A.O. Scott‘s 50th anniversary appreciation of’ William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur (which actually opened 49 years and nine months ago, in November 1959) is a bit too gracious. Being the kind of film they don’t make any more doesn’t make it particularly special. What makes it special is Miklos Rosza‘s music. Eliminate the chariot race and it’s mainly a film that accompanies the score rather than vice versa.
On top of which Scott doesn’t address the central Ben-Hur conceit, used to sell stage and screen adaptations of Lew Wallace‘s book since the mid 1800s, that it’s “a tale of the Christ.” It’s actually a good revenge story — ambitious Roman guy screws over princely Jewish guy whom he loved on some homoerotic level as a child (and vice versa), Jewish guy survives years of incarceration, returns and beats Roman guy in a chariot race. Ben-Hur doesn’t exactly fall apart after the chariot race, but it’s certainly marking time.