chase sequence between Messala and Ben-Hur is still one of the most propulsive, emotionally charged, and technically impressive action scenes of all time; no amount of CGI could ever match the hands-on work done here. It is also important to establish Ben Hur as a “crowd pleaser”, and not just a work of historical text intended for showing in Sunday schools. The inclusion of such a game-changing setting as the conclusion to a tale of revenge has certainly inspired other historical epics like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, And kingdom of paradise.

Yet few films have ever captured the same emotional and technical qualities that make Ben Hur so special; as the 2016 remake proved, you can’t simplify the betrayal at the heart of the story and rework the tank scene in slow motion and expect to have the same desired effect. There are classics that don’t hold up, but Ben Hur hasn’t aged a day. If you have the Easter weekend to do it, an investment of 3.5 hours is certainly worth it.


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