Best Picture #32: Ben-Hur

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Ben-Hur (1959).

As the most expensive film ever made at the time of production, among the highest grossing at the time as well, the film to have won the most Oscars, and a film that employs tens of thousands of performers in historical costumes and massive sets during a more than three and a half hour runtime, Ben-Hur earns its status as an epic in every conceivable way. Like The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston’s earlier Biblical epic, it sees a prince betrayed by a man who was as a brother to him before being enslaved, then freed, then finding a position of power in a far off land, then returning to his home to become a symbol of hope for the Jewish people and face off against the man who betrayed him, before realizing that there are things much larger than he is. Despite the similarities in plot, subject, performers, length, and scale, Ben-Hur feels the vastly larger of the two vast films in about every aspect, with a fuller story giving a more unique vision of Biblical events, more realized performances, and even more massive setpieces showing a plethora of locations. So large, in fact, that it could get away with making Jesus Christ a supporting character. Ben-Hur has an incredible story with characters that are always a joy to watch and among the greatest action scenes in cinema and all of that would make it a film worth watching but it’s one of those films where the idea of the film surpasses the film itself to make it a classic. It has an ambition that is so great to behold that it would be impossible not to be stunned by the sheer scale of it, even if everything else failed to impress, and it serves as perhaps the best example of the sort of thing that only the studio system could produce.

The Real Best Picture:

It’s another year with a close competition despite really liking the winner because Anatomy of a Murder is great but I went with the courtroom drama and Kern approved choice last time so this time I’m calling Ben-Hur the real best of the nominees

Best Picture Winners

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