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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that, as early "spectacle" movies go, Ben-Hur has few peers. It was a landmark achievement in grand biblical storytelling. Set in ancient Israel during Christ's young adulthood and focused on a stalwart Jewish patriot and his family, spiritual beliefs and Judeo-Christian values inform both the characterizations and the plot. Clear messages from the gospel are delivered throughout ("blessed are the merciful," "love your enemy"). The Roman villains are brutal slave masters, whipping and beating their way into town, and bent on destroying the peaceful citizens of ancient Israel. Several scenes take place in a leper colony where two principles are shown with open, rotting sores. The climactic chariot race, which includes collisions, men dragged under chariots, bloody injuries, and intensely suspenseful competition, set new standards for action-filmmaking without modern cinematic razzle-dazzle. By modern standards of gore and gristle (seen in some horror movies and their parodies), however, Ben-Hur is not shocking as it once was but still is bloody, savage in parts, and too intense for younger kids.
- Parents say
- Kids say
Timeless production with one of the best ever actors in Charlton Heston and a great story line with a Biblical reference
What's the story?
BEN-HUR, made in 1959, was the third movie to be made from Lew Wallace's successful novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ. The story takes place in the Holy Land just as a young carpenter from Nazareth is preaching a gospel of peace and mercy. Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is Jerusalem's richest and most respected Jewish citizen. He's aware that the legions of Roman soldiers who have entered the city are on their way to conquering the world for Rome's emperor, who wants to be worshipped as a god. Ruling Israel and its citizenry would be a jewel in Rome's predatory crown. Furious that Judah, his childhood best friend, will not aid him in winning the hearts and minds of his Jewish compatriots in the city, Roman tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd) sells Judah into slavery and imprisons his mother and sister. Banished to a galley ship, Judah spends years rowing under the merciless cruelty of Roman taskmasters. It is only because of his bravery in a great sea battle that Judah is set free to return to Jerusalem. There, with the support of an Arab sheik and his long-time Jewish allies, Judah searches for his family and seeks vengeance on his old Roman "friend." After Judah defeats Messala in a chariot race that symbolizes the fight between good and evil, Judah is shocked to discover the awful circumstances of his family's imprisonment. By that time, the carpenter from Nazareth has become a major spiritual force in the lives of Israel's people. Jesus's miracles, crucifixion, and the conversion of the populace to his gentle doctrine of kindness and faith finally offer peace and hope to Judah and those he loves.
Is it any good?
For families with teens who can appreciate classic filmmaking and who aren't upset by blood-soaked action sequences and tension, this stunning film is highly recommended. Winning 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor), Ben-Hur was as much a phenomenon as it was a movie. The extraordinary achievement of its action sequences (made without the high-tech special effects so customary years later) was thought to be matched by the film's human drama, its emotional impact, and the luminous performances of the actors, directors, writers, and crew. Does it hold up? At almost four hours in length, it's slow at times; some of the acting feels mannered and stiff; and, with few exceptions, the characters are either very good or very bad -- no nuance here. Still, it packs a punch.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how action movie-making has changed since Ben-Hur was released in 1959. Find out how the filmmakers photographed the chariot race and why it was considered such a major achievement. How might they do it today?
From 1927 to 1961, mainstream movies did not show Jesus' face; think about possible reasons for this. How effective was the portrayal of Jesus in this movie, even without audiences seeing his face or hearing his voice? How did the scene in which Jesus gives water to Judah Ben-Hur impact the story?
When this movie was released, it was admired for being a "human" story as well as a spectacular action piece. How did the filmmakers accomplish this?
- In theaters: November 18, 1959
- On DVD or streaming: September 13, 2005
- Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Hayareet
- Director: William Wyler
- Studio: MGM/UA
- Genre: Classic
- Topics: Book Characters, Brothers and Sisters, History
- Character strengths: Compassion, Integrity
- Run time: 222 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: violent sequences and moments of menace
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award, Golden Globe
- Last updated: January 6, 2021
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