In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1959 winner Ben-Hur. Is it better than Crash?
Charlton Heston is complicated. He’s got a reputation for being stern and serious, and he became one of the most famous conservatives in Hollywood. He’s everyone’s dad, but the version of him that’s grounding everyone all the time. This combination makes him a little unsuited for roles that require depth. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s very, very specific.
In the unbelievable bomb The Greatest Show on Earth, he’s a one-track minded character who only wants to see the circus keep moving, even at the cost of his own health and personal relationships. He’s playing against the rest of the movie there, and he’s one of the only interesting characters because everyone else is broad and silly and he’s really, really intense. He brings that same intensity to every role (“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you!”) and you end up getting the sensation that all Charlton Heston knows how to do is act like Charlton Heston. It’s bizarre, considering how massive his success was, and it really stands out in Ben-Hur.
Though he won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, a contemporary of Christ (much more about that later), he was criticized by the press for being mostly physical rather than actually delivering his lines well. He mumbles and spits everything, and he sounds like an impression of his other roles when he gets angry. Even the director of the film went on the record to say he was unhappy with Heston’s performance. The film was the most expensive film ever made, so you have to wonder if at some point they didn’t just decide to make an epic around him and hope it worked.
I guess it does, mostly, though Heston is hard as hell to ignore. He’s Jewish in a part of the world that has abandoned Judaism, and even his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has issues with him now for standing by his faith. When a piece of Ben-Hur’s roof falls off and scares the horse of a Roman dignitary, Messala has him arrested and set adrift to die as a galley slave.
Ben-Hur saves the life of an important Roman leader and is granted his freedom, and he decides to exact revenge on Messala for his imprisonment (among other things). That gives way to the iconic chariot scene, and surely the majority of what makes Ben-Hur necessary now. It’s the original, and though it’s been done a thousand times in various formats, it’s still electric to see. It really does hold up like few action scenes can, and it’s though it’s a little brutal, it’s necessary viewing for anyone.
The pieces of the rest of the movie are a little weird. Even though it clocks in at just under four hours, even characters like Pontius Pilate don’t really get that much screentime. It’s just lots of Ben-Hur struggling with the idea of revenge and how to stay true to what matters (faith and family) and not what doesn’t (Rome, anything but faith and family). The heroes’ journey works, ultimately, and despite the shade I’ll throw at anyone who calls Heston a great actor I have to say he’s suited for the role. It’s a little much (a lot much when he’s saving his family in Part II, when he’s at about 400% Charlton Heston) sometimes, but it’s supposed to be that way. Ben-Hur has a terrible life filled with trials, and it’s all meant to build up to the moment when he’s confronted with a similar character.
Ben-Hur meets Jesus right after he is sold into slavery. Christ gives him water when no man will aid him, which is fairly direct messaging. The Roman in command of the slaves insists that Ben-Hur alone not be allowed to drink, and he stops everyone else from helping him, but he is literally staggered when faced with Jesus Christ. For the most part, the religious message of Ben-Hur is (a little) more subtle than you’d expect, but not with regard to Jesus. He doesn’t come back for about two hours, but when Ben-Hur is present at his death (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say how “The Greatest Story Ever Told” ends, at this point) it is brutal and intense on a level you will rarely see. Your enjoyment of the movie (and the extended, lengthy ending) will be determined by your feelings about Christianity in general, but no matter what you think of the quality of its message, its scale in telling it cannot be denied.
The Best Part: Hugh Griffith won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the sheik that owns the horses Ben-Hur uses for the chariot scene. He’s a bright spot in a relentlessly dark movie. I don’t think the story of a slave who values his religion so highly that he will fight for it needs to be “funny” per se, but Griffith is charming and definitely carries the few scenes they use him in.
The Worst Part: It feels absurd to say that it’s Charlton Heston at this point, but I think I have to. He’s fine as Ben-Hur, but I can’t believe some of the line readings. He’s yelling through clenched teeth and thrashing broadly like he’s in a play. It’s crazy. Everyone’s bad Brando and Walken impressions sound like impressions, but your bad Heston sounds like Heston.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, and it may be the iconic “epic” on the list, if not Lawrence of Arabia. I didn’t hate Ben-Hur, but it’s certainly not the movie I expected. It’s long but not bloated, but that’s only because it has exactly one thing it wants to say. The message of Ben-Hur is singular, like Crash (I did it!), and though your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your enjoyment of said message, I think it does a better job of getting one specific point across than Crash.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.