Despite the fact that at least one Christianity-related blockbuster gets released every year – Aronofsky, Scott and Bekmambatov have all filed dubious entries of late – big, bombastic religious epics like the 1959 version of Ben-Hur are completely out of fashion today; it’s no surprise, then, that they are less highly regarded by audiences than they once were, too.
The scale of William Wyler’s film still impresses me, though. In Ben-Hur Charlton Heston spends an hour or so striding around big Cinecittà sets, meets Jesus Christ, survives a battle between two fleets of galleons, becomes a crack chariot racer, sees Jesus a couple more times and manages to locate his long lost family members just as they miraculously recover from leprosy; that’s a hell of a lot for any film to get through. Of course the chariot race is the best bit by some distance (and famously it wasn’t directed by Wyler), but the grandness and the sense of importance keeps the rest of it ticking along, and you have to hand it to the earnest Heston for constantly managing to look as if he’s clenching a tangerine between his butt cheeks. It was a step down for the actor, given that he had played both Moses and the voice of God three years earlier in The Ten Commandments, but he held it together and did just fine. (****½)