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This film was epic. It goes on for for more than three and a half hours. It has fantastically elaborate sets and scenes. And it's ridiculously wide screen, to fit more on at all times.

The story itself is also pretty epic. And it appears that it's only about half of the book it's based on.

The movie is roughly is the life of Judah Ben-Hur, who is a wealthy merchant in Jerusalem, and is a contemporary of Jesus. His childhood friend, Messala, has returned from Rome as a military tribune. They are at first happy to see each other, but they soon discover they have political differences: Judas believes in the freedom of the Jews, and Messala believes in the might of the Roman Empire.

A little later on, while watching the new Roman governor arrive in Jerusalem from their rooftop, a loose tile falls, and nearly kills the governor. Messala, despite knowing of his innocence, banishes Judah to be a galley slave, and has his sister and mother thrown into prison.

After several years in the galleys, the ship Judah is in goes down in a fight, but Judah was able to save the commander, an important Roman Consul, Quintus Arrius. However, the battle is won, and in gratitude, has Judah freed, and adopts him as his son.

More time passes, and Judah longs to return to Jerusalem, to find what has become of his family. He is lead to believe that they have died in prison, when reality they had contracted leprosy, and were expelled from the city.

He enters a chariot race against Messala, hoping to get some form of revenge. The race is violent, gripping, and seems to go on and on. In reality, this scene took three months to create, and is sort of the crowning achievement of the film... and I shan't give away the ending.

Despite mostly taking place in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, Jesus is just a bit part in the film. It opens just before the nativity, and closes just after the crucifixion.

The characterization is strong: Judah distress over his family, and his longing for revenge conflict with his faith. The heartbreaking desire of his mother and sister for Judah to believe they are dead rather than lepers. Messala's ambition conflicting with his childhood loyalties... They all make for complex characters. The cinematography is great (perhaps even over the top: apparently a huge gamble on the part of an MGM on the brink of bankruptcy), and although quite long, it doesn't drag (although, I was glad for the intermission. We watched it over two nights, since my attention span isn't 3 hours long...).

I think as far as epic films go, I preferred Gone With The Wind, but this was also quite good.
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October 2011

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