In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, when Hollywood was struggling to get people out of the house and away from the boob tube, they turned out quite a few huge spectacles that frequently ran as long as four hours. It was humourously suggested at the time that movie-goers would be well advised to “take along your lunch, your dinner .. and a change of underwear, just in case.”
The biggest and most spectacular was the 1959 version of Ben Hur, directed in Rome by Hollywood veteran William Wyler at an unheard of cost of $15 million. The gamble paid off handsomely for MGM. The picture was a winner at the box office, and it took home 11 Oscars, including one for Charlton Heston in the title role. I first saw Ben Hur when I was 13. It was a time that I would gladly run through my weekly allowance by going to almost every film that came to Winnipeg. Nowadays I remain addicted to movies, but I tend to be more of a committed couch potato who treasures his connections to Netflix and YouTube.
But on the big screen right now, arriving with relatively little fanfare, is a new version of Ben Hur. The budget was $100 million, and it was shot at the same studio in Rome where Charlton Heston did his thing. The original novel, written by General Lew Wallace in 1880, is not even mentioned in the credits.
Playing the title role is 33 year old Jack Huston, the grandson of legendary director John Huston, and great grandson of Canadian-born actor Walter Huston. At just over two hours, it is half the length of the 1959 movie. I’m here to tell you, that’s plenty of time for some very effective storytelling.
The famous chariot race is somewhat more spectacular, thanks to computer-generated effects that weren’t available 56 years ago, and it will still have you on the edge of your seat for 11 amazing minutes.
And oh yes, if you’re thinking of placing a bet on the race, don’t put your money on Messala.
See you at the movies.
I’m Roger Currie.