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Ben-Hur

Year: 1959
Studio: MGM
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
This is the sort of film the movies was invented for. Watching it now in the early years of the 21st century you can appreciate how much work went into such huge sets with casts of hundreds of extras, real stuntmen doing dangerous things and dozens of cameras to capture it all. It's a lost art.

Nowadays three quarters of Ben-Hur would have been shot against a green screen with the sweeping landscapes and locations added digitally later. If a modern director did so it'd of course look good, but this is the film more than any other (with the exception perhaps of Cleopatra or The Ten Commandments) that makes you think about everything that used to go into the art and craft.

But there's not just outstanding, imaginative set and production design that MGM was smart enough not to scrimp on. It's got it all – romance, drama, action, revenge, political intrigue and a message. And it's all served up with the unique, theatrical language that made the movies what they were in the post-war era, all square jawed heroism, stoic eyes and melodrama – the qualities that not only made Charlton Heston the ideal choice for the role of Juda but further galvanised a whole style of performance.

More important perhaps than all of that, it spoke of adventure, travels, life as a road with a million incredible things to see, people to meet and chapters of life to live along the way, the hero finding himself a slave one minute and a king the next, the kind of story Hollywood loves.

Heston plays a kind, tolerant Hebrew prince in the Holy Land around the time Judea is bristling with talk of the birth of a messiah. His childhood friend Messala, now a local Roman official, returns to visit him after many years and neither could be happier. But while Messala (Boyd) talks of quashing revolution, Juda insists his people have the right to protest and seek to further their own interests.

Messala issues a demand eerily prescient today – condemn those we term 'subversives' and help me round them up willingly or else. With tensions running high, Messala and the Roman apparatus use any excuse they can (in this case, an innocent falling roof tile) to betray Juda and charge his family with attempted murder, starting one of the great cinema journeys in history.

Juda is imprisoned and enslaved, manacled into the bowels of a Roman warship. When the battle turns against the Romans, he rescues his cruel commander Quintus (Hawkins) from the wreckage. The older man takes Juda in as a son and offers him all the wealth and privilege of the Roman emperor.

But Juda can't rest until he frees his mother and sister from the clutches of the Romans, so he returns home to avenge Messala and find his family. Along the way he'll befriend a Muslim traveller and trader, reunite with the surrogate family of his former housekeeper and the girl he once loved and finally get his chance to strike back at Messala in the chariot race, one of cinema's most enduring action scenes.

But while the story follows Juda, it's really about the man everyone's talking about – when he's giving a sermon on a nearby mount, Juda is hurrying to the valley of the lepers to find his mother and sister. When he's carrying them out to return to his ruined home compound, the strange man is carrying a cross up a hill to Golgotha.

It's when the man passes the crowd that he transfixes Juda with his tolerance and forgiveness. When he dies nailed to the cross and a storm opens up the sky, his blood seeps down the hill, curing everyone who's sick or injured in its path, including Juda's family.

There are few other movies that deserve the epithets 'big' or 'epic' as this, and today it's as much a museum piece for the real-world skill of moviemaking as it is a gripping, well-paced story and old studio system classic.

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