Ben-Hur (1959)

Picture 19

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Sam Zimbalist (MGM)

Writers: Lew Wallace (novel), Karl Tunberg (screenplay)

Photography: Robert Surtees

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring, Terence Longdon, George Ralph, Andre Morell, Claude Heater

“Can you make my four run as one?”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the AFI’s 100 Movies: 10th Anniversary countdown came right out of the gate, the fact that Ben-Hur would open the show, having dropped from #72 all the way down to #100. Many could make a good case that the drastic drop was either (a) liberal Hollywood’s rebuttal of Charlton Heston’s NRA ties, or (b) AFI members’ denunciation of old-fashioned religious films. Either way, I think the AFI got this one wrong, as Ben-Hur is certainly a much more important film than #100.

While Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (France/Italy) may remain the greatest Christ film ever made, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is certainly the most acclaimed, winning a record 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, beginning a reign of dominance that’s yet to be bested, equaled only recently by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Meanwhile, other Christ films have struggled to receive even nominations — Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) earned none, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) earned only one (didn’t win), and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) earned just three (with no wins), despite grossing $611 million worldwide and proving there is still a huge audience for latter-day “tales of the Christ.”

Granted, Ben-Hur denies audiences many of the specific teachings and events in the life of Jesus — the Sermon on the Mount, the walk on water, the scene in the temple, the Last Supper, the betrayal by Judas, the crowd’s selection to spare Barbbas and Pontius Pilate washing his hands to seal His fate — by making Jesus only a cursory figure in the overall plotline (appearing only three times) and requiring audiences to input the significance from memory. Even so, audience members do know the story and do know its impact, making the three appearances plenty to drive home its power, amplified by Wyler’s decision to never show Jesus’ face, which makes him the most mysterious, and most powerful, depiction of Christ in cinema. For believers, it’s a true spiritual experience. For non-believers, the film can be appreciated as one of the grandest Hollywood epics of all time, devoting its story to arguably the most influential single life in human history.

The film opens with an establishing sequence of the Nativity, then the title credits hit and it jumps to its main narrative, introducing us to Messala (Stephen Boyd), newly appointed Roman tribune, sent into his boyhood home of Judea to crush a rebellious province “drunk with religion.” As retiring officer Sextus (Andre Morell) tells him, “There are strange forces at work here. For instance is this Messiah business, a King of the Jews, who will lead them all into some anti-Roman paradise. … Then there’s a wild man in the desert named John who drowns people in water, and there’s a carpenter’s son who goes around doing magic tricks, miracles, they call them. … This man is different. He teaches that God is near, in every man. It’s actually quite profound, some of it.”

Messala’s answer: “Forget that God is in every man! … [The Emporer] is God, the only god!” This not only lays out Messala as the film’s antagonist, but one who’s made fully aware of the difficulty of his task. “You can break a man’s skull, you can arrest him, you can throw him into a dungeon. But how can you fight what’s up here? How can you fight an idea? Especially a new one.”

Enter Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), the richest man in Jerusalem and soon to be the embodiment of this mental and spiritual toughness. It so happens that Judah and Messala were boyhood friends, jubilated to reunite until both realize they are coming from different places — Messala a Roman, Judah a jew. When Judah asks for the Romans to withdraw their troops and give the Jews their freedom, Messala is embittered, and finds unjust cause to sentence Judah into a life of slavery.

This begins the most compelling stretch of the film, as Judah is marched along the countryside in chains, given a drink of water (and restored resolve) by a sandle-clad figure in the countryside (understood as Jesus), and ultimately shackled into the hull of a Roman flagship, rowing himself half to death with the other slaves to brisk caddence of a Roman sailor. When a band of Macedonian pirates attack the ship, Judah escapes his bounds and saves the life of the ship’s commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who returns the favor by freeing Judah and adopting him as his son.

In this new position, Judah becomes a champion charioteer with Arrius’ horses, before returning to Jerusalem and meeting two people who will change his life — wise-man Balthasar (Finaly Currie), who tells Judah of a coming savior, and Arab Sheik Ilderim (Oscar-winner Hugh Griffith), who gives him four majestic, white Arabian horses to run in a race before the new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring), an event where Messala is the favorite. This famous chariot race showdown is more than a battle between two rivals, but a symbolic battle between their respective causes. And even when the race is done, Ben-Hur has an even grander finale in store, when Judah finds himself right in the middle of Christ’s crucifixion, during which he witnesses first-hand the miracles bestowed upon his outcast leper mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O’Donnell), while finding love in the kind-hearted Esther (Haya Harareet), who also bares witness to the good news.

Based on a novel by Civil War general Lew Wallace, this story, of the rise and fall of a prince-to-slave-to-prince, would prove heavily influential on such later films as Spartacus (1960) and Gladiator (2000). But 1959’s Ben-Hur was actually itself a remake of the silent epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), on which Wyler had worked as an assistant when he first came to Hollywood. With the advent of sound, Wyler would go onto unmatched success throughout the ’40s and ’50s, adored by audiences as a source of spectacular, inspirational films, and beloved by the Hollywood system as a reliable moneymaker (given 12 Best Director nominations as a thank you).

In hindsight, though, Wyler appears far less daring than several of his peers, falling into that group of filmmakers that the Hollywood Renaissance of the ’60s and ’70s was hailed for moving away from. Ben-Hur remains the perfect example of Wyler’s career. For that film, he would win his third and final Oscar for Best Director, following Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), but notably, he was not even responsible for the film’s most famous scene of all. While Wyler would shoot the opening formation lap of the chariot race, the ten-minute race was actually handled by second-unit directors Andrew Marton (The Longest Day) and Yakima Canutt (Stagecoach).

Whether it was Wyler or not, the sequence remains the single greatest action scene in movie history — expertly crafted, brilliantly paced, meticulously cut, alone more than enough reason to sit through the almost four hours of Ben-Hur. It’s no stretch to say that Ben-Hur’s placing #49 on AFI Thrills was due chiefly to this scene.

Set in a grand Roman Circus replica at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome (“I don’t think there had been anything like it since Intolerance,” Wyler said) (A), the chariot race unfolds with an almost mythic perfection, as golden dolphin lap counters ratchet up the suspense, Judah’s white herd thunders alongside Messala’s black team, men are flung into the air in unplanned stuntwork (watch stuntman Joe Canutt, Yakima’s son, barely hang on during a chariot jump), others are trampled under hooves (rumors maintain that a stuntman was killed) and certain images are embedded into the fabric of popular culture, like those shots of spikes sticking out from one chariot to rip a hole in another (the sequence was blatantly homaged in Star Wars: Episode 1). This amazing ten-minute scene took four week’s of Heston’s training and four months (A), 15,000 extras (C) and 18 chariots to shoot, in the end costing one million dollars for this one scene alone (B).

In all, Ben-Hur cost a whopping $15 million, equivolent of $109 million today, as one last-ditch effort by MGM to save itself from bankruptcy, borrowing the idea from Paramount, where just three years earlier Cecil B. DeMille had successfuly remade his own silent epic, The Ten Commandments (1923), the most expensive silent film ever made (C), into a Heston-led 1956 blockbuster. As a result, MGM more than made a return on its investment, bringing in $75 million and saving the studio. Watching the film is a constant reminder of just how expensive and grand scale everything is, the subject of Monty Python’s big, block-lettered spoof, Life of Brian (1979), 20 years later.

In all, Ben-Hur featured 300 sets, 350 speaking parts and more than 50,000 extras, all decked out in period clothing, some of which would clothe the USC Trojan mascot during the 1961 football season. The production values of this film are incredible, if not the chariot race, then the galley sequence, if not the galley sequence, then the march of Jesus carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Perhaps the most famous of the MGM Technicolor epics, the film was shot in unique “MGM Camera 65,” a 65 mm stock made into a 70 mm anamorphic print, one of the widest prints ever made.

Complementing the grand-scale visuals is a soaring score by Budapest-native Miklos Rozsa, one voted #21 all-time by AFI. The score would earn Rozsa his third Oscar in a career that saw such great films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Spellbound (1945), and whose most recent nominations had come with similar period pieces in Ivanhoe (1952) and Julius Caesar (1953). The music is very period, majestic, enveloping, triumphant, all fitting for an epic stage of overtures, intermissions and entr’actes.

Still, the film’s most enduring credit may be the performance of Heston, who took the role after Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman and Rock Hudson all declined. Seriously, would anyone else have fit in the role than the man who just three years earlier had played Moses himself? For Heston, it was a welcome return to his epic Biblical roots, overcoming his atypical cast in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and bringing him back to the larger-than-life screen personas he so-well filled with his impressive stature, chiseled jaw and commanding voice. The Academy agreed, giving Heston the only Oscar of his storied career (the only nomination he ever got).

It’s Heston’s charisma, and Wyler’s feel for pacing, that carry the film and keep viewers engaged for the entire three and a half hours. For what he lacked in auteur sensibility, Wyler was no doubt a master of pacing. In The Best Years of Our Lives, he proved he could take a three hour picture and assure it would not lag for a second, and a decade later in Ben-Hur, he came through again in his most ambitious project. It may actually be the most watchable of all the great ’50s epics, fueled by a mythic yet familiar subject matter, and promising a huge pay-off of the chariot race waiting in the end. There are, of course, touches of deeper themes, like a homosexual subtext between Judah and Messala (just look at the way Messala rubs Judah’s arm when he says, “I hope so”), but this is more a credit to contributing screenwriter Gore Vidal than to Wyler. Wyler’s main concern is to entertain, and with this constantly moving, forward-looking tale, he comes through bigtime, surprisingly making viewers forget that they’ve been sitting in front of a movie screen for upwards to four hours.

“I have a theory: not to bore the audience,” Wyler said. “That’s a goos theory. It sometimes seems that all pictures are too long, mine included, but this is always what I try to avoid. …  To insist on length when it is not necessary is wrong. If you make a film that has something to say, if you want to convey that thought to a large audience, then you must make it compatible to them. You must make them accept it and like it. Otherwise, if they don’t come to see your picture, you only reach a handful of people, and you have not succeeded in getting your message across.” (A)

Here, as a shepherd leads a flock of sheep across the crosses of calvary in the film’s final shot, Wyler’s message is clear. To Christians, it may be the most powerful inspirational ride in movie history (#56 AFI Cheers). To those of differing or non-existent faiths, Ben-Hur may feel preachy, but nonetheless inspirational for its moral convictions (“If that is the choice, then I’m against you”), capacity for forgiveness (“I see no enemy”) and steadfast hope in the face of despair, as Judah’s mental perseverance rivals anything that Shawshank or Rudy has to offer. Certainly, Ben-Hur is worthy of more praise than Hollywood allows it these days. With the recent death of Heston, perhaps old political grudges will slowly subside and allow for a more honest assessment of a real classic.

Citations: 

CITE A: Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, p. 216
CITE B: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE C: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org

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