It’s hard to deny that William Wyler’s lavish version of “Ben-Hur” is sometimes a bit overdone, but it nevertheless remains an entertaining and worthwhile classic. The material does justify the big-budget approach, since the story contains several interesting themes as well as plenty of action sequences. While some parts could have been stream-lined with little loss, in order to make the movie as a whole flow more smoothly, in general the film as it is keeps a good balance between action and substance. There are some very good dramatic moments in addition to the action highlights.
Charlton Heston is well-cast as Ben-Hur, a role that plays right to his strengths. The strained relations between Ben-Hur and Messala provide one set of themes for the story, as well as driving much of the action. Heston handles his end of it pretty well, although Stephen Boyd could have been a little less static in his portrayal of Messala. Jack Hawkins works very well as Quintus Arrius, and his scenes with Heston are used well in establishing some of the inner workings of Heston’s character. Hugh Griffith also has a couple of good scenes as Sheik Ilderim.
The chariot race and other action sequences usually get most of the attention, but there are also some worthwhile ideas in the story (which are really the focus of the original novel) that are developed well enough. There is also a very good silent movie version of “Ben-Hur” from 1925, which at times takes a different approach from this version, and which is well worth seeing in itself for those who like the story.