Friday, April 13, 2012

1959 - Ben-Hur

On Monday night, my short film Clicked, which I wrote, directed and starred in, had its New York City premiere as part of the NewFilmmakers Spring Festival Series. A proud moment, indeed. It was quite a thrill to see it up there on the big screen along with a real audience that wasn't just the cast and crew. And there is nothing quite so satisfying to hear a room full of people laugh at something I wrote on a page four years ago. Yes, it took that long to finish the damn thing.

Somehow, it took longer to complete my short film than it did to complete what is perhaps the most well-known epic film of all time, the film to which all other epic films are compared and the first 1959 Best Picture Oscar nominee for us to discuss...

William Wyler
Karl Tunberg
(based on the novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" by Lew Wallace)
Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
11 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Heston)

Setting the standard for the historical epic, Ben-Hur centres on a wealthy Jew named Judah (Heston), living in first century Jerusalem. When his childhood pal Messala (Boyd) becomes a Roman tribune, their mutual love and respect quickly degrades due to their political disagreement. After an incident in which a tile on Judah's house breaks loose and injures the Governor during a parade, Messala wreaks his vengeance by sentencing Judah to be a galley slave and his mother and sister (Scott & O'Donnell) to what appears to be the dirtiest, dankest prison in all of the Roman Empire.

The rest of the story follows Judah's ups and downs as he survives his years in the galleys, including a deadly battle with pirates, gets adopted by a Roman Consul, becomes a champion chariot racer and ultimately searches for his family, all the while unaware that he is living in the midst of the messiah.

The phrase that springs to mind as being the most appropriate to describe this film is amusingly paradoxical if taken literally. But metaphorically at least, Ben-Hur is indeed "bigger than Ben-Hur". In fact, it's a testament to the picture's magnificence that it gave rise to that phrase, one that is no longer exclusively used in reference to big-budget movie-making, but is now simply attached to any phenomenon of great extravagance.

And Ben-Hur is certainly extravagant. Impressively colossal sets filled with a massive number of extras, it's hard to view the film without recognising it as spectacular. The special effects, though, are occasionally less than remarkable, but only judged by today's standards. The epic sea battle, for instance, is presented using obvious model boats, such was the norm before the age of CGI.

The now legendary chariot race sequence suffers no such fate, however, using real horses and real chariots in a purpose-built arena, creating an exciting realism. Reading of the enormous time and effort that went in to preparing and shooting this scene (almost a year of work by a thousand crew members, and several thousand more extras), it's no wonder this is considered one of cinema's greatest achievements.

But enough about the spectacle. What about the story? The most compelling element of the picture (perhaps even above all the bells and whistles) is the fascinating personal relationship between Judah and Messala. It's such a clear and concise narrative, both touching and powerful. In fact, this relationship is what keeps the viewer's interest throughout the incredibly long movie. (Even excluding the overture and intermission music, which are included on the DVD I viewed, the running time is still around three and a half hours.)

Unfortunately, once the Judah/Messala story is resolved, there is still about an hour left of the movie. Perhaps it's merely because I didn't identify with the religious elements of the plot (which are by no means minor) that I wished, to some extent, the film had finished earlier. I understand, of course, that, for Christian viewers, the final act is the most important part, but despite the coincidental timing of my viewing (Easter Sunday), I found the miraculous nature of the ending to be a little unsatisfying, irrespective of my belief about miracles. It's always far more satisfying when characters affect their own change, rather than passively receiving redemption.

Charlton Heston (pictured, with Stephen Boyd) conveys the perfect mix of authority and vulnerability as the title character, earning himself the Best Actor Oscar. Alongside him, Hugh Griffith is affable as a sheik with a gambling problem, winning the Best Supporting Actor award for himself. Not nominated but delivering worthy performances are Stephen Boyd as Judah's frenemy, Jack Hawkins as his adoptive father and the delightful Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate.

Out of 12 nominations, Ben-Hur picked up 11 awards on Oscar night, a record that has stood for over 50 years, albeit equaled twice. The only nomination it failed to convert to a win was for its screenplay, a possible result of a screen credit controversy. It also has the ominous distinction of having two posthumous Oscar winners, Sam Zimbalist for producing the Best Picture, and William A. Horning, one of the Best Art Direction recipients.

P.S. It seems somehow fitting that one of my longest reviews ever (if not, the longest) is for this film...


  1. Ben-Hur opened at the Loews State theater in Manhattan, and played there for 74 weeks. For some reason, I didn't see it there, and actually I don't recall my in-theater experience for this movie. I'm not sure if, by the end of the 50s, I was just tired of this genre, or outside of the action sequences, I found it a bit dull as a 12 or 13 year old. Today, however, I view it as the most spectacular and literate of all the biblical epics. I think it deserved its honors.

    Some interesting casting trivia. William Wyler first offered the lead role to Burt Lancaster, then Rock Hudson and Paul Newmnan; all passed. He offered the role of Messala to Kirk Douglas, who was upset that he wasn't given the title role, so he declined. The next year, Douglas would produce Spartacus and assure that he played the lead. One actor who auditioned for the part of Massala was Leslie Nielsen. Perhaps he didn't get it due to his ad-lib: "It goes on. Surely, it goes on, Judah. The race... the race... is not... over... and don't call me Shirley."

    William Wyler, not known for filming epics, did a fine job. Credit however, must be give to legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, who, as assistant director, is virtually responsible for the magnificent chariot race sequence. It should also be mentioned that the chariot race in the 1925 version of the movie was itself quite spectacular and stands up even today.

  2. Forgot to congratulate you on "Clicked," your short film. I clicked on clicked and enjoyed reading all about it. Looking forward to seeing some clips when they are available. Down here, we have the annual Melbourne Independent Film Festival, not to be confused with the Melbourne International Film Festival in that much larger and more familiar to you, Australian city. Ours in Florida has free submissions and this year they plan on it for sometime in November.

    If none of this works out, tell Max I might be able to get him a job with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (if he is willing to time travel:)