Ben-Hur (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 April (3.05 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

I did have something different in mind to cover today – Miyazaki’s gorgeous ode to childhood, My Neighbour Totoro, in case you’re wondering – but hey, it’s Easter, and considering this is a site often driven by nostalgia I wanted to look instead at a picture I consider to be quintessential viewing for the season.

Ben-Hur isn’t the only Easter movie, obviously; neither can it claim to be the only Biblical Epic with some link to the season. Staying with the nostalgic note, it takes me back to childhood Easters, when the school break and especially the four-day Bank Holiday weekend was a time for classical epic cinema to dominate the schedules. King of Kings. The Robe. The Greatest Story Ever Told. And then there was the Zefferilli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as the eponymous son of God heading inexorably towards Calvary. I used to gorge on this stuff, often I confess devoured with Easter Eggs. These films were invariably long-haul affairs and opened my eyes to a stylised ancient world with all those fabulous sets, costumes and armies of extras. We might have had a mini-revival of epicry with the likes of Gladiator and Troy in more recent years, but the difference back then was in knowing that those colossal Roman scenes were all created to look full scale; the people in contemporary costumes were really there.

Ben-Hur was the biggest of them all. It’s very, very long, leaving the viewer with little change from four hours. It was a serious award winner, holding the record for number of Oscars claimed for many years, until Titanic and The Return of the King came along, and even then only won enough to share the record, nor do I think it’s a coincidence that all three films are fine examples of, in their own way, epic cinema. Spectacle counts, after all. It’s in part what the industry is based on, the opportunity to show audiences things they would never get to see otherwise, and where Ben-Hur is concerned the timing of its release really mattered. Put yourself in the place of a 1959 working class viewer, somewhere colourless, like in northern England perhaps, and then imagine the feast for your eyes that this movie would have been. These films were made to persuade the public to switch off their little black and white television sets and go back to the cinema, watch something made in dazzling Technicolor, on a wide canvas, the stereo sound blasting out, and into which millions of dollars had clearly been plunged. It must have been a deliriously rich experience, the sort of thing we so rarely get these days as the studios basically out-CGI each other and audiences know intrinsically that everything they are watching is produced artificially.

I’ve never read General Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century novel, on which this – and a number of earlier versions of the story – is based, but it was a major bestseller in its day, indeed at one point claimed to be second only to the Bible in terms of units shifted. I think, however, that it sold so well because it’s a glorious concoction of a very personal story told against the biggest backdrop possible. Much of it is a tale of revenge, and the man seeking vengeance has about as good a reason for doing so as any. It’s a yarn many of us can empathise with, though the pay-off for our hero comes when his actions happen to cross his path with that of Jesus and he learns, before the end, from the influence of Christ to quell his hateful thirst and focus on forgiveness, gaining some peace of heart at last. However faithful you happen to be, it’s a good story, simple morality clashing with complicated individuals and their entangled, damaged lives.

In the film, Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, at the height of his fame and working once again with director William Wyler after their collaboration on The Big Country. Heston’s quality as a leading man in the biggest productions had already been evidenced in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. With sufficient gravitas and presence, he was one of the few actors who could stand tall with plagues and parting seas taking place around him, and he was the perfect choice to take on Ben-Hur. His character is a rich Jewish nobleman in a country that has been conquered and is now ruled by Rome. His childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), is a Roman Tribune who has risen through the ranks to become the regional army commander. Messala knows from his own experiences that Judea will not be an easy place to control given the troublesome population, and this – mixed in with his own ambition – makes him consider shows of cruelty to be the most effective way of guaranteeing order. However, when he asks Judah to help by identifying the chief troublemakers, his friend sees it as a betrayal of his countrymen and has to refuse, which sets the pair up as mutual enemies. Sure enough, during an armed procession through the streets of Jerusalem, Judah’s family watching from their rooftop terrace, his sister accidentally causes a loose tile to fall to the ground, nearly killing the governor, and Messala uses the incident as a pretext to ruin the family. His mother and sister are imprisoned and Judah himself is sold as a galley slave. His life, they believe, is over.

What Messala doesn’t figure on is Judah’s survival instinct, belying the mortality rate of the average slave and driven by thoughts of revenge into continuing. Rowing in a warship. For four long years. A naval battle takes place and the ship for which he rows is hit, but he manages to get free and save a Consul, the patrician Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who’s fallen into the sea. Despite the loss of his own boat, Arrius, who was commanding the battle, wants to kill himself as a consequence of what he perceives to be his failure and is only prevented from doing so by Judah, but later finds he’s won a major victory and takes the slave with him for his victory parade, both in thanks for saving his life and in respect for his spirit. Judah’s fortunes have transformed once again. He’s adopted by Arrius and his prestige as a young Roman nobleman begins to rise. But his lust for vengeance remains, and knowing of Messala’s participation in the famous Jerusalem chariot races he plans to confront his old nemesis in the arena. Even a strange experience he had when he was at his lowest ebb can’t quench it. During his initial enslavement, Judah was marched across the desert in chains along with the other captives; in Nazareth he finally collapses through sheer exhaustion, thirst and mainly despair, when a young carpenter offers him water. He’ll meet the man again and gain an important life message from those meetings.

Judah’s final redemption doesn’t happen until very late in Ben-Hur. Until then, he’s a cauldron of hate and Heston plays the part superbly, his face a rictus of revenge, indeed I can’t recall seeing acting that brings out so well the urge to strike back. It’s a performance that adds real bite to the story, one in which Jesus has a small but critical part to play, and for the most part focuses on human rage. Heston, speaking through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, commands every scene he’s in, though Boyd does well as the villain. There’s an argument for suggesting a hidden complexity to his role, and I’m not referring to the legend that he was told to play Messala as having a past sexual relationship with Judah in order to add nuance to their scenes together. Clearly the character sees himself as having a job to do in Judea, and that his rough justice against Ben-Hur isn’t so much motivated by paying him back for his lack of support but more the simple act of showing the people what happens to those with anti-Roman sentiment. That suggests Messala is a good old-fashioned megalomaniac, though there’s also sufficient levels of pent up anger in his acting to give the impression of a strong personal dimension in the mix also. Essentially, the fractured relationship between the pair boils enough to add levels of tension to the fateful chariot race, turning it into the ultimate personal battle.

There are some cinema scenes that stay with you forever, whether they’re small, personal moments loaded with significance or those on the largest scale possible. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is one of those, certainly in the latter bracket, and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the greatest scenes I am ever likely to see. The entire film has been building up to it, and when it happens it doesn’t disappoint, not just for the suspense but the massive spectacle it produces. There’s that enormous arena, with its racetrack wrapping around two massive statues. The cheering crowds high up in the stands above. The ornamental fish, one of which is dipped with each lap. The chariots with their teams of four horses; obviously Messala’s are black, Judah’s white Arabic. The real sense of danger as the chariots navigate around the hairpin bends, often crashing into one another. The way that Messala’s chariot wheels, in one final sign of his evil nature, are armed with spikes for cutting into anyone who gets too close to his carriage. The rather excellent stunt work, especially when Judah’s chariot has to somehow jump over another that has collapsed directly in his path. The absence of Rosza’s score and instead letting the noise of the hurtling chariots and the spectators dominate the soundtrack. So many elements just to produce this one bravura scene; it’s worth the admission price alone and little wonder, considering it’s a ten minute sequence within a far larger film, that it’s the one dominating all the art work, posters, trailers and peoples’ memories of Ben-Hur.

The final straw for Judah has comes when he discovers that his mother and sister, imprisoned years earlier by Messala, have contracted leprosy, which effectively means their death sentence. This is devastating for the hero, even after he’s had his revenge, leading him to question everything he’s worked towards and if anything builds his levels of internal anger. Yet it’s no accident that the film has dovetailed his story very carefully with that of Jesus. Opening with a beautifully filmed Nativity scene, Ben-Hur shows how the young Christ’s reputation as a prophet has grown. When Messala arrives in Judea, the departing commander, played by André Morell, tells him that he finds Jesus’s teachings to be surprisingly profound, and there’s more as Judah finds himself coming increasingly into the world of those who have listened to his sermons. As the archetypal angry young man, Judah sees nothing for him in the teachings of peace and forgiveness, but the film’s culmination at the crucifixion turns into the final piece in his own redemptive arc.

I’m a confirmed atheist, so a yarn that relies on the power of Christ to deliver hope into someone’s shattered life could be something for an old cynic like me to sneer at. But you know what, I find it to be a rather lovely message. Whether you believe in any of this or not, there’s no denying the power of a man who’s had little to feel happy and at peace about suddenly having an epiphany thanks solely to someone else’s message and self-sacrifice, which at heart is the story of Ben-Hur. The film takes an interesting stylistic choice in never showing Jesus’s face, only filming him from behind or at a distance, and depending on the reactions of other characters towards him in marking him out as someone special. This is never better revealed than in his meeting with a Roman centurion, who is utterly unable to do anything but just stare at him, all his beliefs and conviction temporarily confounded.

If there’s a downside to the Ben-Hur, it’s in that formidable running time. Epic cinema rarely produced the briskest narratives; everything was in the scope, the sense of ‘we paid a lot of money for these sets so we’re going to linger on them for a bit longer, damn it!’ at the expense of pace. Those used to the snappily edited ethic of twenty first century film making are likely to find it rather grandiose and stately. And not all of it works. I find many of the film’s more romantic interludes, the scenes between Heston and Haya Harareet’s Esther to distract from the main story, to an extent shoehorned in to a tale of vengeance. There’s nothing especially wrong with the performances of either actor during these moments, just the level of distraction from the main narrative, the comparative lack of interest that these bits generate.

But the good far outweighs the bad, and Ben-Hur remains the jewel in Wyler’s crown. A meticulous director with an attention for detail and propensity for multiple takes that defined his directorial style, he serves up almost the ultimate visual treat here, a drama that just seems to grow and grow in stature until it culminates in the legendary chariot race, filmed on the largest scale and providing a real pay-off for viewers who have sat through more than two hours of build-up to it in the best way possible. It’s all the more impressive because, amidst the grand scale, it never loses sight of the personal drama at its heart, the magnificent hatred between Judah and Messala. Talking of the latter, whilst the film won all its Academy Awards, the oversight in the case of Boyd stands as one of those historically unfair snubs. The Best Supporting Actor award instead went to Hugh Griffith, who plays a kindly Sheikh, whilst Boyd wasn’t even nominated. Griffith is fine, absolutely fine, but the picture belongs to Heston and Boyd and it’s those two characters that you remember afterwards.

There’s a sparkling recent and restored version of Ben-Hur that’s available to buy, which even has its own glossy website (it’s worth a visit, not just for the way it showcases the chariot scenes but for the gimmick of showing us some of Heston’s on-set diary entries). I still own the 2006 four-disc release, with which I have no complaints. The main feature is spread over two discs, looking as glorious and fresh as I could wish for really. Disc three contains the 1925 film, which was pretty much the, er, Ben-Hur of its day. Made every bit as lavishly as the film discussed here, there’s a clear link between the chariot races in both films, and it matters also that Wyler worked on that production as an Assistant Director and staffed one of the 42 cameras operating on chariot set. The final disc carries some great ‘Making Of’ extras, including a piece that talks about the influence of Ben-Hur over the years, interviewing directors who have since gone on to make epics of their own and cite this as a significant reference point. I think it also comes with a warning. The pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace might be the most glaring example of a sequence inspired by Ben-Hur, but it also shows much of what’s wrong, I believe, with modern cinema, the possibilities opened up by CGI that turned the sequence into something from a video game and removing any degree of credibility and identification. Who can possibly ‘feel’ anything for a film where the things that happen couldn’t possibility be endured by a human being?

Ben-Hur: ****

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17 Replies to “Ben-Hur (1959)”

  1. The greatest epic of them all, and very well written up.
    It’s not easy to take on a film as big and influential as this but I think you’re right to focus on the twin themes of revenge and redemption, and show how these drive the narrative. Also the duality in the relationship between Ben Hur and Messala is nicely covered and catches the flavor succinctly.

    It’s a very long film yet the story is big enough to justify that, I think. I agree a few scenes and sub-plots are probably unnecessary but the whole thing gels in the end. And the spectacle is something else altogether – the naval battle is of course wonderful, well enough realized in itself to form the centerpiece of many a film, but is totally overshadowed by the awesome intensity of the chariot race. I have the same DVD set you mention, and I’m very pleased with it, but I’m still thinking of picking up the very keenly priced Blu-ray, which I understand improves upon an already impressive image.

    1. Thanks Colin. It’s a bit of a childhood favourite of mine, perhaps nudging into ‘guilty pleasure’ territory as my tastes have developed over the years, but every time I see it, even now, it provokes an emotional response so evidently (at least where I’m concerned) it still has the power.

      I didn’t cover the naval battle, a fear I guess of really overdoing the word count (this was by some distance the longest review I’ve done on the site), but it’s really impressively mounted and a rare example of model work not being immediately apparent as such. I like to think Wyler learned the lessons from the 1925 film, in which real ships were built and cast members had to hurl themselves into the water as the ships collided, and no one knows if they all survived it.

      As for buying the Blu, I guess it’s one of those instances of having the best possible version of one of the great films. Worth the effort.

      Also, I didn’t mention this in the piece but it was the site’s 200th post and apparently marks eight years of me using WordPress! Woo.

      1. Congratulations on the 8 years and the big 200! May there be many more.

        Regarding the Blu-ray, I’m very selective in what I buy on the format. A lot of the time I’m perfectly satisfied with the DVD ad often deliberately go for that. On the other hand, I have upgraded some films i think I’ll appreciate more with the added resolution. My collection is far too big to let that be the default situation though, and I don’t see why it needs to be anyway.

  2. This is another long-standing feature of my “must get round to” list — as we’ve discussed before, finding the time for these epics is the biggest problem! Reading your piece, I realised I actually knew very little about it beyond “there’s a chariot race”, so thanks for the insight.

    Also, congratulations on your dual milestones!

    1. Thanks Bob and I completely agree on the”getting around to” comment. However you choose to look at it Ben-Hur is a formidable commitment in terms of time and whilst I obviously reckon it’s worth it, I can fully empathise over investing the hours of your life. I know I’ve struggled to do the same with various titles I really ought to have seen by now. Hope the piece has helped to price your interest a little.

  3. Congrats on your second century Mike 🙂 I have bought this film on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and now have the Blu-ray (which includes the superb 1925 silent version). I have never seen it at the cinema though but agree, even on the small screen the sense of scale is impressive, and not just for the big battle sequences – for instance, there are some amazing long shots in which you can in fact see the character just barely like the sermon on the mount sequence. I completely agree – PHANTOM MENACE felt like a cross between BEN HUR and SPARTACUS to me!

    1. Thanks Sergio. It’s the sort of film mine parents used to go on about, my dad especially marvelling at the sheer scale of it when seen on the big screen, offering the sort of spectacle that was a complete departure from the grimness of living in the north-east of England. It’s something that just doesn’t seem to come across in films now, possibly because we know so well how these ‘words’ are created, the levels of artifice, so some of the magic has gone.

      1. GLADIATOR is probably the most recent film i can think of that worked on that ‘spactacle’ level though Christopher Nolan has come closest in my view in terms of ‘Hollywood’ cinema.

      2. I can certainly agree on Nolan. I saw Interstellar at the flicks last year and on DVD again over the weekend. Loved it, someone who really tries to create something new, different and refuses to dumb down to the thick audiences you get these days (presumably).

      3. Agreed, it was a great surprise, preferred it in fact to his Batman films, which I like but wouldn’t go nuts over. Love the Zimmer soundtrack to that one also, incredibly epic score.

      4. The fact that the last half hour or so all takes place during the van tipping over a bridge sounds incredibly dumb and pretentious – and yet it works like (ahem) a dream

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