An extraordinarily gay Jew rejects his equally flaming Roman ex-lover, and you know that’s trouble. Hell hath no fury and all. So Roman-boy makes his better half row galleys and gives his mum and sis leprosy. I think we’ve all done that. Meanwhile, Jesus, King of the Jews, doesn’t do anything worth spending screen time on, so, he doesn’t get any. Benny (that’s the Jew), escapes slavery by becoming the boy toy of a general and heads back to open a can of whip-ass on his ex, and does it with horses. After the story ends, there’s a lot of Jesus stuff tacked on that has nothing to do with the previous two and a half hours.
A huge epic, with a cast of thousands, spectacular sets, and beautiful horses, Ben-Hur was subtitled A Tale of the Christ, which is kind of funny, since Jesus hardly appears and has little to do with the first two and a half hours of this long, very, very long movie. It is three stories: A character drama involving two gay ex-lovers, an action tale, and a Sunday school lesson. These stories are not told simultaneously, but sequentially. Yeah, every hour or so Ben-Hur changes into a new film. The middle one is good old fashioned Saturday afternoon fare. Tons of violence with Charlton Heston doing his “I’m going to rip off your momma’s arms and beat you to death with them” routine. The other two sections—those aren’t so good. The ending is dull while the beginning is absurd.
Let’s dwell on the opening. Judah Ben-Hur meets newly arrived boyhood chum Messala, which leads to Heston and Stephen Boyd acting at each other. Not “with”—”at.” This is acting as assault. This is a match for the Master Thespian routines on Saturday Night Live, when Jon Lovitz would announce that he was ACTING! There is no pig in the world big enough to supply the ham on display. Heston and Boyd gesture wildly, enunciate like they are teaching English pronunciation to a class of immigrants sitting forty feet away, and smile as if they are posing for Jack-o-lanterns. Subtlety, your name is not Heston. Such over-the-top antics are fine in a movie that’s all about explosions and car chases (or chariot races), but not when we’re supposed to be taking the material as deeply meaningful and emotional. As for the dialog, it is painful. The political debate is as false as they come. No one speaks like that.
The basic story, taken at face value, doesn’t work. These two old friends fall out over politics and end up trying to kill each other. Na. When you hate so passionately, something personal has to be involved. The filmmakers knew this. Writer Gore Vidal approached director William Wyler, explaining that they were in big trouble. The characters’ motivations were gibberish. A Republican doesn’t make a friend a galley slave and send his mom and sis to prison because he’s a Democrat. But a spurned lover—yeah, he’d do that. Wyler agreed, but knew that Heston couldn’t handle playing a homosexual. So Vidal added the subtext (it was 1959; you couldn’t be overt with any kind of sex), and Boyd was told why his character was so ticked off at Ben-Hur. Boyd played it up big (note how he gazes at Chuck) and everyone just trusted Heston to act gay naturally. And wow, when the two get together, it’s the gayest scene you’ll find short of Mechanics bi Day, Lube Job bi Night. That Heston couldn’t figure it out is a testament to religious men’s ability to blind themselves to reality. How else can anyone take their spear throwing competition? They might as well be holding their dicks, masturbating together. In an interview, Heston said that Vidal was the most influential of the multiple screenwriters. Later, when the homosexual material was explained to him, he contradicted himself, saying Vidal did very little. The gay-love-gone-bad theme should have made the first part of the film tolerable, but it required acting, spelled with small letters. Ah well.
Once Judah Ben-Hur is bare-chested with a lot of other men tugging on oars (because that isn’t gay), the movie enters what we critics like to call its “good” phase. Yes, that’s a technical term meaning it doesn’t suck. Heston’s theatrics are now appropriate and the story is a semi-interesting revenge fantasy. The sword fight on the ship is weak, looking unchoreographed, as if performed by men whose only training was when they used to whack each other with wooden sticks as children, but a sword fight is a sword fight and beats what came before. There are threats and various sword-and-sandal silliness, all leading to the famous chariot race, which beats the hell out of NASCAR and George Lucas’s rip-off in The Phantom Menace. It’s top notch violence and is almost enough to make the whole film worthwhile. Almost.
Then things switch again and it’s time for God. Ben-Hur tries to play it both ways. It wants to extol the Christian virtues of forgiveness and faith, but those make for poor cinema. So it ignores them (except for occasional lip service) till the last hour, instead focusing on the joys of revenge. Once the story is essentially over, the religious stuff is tacked on. Dramatically, it’s a poor fit. It doesn’t help that the acting is once again a problem, the plot elements are funny (Ben-Hur’s family are lepers; now who do we just happen to run into that can heal lepers?), and the gosh-and-golly reconciliations and romance would give Frank Capra a tooth ache.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m no fan of Christianity, but I am fond of forgiveness, mercy, love, and a few of those other things that are claimed to be part of the religion, but rarely are. I see the evangelicals and the fundies and I note they work primarily out of hate. They try to destroy their enemies, which is everyone who doesn’t believe what they do. How can someone be so cruel, and still claim to embrace these so-called Christian values? Hey, maybe that’s why Ben-Hur is so popular with the Bible set. It shows you can be a tough, vicious, revenge freak, and still get into heaven by doing a quick turnaround in the final reel of your life.