When Charlton Heston passed away, I really wanted to watch this movie on the big screen, having only seen it on TV, and thankfully, the American Cinematheque obliged this last Friday.
On the big screen, Ben-Hur is certainly an impressive film, with those thousands of extras, lavish costumes, spectacular set pieces, and cameos from the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus himself. In addition, Charlton Heston gives a performance that's truly worthy of his Best Actor Academy Award, fierce yet sensitive at the same time. Stephen Boyd, as Messala, and Jack Hawkins, as the Roman patrician who befriends Ben-Hur, both give terrific performances as well.
All that said, one of the most famous reviews of this movie (from Dwight MacDonald) compared it to 'watching a freight train go by' which has more than a little truth. It lumbers along carefully, methodically, unsurprisingly. Even though Boyd and Hawkins deliver strong work, the film's other Academy Award for acting went to Hugh Griffith as the comic-relief Arab character, who today feels dated and silly. Haya Harareet, as Ben -Hur's love interest, is pretty but her scenes with Heston are stiff and by-the-numbers.
The real spark in the movie is that between Ben-Hur and Messala, especially in the movie's early scenes when the two men greet each other warmly, like long-lost friends. Gore Vidal, who worked on the film as an uncredited script doctor, tells a story of suggesting a homoerotic subtext to director William Wyler; that the two characters had been lovers years before and that their scenes should be played accordingly, with a certain passion turning to jealousy and envy, to more strongly motivate the film's narrative of betrayal. According to Vidal, Wyler suggested this to Stephen Boyd but not to Heston. Heston denied Vidal's influence on the finished film and knowledge of any such subtext, but when you're watching it there's definitely an energy between the two actors that goes beyond the mere reacquaintance of two men who used to be friends.
Above it all, this is a film about a wronged Jew being tempted by revenge who just happens to be hanging around at the time of Jesus's crucifixion, who winds up converting to the infant religion of Christianity after witnessing the passion on the cross. It doesn't hurt that the whole deal is accompanied by a miracle in which Ben-Hur's mother and sister are cured of their leprosy - indeed, Ben-Hur ends up getting pretty much everything he wants by the end of the film, his family reunited, wealth, fame, and a beautiful wife. If everybody received a deal like that, the work of the early Christian missionaries would be a lot easier.
All in all, it's something of a mixed bag for me, a stiff, slightly dated, thoroughly self-important film that nonetheless succeeds as a piece of monumental Hollywood entertainment, more worthwhile for its thrill-ride aspects (the naval battle, the chariot race, the valley of the lepers - things that we now consider Spielbergian) than for any special wisdom or enlightenment.