The success of William Wyler’s epic dramatization of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben Hur should probably be attributed less to its religious content than to the power of melodrama, or perhaps to the power of melodrama as religion. The story is a chain of shameless contrivances: the opportune inclusion of Balthasar (Finlay Currie), one of the Magi, haunted by the memory of the infant Jesus; the “accident” that maims the new Roman governor of Judea, setting the vengeance plot in motion; the happy surprise when what looks like a defeat of the Roman fleet led by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) turns out to be a victory, enabling him to rescue Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) from galley slavery; and on and on.
None of these bald set-ups elicit the guffaws they could because the film is executed with immense skill. Melodramatic it may be, but sloppy, stupid or risible it is not. We believe in what we see, at least as we see it, partly because the dialog avoids the alternately quaint and florid pseudo-liturgical archaisms that are the curse of Bible epics. The writers construct speech and story carefully so the accidents and coincidences feel plausible when they occur and the actors invest all of the action with a seriousness that is nearly irresistible. And of course, the production is mounted with the panache that only a super-budget Hollywood spectacle can manage.
One of the most exciting sequences in film history, the chariot race between Judah and the villain, Messala (Stephen Boyd), demonstrates that self-confidence and is reason enough to see the movie. And yet, while the race may stand out, it is also an example of how carefully the story has been built because attention does not diminish after its completion. Instead the race becomes the springboard for what follows, as with his last breath Messala informs Judah that his mother and sister are still alive, but lepers. The story is a game of melodramatic one-upsmanship in which you can almost hear Wyler and company saying “Thought we were done? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
As long as the filmmakers are motivating dynamic action they ride right over the implausibilities with the ruthless skill of—well, a champion charioteer. Unfortunately, that skill also makes the concluding sequences more manipulative than truly felt. The chariot race is Hollywood doing what it does best. But expensive craftsmanship is ill-suited to spiritual transformation. When the story shifts gears to matters of religious redemption, the uplift is intense, but synthetic. The leprosy drowns in a flood of tears, the music swoons and the house of Hur can no doubt look forward to a prosperous future, but it comes perilously close to going over the top.
Ben Hur is unquestionably successful pushing emotional buttons, however, which is what counts. Whether that manipulation supports or cheapens the message is less a question of taste than of the purpose of religion and whether film can achieve it honestly.