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The old adage “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” applies more aptly to 1959’s Ben-Hur than almost any film of its era. An epic on a scale never before seen, it survives now like a Hollywood time capsule. Watching it through modern eyes is a constant reminder of a bygone period of filmmaking. Today marks sixty years since William Wyler’s larger than life picture hit theaters. Made on an enormous budget then—$15 million—the movie was a tremendous hit, despite a runtime of about three and a half hours. For millennials and Gen Z-ers, Ben-Hur is a movie for their grandparents. The world has moved on, after all; no need to go back and consume such antiquated art. One can’t help but wonder, in 2019, what about this movie so appealed to audiences then, and why studios haven’t bothered developing anything of its ilk in eons.
It was the penultimate month of the 1950s when Ben-Hur squeaked in, finishing off a decade that saw the emergence of method acting on a broader scale, the rise of science fiction, and a slow death for the traditional film noir. Biblical adventure pictures were not a new breed, though the timing of Wyler’s film stood out in a year whose other notable releases were North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, and Anatomy of a Murder. The ‘50s gave way to a 1960s in film that grew more experimental as it went on, thanks to the cultural revolution, Vietnam, and the abolition of the Motion Picture Production Code, which held certain on-screen immoral behaviors at bay. Influenced by edgier foreign films and darker takes on humanity, Hollywood began leaning in more and more to grit, less on grand period spectacle. If Ben-Hur didn’t come to fruition when it did, it may have never...
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