Tuesday, September 6, 2011

BEN HUR (1959)

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With his victory for BEN HUR in 1959, director William Wyler had his third and final win for best picture (MRS. MINIVER in 1942 and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES  in 1946 were the first two), and it was unlikely one for him: although he had a directoral career that stretched back to the 1920's, he had never before directed an epic.  And in terms of sheer scale, BEN HUR was certainly an epic; it was also an enormous gamble for the MGM studio, which, in the 1950's, had come upon hard times.  After seeing what success Cecil B Demille had had in 1956 with the TEN COMMANDMENTS, they decided to remake BEN HUR, which had been a big hit for them as a silent film back in 1925.  Sam Zimbalist, who had produced Quo Vadis, another epic, for the studio in 1951, was called in to produce.  It was he who chose Wyler (who had to be convinced) as director.   Charlton Heston, who of course played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, was picked to play the lead title character.  As the film went into production, the budget for the film ballooned as some of the largest sets ever built were made in Italy and thousands of extras were hired.  But the gamble would pay off as the film would return  over seventy million dollars in domestic box office on an investment of around sixteen million.  But bigger is not always better; while the film does have some great visuals and exciting action scenes, at three and half hours it goes on far too long, and it is often heavy handed and indifferently acted.  All things considered, I prefer the original, which also has great action scenes, and which manages to tell the same story with a running time over an hour shorter than the remake.

BEN HUR, began its life as a novel (full name: BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST) published by Lew Wallace, a Union general, in 1880; it was an enormous hit.  Wyler's film, which follows the book closely, opens in 26 AD in Jerusalem, and sees wealthy prince and merchant Judah Ben Hur (Heston) meeting with childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is now a major Roman military leader.  The two find that they have different feelings about the Roman occupation, which eventually leads to Ben Hur being sent to a slave galley on trumped up charges while his mother, Miriam(Martha Scott) and sister Tirza (Cathy O'Donnell) are sent to prison.  Inevitably, after years of hardship, Ben Hur escapes to make his revenge against Messala.  Meanwhile, the presence of Jesus causes a stir in both the Roman and Jewish communities.
Wyler may have worried about directing his first epic, but he certainly handled the movies spectacle scenes with skill; the sets and costumes look great,  the action scenes are exciting, and the camera sweeps across the seas of extras beautifully.  Ironically,  the kind of scenes that he was normally renowned for were the ones that caused him to falter, that is, the serious, quiet dramatic moments between a few characters.  Heston, who's  tall, manly physique made him a credible action hero, seems a bit lost when he isn't engaged in physical activity, and his constant stentorian line readings quickly grow tiresome. Furthermore, the chemistry between him and his inevitable love interest, Esther (Hya Harareet), is practically non existent.  (To be fair, Harareet's downright soporific performance does him no favors).  I find it surprising that Heston won a best actor Oscar for the role, but then BEN HUR won a record 11 Oscars (a feat only equaled by TITANIC and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING), so he may have just been lucky enough to be carried along by the film's sweeping victory.  Sadly, the poor performances don't end with Heston and Harareet; Wyler seems so determined to copy the success of Demille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS that he makes the same mistake that Demille did of often having his actors proclaim their dialogue instead of merely speaking it.  Really, the only memorable performance in the film is given by Hugh Griffith(who also won an award for best supporting actor) as the gambling, horse loving Shiek Ilderim; Griffith plays the only character in the film who ever appears to be having any fun, and he brings some much needed wit and energy to the story, even if his Arabic makeup is far from convincing.

Hugh Griffith (note that his makeup ends at the top of his forehead!)

To be fair, talk of performances and story are almost pointless when discussing BEN HUR because there is really only one thing that people think of when they remember the film: the chariot race.  And with good reason, it is a truly exciting sequence, one that took five weeks to shoot and that runs for around twenty minutes in the film without ever boring the audience,  playing like a mini movie within the movie, one without dialogue but plenty of action and drama.  The thunder of the horses, the crashing of the chariots, and the way that Massala whips Ben Hur the same way he beats his horses all come together wonderfully. (Heston did much of his own riding for the scene, and here his larger than life persona for once really fits with the action onscreen). Amazingly, Wyler left most of the direction of the race to his second unit director, Andrew Marton, who, working closely with veteran stunt man Yakima Canutt, created a thrilling chase that still excites decades later. The action is this scene is so good that it lead to rumors that stuntmen were actually killed during its making, which proved to be untrue.  The only problem with the race is that after it's over there's still a good forty minutes of movie to go!  And, since the end of the race also ends with the death of Massala, the most dramatic part of the story has been resolved, leaving a far less compelling story (Ben Hur discovers that his mother and sister have leprosy) in its wake.

Charleton Heston in the famous chariot race

I have always been a bit puzzled over the presence of Jesus in the film; since he never talks, often only is shown from behind, and almost never appears until the film's end, he comes across more as a deus ex machina (he saves Ben Hur's life at one point, and then cures his mother and sister's leprosy to give the film a happy ending) than an actual character.  And, quite frankly, I think Ben Hur's belief that Jesus was the messiah would have been more dramatic if he actually heard Jesus speak.  Clearly, the movie is just following Wallace's book, which also avoided Jesus for long portions, but I still feel that a pro Christian movie with Jesus in it could have used him as more than a silent character in the background.

Finally, there is one thing that should be mentioned about BEN HUR: although Karl Tunberg gets sole credit for the film's script, it was widely known that it was rewritten by Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry.  In the 1995 documentary about coded gay characters in old Hollywood movies, THE CELLULOID CLOSET, Vidal recalls that to make the first meeting of Ben Hur and Massala early in the film more dramatic, he wrote it as if the two men had been lovers as teenagers.  He also claims that he told Wyler this, who told Stephen Boyd, but not Heston, about this idea.  The conservative Heston later denied this account, but is undeniable that Wyler shoots the two men's first meeting much like the reunion of two lovers (they rush to each other excitedly down a long hall). I like to believe Vidal and think that this subtext was intentional, simply because it makes the film more interesting, and Massala's betrayal of Ben Hur more dramatic, but your opinion may vary.


My mixed feelings about this film are clear, so it should come as no surprise that I prefer Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT and Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST over this uneven film.  But, judging by the chariot scene and it's overall excellent visuals, I can't say that BEN HUR was a poor choice.